Teach Believe Inspire Award – Ben Utecht

Teach Believe Inspire Award – Ben UtechtAs a child, Ben Utecht dreamed of being a professional football player. Against the most daunting odds, he not only achieved his goal, he went on to win Super Bowl XLI. Instantly cementing his name in the annals of the most watched sport in the U.S. But as athletes, coaches and even the public are now finding out, there can be a very serious price to pay for NFL glory.

For showing that the death of one dream can lead to the birth of many more, and for providing a voice for those who have sustained a traumatic brain injury, Ben Utecht is this month’s Teach Believe Inspire award winner.

The Early Years

Growing up in the small town of Hastings, Minnesota, Utecht was your typical mid-western kid in many ways. He was one of those kids who likes being the center of attention. He loved sports and singing. Performance and athleticism went hand in hand and he excelled in both. Learning any instrument he could get his hands on, while growing into a body built for the football field. Like lots of other Minnesota boys, he played his share of hockey and basketball, but football is where he began to distinguish himself from the other kids when it came to talent and size.

In fact, he was still a kid when he received the biggest break of his career. At the age of 16, Utecht was already dwarfing 99% of the men on earth. At 6 feet, 5 inches and 205 lbs., he had the classic tight end build. He took his talents to a University of Minnesota football camp where he impressed the coaches with his size, vertical jump and catching abilities. After a particularly impressive play, he was called into then head coach Glen Mason’s office where he was offered a scholarship on the spot. A 16-year-old receiving an athletic scholarship to a large university almost never happens today, and it was rarer still when it happened to Utecht. Upon telling his mother the good news, she wept tears of happiness.

When Football Became a Career

After starting all four years at the University of Minnesota, Utecht signed with the Indianapolis Colts in 2004. He quickly became one of Peyton Manning’s favorite targets, due to his size and sure-handed ability to catch tough passes. On February 4th, 2007, Utecht achieved the goal most coveted by any football player at any level by winning a Super Bowl with the Colts.

Football is, by any reasonable judgement, a violent sport. That much has been known pretty much since the beginning. What has been known for far less time is how that violence affects the brain of those who play the game. Utecht sustained five documented concussions during his NFL career, not to mention the thousands of jarring hits he took to his head, shoulders and the rest of his body during his professional and college years.

Ben Utecht Brain Injury

By Bobak Ha’Eri (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It was those multiple concussions that forced Utecht to make what must have been the most difficult decision of his career. He retired from professional football in 2009 in order to spend valuable time with his family and avoid further injuries to his brain. He began experiencing the painful after-effects of the concussions, including memory loss and difficulty with speech. In the end he decided it was not worth the risk.
 

Second Path in Life

Retiring from football allowed Utecht to become an advocate for brain health. Now an ambassador for The American Academy of Neurology, which aims to

“advance the art and science of neurology, and thereby promote the best possible care for patients with neurological disorders.”

He also works with the American Brain Foundation, who supports vital research and education to discover causes, improved treatments, and cures for brain and other nervous system diseases. Utecht is fighting for the safety of football players and all those who have sustained a traumatic brain injury.

“It is such an honor to work alongside the American Academy of Neurology and the American Brain Foundation,” Utecht explains. “The mission of the American Brain Foundation is to cure brain disease, and that is something that I believe will become a reality. The more we begin to care about the brain, the more we care about the essence of who we are.”

In 2014, he received the Public Leadership in Neurology Award for his efforts at raising awareness about the truth of what happens to your brain while playing football.

Love For Music

Since his football career ended, Utrecht has gone back to his love of music by recording four albums, including a Christmas album that won a Dove Award in 2012. The video for his 2014 single “You Will Always Be My Girls” became a huge success on YouTube and has reached over a million views. Fearing he may one day lose his memory completely, he co-wrote the song as a message to his wife and daughters. It was inspired by wanting to give them something that will last forever.

Along with raising awareness of the impact football and the ramifications of repeated concussions have on the brain, Utrecht would like to see changes made in the sport that he still loves. He especially advocates for youth football leagues to move toward game-play in which there is less violent hitting. Science has shown that the human brain doesn’t stop developing until well into the 20s, and Utrecht believes children should not be exposed to a sport in which concussions are a way of life during this stage. Youth football moving to a non-contact sport would

“save almost six years of full head-to-head contact for kids,” Utecht said. “And I promise you it would not have an effect on who goes to play in college and who goes to play in the NFL. If anybody tells you otherwise, it’s not truth.”

Looking Ahead

Utrecht has recently inked a deal to write a memoir about the neurological damage he sustained while playing for the NFL. Slated for a fall 2016 release, Counting the Days Until My Mind Slips Away: A Love Letter to My Family will detail the traumatic brain injuries that caused him to walk away from a successful football career, as well as the memory loss and long-term damage that he now must live with.

With a wife and children to take care of, Utrecht seems to be happy away from the game of football. Speaking engagements, a music career and a never-ending effort to raise awareness of the damage traumatic brain injuries sustained while playing football can have on children and adults alike keep the 34-year old quite busy. For all he has does do to promote neurological health, Ben Utecht is this month’s Teach Believe Inspire Award winner and we salute him.

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