Retired NFL player Ben Utecht will be a guest speaker at the Brain Health Fair on April 26th at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Utecht played six seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals before his 2009 retirement. He ended his career following his fifth documented concussion and has since become an advocate for traumatic brain injury (TBI) awareness.
On Saturday, Utecht will share his own experiences as well as his goals for building awareness about a problem that is finally receiving the attention it deserves in the NFL and the world of football at large.
"The first time I ever experienced what I knew to be a concussion was college—and it was obvious, because I was knocked unconscious," says Utecht.
This was Ben's redshirt freshman year at the University of Minnesota, the 2000 football season. While that sounds fairly recent, it's a lifetime in terms of concussion awareness. "I was back at practice two days later," he recalls.
Head injuries in football have been greatly re-defined since that time, causing Utecht to conclude that it's impossible that his college career was the first time he'd sustained a concussion. "I go back all the way to 4th, 5th grade—I remember many times with headaches, sensitivity to light, and other symptoms. I'm sure that I experienced concussions at a younger age, but they weren't documented until college," he says.
Ben's last concussion occurred in Cincinnati's 2009 training camp, resulting in his retirement in November of that year. It wasn't until the summer of 2013 that a grievance hearing over Utecht's 2009 salary was decided (in his favor); thus he said little about his injury in the interim. "I think the hearing took a while because of the uncertainty of how to handle concussions, return to play and the like," says Utecht. "To be honest, the entire process set forth a passion in my heart to campaign, and make people aware about the seriousness of these injuries."
It didn't hurt that the American Brain Foundation—the foundation for the American Academy of Neurology and the hosts of Saturday's Brain Health Fair—is headquartered in Minneapolis, Utecht's hometown. "I was connected to the American Brain Foundation and they asked me to be their national spokesperson," he recalls, "and that really started the process."
The stated goal of Utecht's campaign is to create what he calls an 'emotional connection' between people and neurology. "People need to understand that their brains are the most important part of who they are—it IS who they are—and that the people to take care of their brains are neurologists," he says. "I want to create that awareness, especially in athletics."
Utecht has followed the ongoing negotiations over concussion claims from retired NFL players. The league and numerous ex-players reached a $765 million settlement in 2013 to compensate those with concussion-related brain injuries, only to see a federal judge reject the settlement early this year due in part to fears that the amount wouldn't be sufficient.
"I'm 32 years old, and I'm already experiencing some of the short- and long-term memory problems associated with head injuries," says Utecht. "My concern is, will that money be there when I'm 50, 60 years old if I am in fact experiencing early-onset dementia? It's an important question for players of the next generation."
Despite some issues with short- and long-term memory, Ben says he feels 'great' and hasn't missed a beat transitioning into his new career—music. He's released multiple albums, including a collection of Christmas songs. Utecht says some of his music deals with his experience of leaving the NFL and coming to terms with the end of his playing career.
Despite his relatively young age, Ben has the ability to look back and reflect regularly. So today, married and as the father of three young daughters—would he play football again?
"I haven't discussed this before, but in the past year or two I was offered an opportunity to work out with an NFL team," reveals Utecht. "I called a family huddle—my mom, dad and wife—and told them about the opportunity."
"My dad didn't hesitate. He looked me in the eye and said, 'If you step on that field, I will never watch you play.'"
"I was in shock. It made me realize where my family's heart was. I don't have a son, so I've never had to make such a decision.
"But I have to believe that if I were 10 years old today, my parents would make some different decisions."