As part of an ongoing series looking into the experiences of athletes who have sustained brain trauma, we spoke with Ben Utecht, former tight end for the Indianapolis Colts and the Cincinnati Bengals. He earned a Super Bowl ring with the Colts in Super Bowl XLI over the Chicago Bears.
READ BEN'S STORY, IN HIS OWN WORDS:
I started playing tackle football in 4th grade. I never would have thought that a kid from Hastings, Minnesota would play in the Super Bowl one day, and that I would go on to have the chance to have a huge impact on the NFL.
Though he didn’t expect it, Ben’s injuries created physical and mental obstacles that changed the course of his future.
I had never heard the word “concussion" until my first documented one in college. When I got that concussion, I was removed from the game. It was pretty obvious – I was knocked unconscious, but I was back on the field the next day. At the time, there wasn’t return-to-play protocol. It was just “how are you feeling”?
Concussion wasn’t really a topic of conversation that held any more weight than an ankle sprain. It wasn’t considered a more severe level than anything else. My parents will tell you that if they knew what they know now, they would have made different decisions about me playing contact sports.
Then later, my entire professional career was stricken by injuries, including 5 documented concussions. One of those included amnesia. That final year in the NFL was when I went and saw a second opinion doctor, who at the time was one of the main experts on concussions. That's when I learned the wealth of information available in the medical community. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit my previous naivety, but before I thought of concussion as getting your bell rung. If there were other symptoms you didn't attach them to the concussion.
After the last concussion in my career, my wife and I decided it was time to walk away from the game. I had started having situational memory gaps, and having just started a family, my brain became a priority for the first time.
What I know now is that it’s not the big bell-rung hits or unconscious hits. You have all the sub-concussive hits; many people are concerned about those now. There are an average of 80 offensive plays in a game, and if you’re an offensive player, you’re going to make contact with extreme force on another player. Multiple that by all the practices. It’s the repetitiveness. We’re going to learn so much more about the effects of all of these hits over the next few years.
Ben’s role as a leading advocate for concussion awareness has taken him.
My career and injuries happened right at the dawn of concussion awareness in sports. My story became the advocacy story. I believe I was the first young player to step out and talk about my fears of memory loss and fears of what older players looked like with CTE.
My advocacy then came out of my injury.
Quite honestly I never sought out to be an advocate, but my story has led me down a path that provided me with opportunities to connect to great organizations – like when the NFL Players Association asked me to testify in Congress. That was the first time that a player reached into their soul and bared it all. I talked about a love letter I wrote to my wife and daughters. That turned into a song and video. The first line says “I’m in here counting the days until my mind slips away.” That then turned into my book.
Ben is often asked about the future of football and whether kids should be allowed to play. He leads with the idea of being Pro Brain Pro Game.
You have to ask the questions upon age-level. At the pro and collegiate level, I first want all players to have full assumption of risk on what concussion is and what the full short and long terms risks are. If they choose to take the risk, then we can support them. Second, the NCAA and NFL should ensure the long term health of players. If any player is diagnosed with brain disease in the future, they should be covered fully. One of the ways we could solve this problem outside of the court is if these organizations that are tax exempt had an insurance premium for long term health. If we do those two things, then we are dealing with adults and the decisions they choose.
As a father and advocate, I think at the youth level, we should begin talking about when the right time is to play a contact sport. I’ve learned from a neurologist that a child’s most important brain growth is from ages 2 to 12. The importance of development is foundational for the rest of their lives. If that’s true medical fact, then as a parent, I would choose to hold my son from playing contact sports until they were 12 to 13 years old. And I would want to know exactly what a concussion is and who to go to if the child is playing contact sports – meaning a neurologist.
Ben closed speaking of his fears and hopes for the future.
My biggest fear is that there will be a day where I begin to lose the memory of the people I love most. The idea of not being able to recognize my wife or my daughters is haunting. The thing that I've realized the most out of writing my book is that my relevance as a man exists only in what I can remember. If you take away my memory, what connection do I have to anything. The hope is that that realization made me value my life that much greater. I stopped taking things for granted and began living with more purpose. We’re always faced with the choosing what path to go down in a time of suffering, and I’ve chosen to go down the path of hope.
Note: Brain Trauma Foundation does not endorse any opinions or medical claims from Ben Utecht, and was not involved in his medical care or decisions.