Lost memories haunt Ben Utecht
CINCINNATI -- Ben Utecht is writing songs for his next album at his home in Minnesota, another step in his highly unusual transition from professional athlete to musical artist.
It's an exciting time, with one lingering concern from his NFL career. The former Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals tight end hasn't fully recovered from five documented concussions that have robbed him of memories and left him wondering how well he'll be able to function in a few years.
I went to a dear friend's wedding, and I was seeing him again. We're at the house talking about it and I ask, 'Why I wasn't able to be at your wedding, was I in training camp at the time?' And they give me a funny look and say: 'Are you serious?' The next thing, they pull out a photo book and there I am in a tux, singing. To this day I really don't remember any of it. That's just one example.” -- Ben Utecht, on his memory loss
"When you go through things like that, you step back and go, 'Man, I sure wish I would have known more about this at the beginning of my career,' " Utecht said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
More than 1,000 former players have sued the NFL over health issues. Utecht isn't among them -- he prefers avoiding litigation -- but is enmeshed in a grievance against the Bengals over his release in 2009 after his last concussion.
"It is one of the longest grievances in the history of the NFL," Utecht said, declining to get into specifics until it's resolved. "It's getting really frustrating that this is taking so long."
The repercussions of all those NFL hits don't go away when a playing career ends and another one begins.
He played for Indianapolis from 2005 to 2007, helping the Colts win a Super Bowl in 2006. He was signed by Cincinnati before the 2008 season. His career ended a year later, when he sustained a severe concussion during training camp and had lingering problems. The Bengals released him during the season, prompting the grievance.
Utecht had already started his music career. He released his first album, titled "Ben Utecht," before the 2009 season under a record label started by Christian music mainstay Sandi Patty, who was a Colts fan.
Few professional athletes make the switch to music successfully. Defensive tackle Mike Reid left the Bengals after five seasons in the 1980s to pursue a successful song-writing career. Several professional athletes have dabbled in hip-hop.
The 30-year-old Utecht put out a Christmas album and toured with popular pianist/singer Jim Brickman last year, immersing himself in the next phase in his life. He returned to Cincinnati in 2010 to sing the national anthem before the Reds' season opener.
Football isn't far out of his thoughts. All the research into athletes' brain injuries made him wonder what effect the concussions will have on him. He's read about former players who can't remember something as simple as a loved one's name.
"It makes me sad and it scares me to think I could be someone like that," Utecht said. "I could wake up and not remember moments from my children's past or names -- that's a scary realization to face. I love football and I had a great career while I was playing, but at the same time it's like, 'Man, I hope the sport I love so much is not going to be the reason I have some serious consequences later on.' "
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The concussions still affect Utecht's short-term and long-term memory. There are important moments from his life that he simply can't remember.
"I've had to go through these moments at home, whether it's a conversation I just had or literally forgetting special moments," he said. "I went to a dear friend's wedding, and I was seeing him again. We're at the house talking about it and I ask, 'Why I wasn't able to be at your wedding, was I in training camp at the time?' And they give me a funny look and say: 'Are you serious?'
"The next thing, they pull out a photo book and there I am in a tux, singing. To this day I really don't remember any of it. That's just one example."
Utecht is encouraged by the league's emphasis on preventing concussions and improving player safety in recent years.
"It's a catch-22," he said. "Players want to play. At the same time, you want to try your best to make the game as safe as possible. So it's not an easy job for the NFL to figure this one out."
Utecht pointed out that there's no way to tell how much of an effect the concussions will have in the long term.
"For me as a father, I just really try not to think about it," said Utecht, who has three young daughters. "It's one of those things that can consume you. So I'm trying just to fix on rebuilding my life and starting a new career with a passionate mind."
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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