Concussions drove Ben Utecht out of pro football five years ago.
He fears that the effects from the hits he took as a tight end for four NFL seasons, and for four years before that at the University of Minnesota, will have a significant impact on his future health.
Now a singer-songwriter and in-demand speaker, Utecht wanted to ensure that his family will always remember him as a bright, clever and insightful person. What better way than through a song?
"It was the hardest song I have ever had to co-write," the 33-year-old Utecht says. "It came down to doing something I had not done yet in my life after my football career ended: writing that love letter to my wife and daughters. It was in concern that if the day comes when my mind begins to fail — when your faces and names begin to disappear — no matter what physically takes my memory, nothing will take away what you mean to me."
Utecht, who earned a Super Bowl ring after the 2006 season with the Colts, left the NFL in 2009 after an injury settlement with the Bengals. The players' union won a grievance so that he could get his entire salary.
Since then, he's worked on his music and has been one of the leading advocates on behalf of current and former players' recognition, treatment and medical coverage of concussions and head trauma. He's currently a spokesman for the American Academy of Neurology and testified before Congress in August about concussion issues.
Utecht also is one of the former players involved in the NFL's settlement of lawsuits over head trauma and concussions — a settlement still, well, unsettled as a judge determines its validity. The judge who preliminarily approved the settlement this summer heard objections last month and will make a decision in 2015.
He's passionate about his work for several national neurological organizations. Just as passionate as he is about his music, which includes an upcoming album entitled "Man Up." Utecht tackles the topic in his songs, joking he is not "a candy writer, but a meat-and-potatoes writer with Midwest values."
"Music is a universal language," he says. "I can go to places and talk about neurology and people scratch their heads, and you see it has not clicked. But I can tell a story through melody and instrumentation and lyrics.
"One commonality we have is we are all human and emotional, and we all experience the spectrum of love and hate. Music doesn't know any of those boundaries."
Utecht inherited his musical talents from his father, who was a music major and planned to be a choir teacher before he became a pastor. Indeed, Utecht grew up with training in more music-related activities than in sports.
Clearly, though, he was skilled on the gridiron, enough to earn a full ride to Minnesota. While there, he sang the national anthem at a variety of sporting events, including local pro teams — except the Vikings, which would have been a violation of NCAA rules.
He joined the Colts in 2005 and had 37 receptions as a backup tight end in 2006 when Indy won it all.
But he was first known as the "Singing Colt," because Utecht performed the anthem before the team's preseason game against Buffalo even before he played a down.
That led to some musical connections in Indianapolis, and Utecht toured with gospel star Sandi Patty, who mentored him and recommended he pursue music as a profession.
When football disappeared as an option — Utecht was knocked out for 90 seconds after a hit in training camp, causing a head injury that took eight months to recover from — he dived into his music full time.
Eclectic in his musical tastes, Utecht's "Man Up" is in the pop/country vein because, he says, "all of the songs have meaning."
"These songs are designed to fill you and give you what can potentially help you," he says, specifically mentioning "Standing Strong" and "Oblivion" from the album. "Your songs are pages in your diary. Your heartbeat is put into these recordings."
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