Truth be told, Ben Utecht can’t even tell you how many concussions he has had since the first time he put pads on.
“I try to go back and think about the times where I got my bell rung, or I had a headache and felt dizzy. Man, that happened all the time,” said Utecht, a University of Minnesota alum and former National Football League tight end who now lives in Lakeville.
Utecht began his peewee playing days with the Lakes Area Recreation Association in Lindstrom, playing flag football in third and fourth grade, and beginning tackle in fifth.
“I was probably having concussions in middle school, definitely in high school,” Utecht said.
Growing up in Lindstrom, Utecht was an active athlete. Playing hockey, track and football, he was always doing something.
At the age of 16 he attended a summer football camp where he caught the eye of then-Golden Gophers head football coach Glen Mason. He was offered a scholarship, and a chance to compete at the next level.
From there on out football became his dream, and later his job. Little did he know that for all his dream job would offer him, it would also cost him so much more, and send him on the road to recovery in Savage.
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
Utecht went undrafted in the 2004 NFL Draft, but was soon signed as a free agent by the Indianapolis Colts.
He would play tight end for the Colts for four seasons, catching passes from Peyton Manning, and earning himself a Super Bowl ring in 2006 along the way. For the Colts, he made 87 receptions and scored three touchdowns on the field.
He also caught multiple blows to the head, resulting in multiple concussions — some of which left him with amnesia and long lapses of memory loss.
In 2009, the Cincinnati Bengals reached an injury settlement with him after his fifth documented concussion.
His football career was over.
“I just felt like it was time,” Utecht said. “My career has really been injury-stricken. Unfortunately I was one of those guys that was always battling through something.”
Prior to his decision to officially retire from the sport that he had been playing for nearly 20 years, he had already begun to notice changes in his mental health.
“Both my wife and I, and my family, started noticing differences in my cognitive abilities, and I was forgetting some pretty significant memories from my past,” Utecht said. “When I started losing my memory, that was it. After my fourth and fifth concussions [where I experienced amnesia for the first time], I was done. Those moments I think were really an awakening for me.”
He estimates that his long-term memory has been affected the most, saying that a memory of being a groomsman (and singing) in one of his best friends’ wedding is now completely gone.
“Thankfully I’ve never been someone who has suffered serious headaches. For a time, there was some sleeplessness issues, but primarily it has been my memory,” Utecht said.
Some moments don’t get fuzzy, he says, or like they feel on the “tip of your tongue” like common memory lapses that often plague many as they get older. Rather, he says it feels as if some moments have been actually removed from his memory altogether.
“It’s not like a forgettable moment where you kind of forget what you want to say,” Utecht said. “This feels like something literally has been cut out and removed. It’s a weird feeling.”
Fate would have it that in April of 2013, Utecht would meet Rich Frieder, executive director and owner of LearningRx in Savage, on the TV program Twin Cities Live. Frieder was being interviewed for a story in which they had helped a patient, while Utecht was sharing his story as well as co-hosting.
Frieder met Utecht, heard his story, and said that he thought they could help.
Utecht had already sought help before for some of his issues, having visited a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, but he liked the idea of taking his development a step further than strictly cognitive rehabilitation for a traumatic brain injury.
“It’s one thing to go to a center for rehab, but it’s another to be able to go to a facility that really acts as a personal trainer for the brain through cognitive skill training,” Utecht said.
Rather than focus on teaching specific material like a traditional tutor, LearningRx works to strengthen actual cognitive functions in the brain.
Cognitive skills efficiency is broken in two categories in an effort to find the root cause of a cognitive issue: “automatic processing” (the input prior to a decision, including attention, working memory and processing speed) and “higher thinking” (logic and reasoning, auditory and visual processing, and long-term memory).
Through an initial cognitive assessment, LearningRx determines the areas in which a student’s scores are below the average percentile (according to a formula provided by Woodcock Johnson III’s “Cognitive Abilities Battery”). Various specific exercises are then used in training sessions to strengthen the determined weaker areas.
“He was very forthcoming about having memory troubles, and the cognitive skills assessment bore that out,” said Bradley Olson, assistant director at LearningRx in Savage, who has been Utecht’s primary trainer since he began on April 1.
After identifying the problem, Olson went to work creating a plan to correct it, and ultimately bring Utecht back to where he wanted to be.
“I’m not going to spend a lot of time building up strengths, I’m really going to spend time concentrating on weaknesses,” Olson said of his training methods. “I’m always going to push students to perform above what they believe their capacity is.”
Three-to-four times a week at an hour-and-a-half per session, Utecht will sit at a table with Olson and do anywhere from 12-to-14 different exercises, all in the hopes that one day he will be remembering the results, problem-free, for a long time to come.
Sitting at his table with Olson, Utecht recites rapid-fire multiplication tables — an experience that Olson says draws on the long-term memory, or “knowledge bank.”
With a metronome ticking, he’s encouraged to rifle off an answer every three ticks, or two seconds.
When asked whether or not a camera taking a few pictures in the background would be intrusive to their session, Olson not only allows it, but insists upon it. He says that the excess distractions actually work in a student’s favor, forcing them to further use their concentration to complete the tasks at hand.
“In a school system they look to provide a quiet atmosphere, but at some point those accommodations get removed for people in the real world. Most of us just have to deal, and if you can’t do that then you’re not going to be able to work there,” Olson said.
As the numbers’ sums become tougher to equate — five times nine, nine time eight, eight times six — Utecht begins to falter, fall behind and become visibly frustrated with himself.
“For some, it’s about the computational skills,” Olson explained of the exercise. “But for Ben it’s about the processing speed; recalling that information that he already knows.”
At only four weeks into his 20-week program, Utecht says that he’s already beginning to see progress evident in his daily life.
“I have noticed a difference. I notice it a lot in memory-recall,” Utecht said. “I’ve begun to notice some of the little things, forgetful moments not being as present, and I’ve only been at this a month.”
Over the coming weeks, training procedures will become longer, and at a more advanced level as Utecht continues to progress through his training.
But with progress already showing, Utecht remains excited for what the future might ultimately hold in the coming months.
Initial progress in-hand, Utecht’s realistic about his ultimate end goals.
He knows that some things will never be the same again; some damage will never be undone.
“All of our brains’ functionality decreases with time, but I want to try and create that longevity,” Utecht said. “My hope is that at the end of this I’ve been able to create new neuro-pathways and strengthen them to function within memory. Then from this day going forward, my long-term memory will no longer suffer, and that’s exciting.”
Utecht remains an avid musician who is currently working on a new music project. He’s already recorded one album, and continues to write songs about his life, experiences and family: wife Karyn, daughters Elleora (6), Katriel and Amy (4), and a new one on the way.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Minnesota, and hopes to one day pursue a career in the industry further. Using his concussion story as inspiration, he also has a book in the works.
The American Academy of Neurology has also signed him as their spokesperson, and he hopes to continue to spread his message to others.
“There’s a lot of work to be done. I’m just trying to figure out exactly how to do it,” Utecht said.
Hindsight is 20/20, but knowing what he knows now, would he still strap on the helmet again?
“I would play football again, but I would have capped it at three concussions,” Utecht said. “I would go back and play because the game offers so many life lessons and can really give some people opportunities that they wouldn’t typically have. If it’s being done the right way, you’re teaching kids the value of work ethic, integrity, character, adversity, teamwork, communication — the list goes on.”
“We want to encourage our kids to be athletic and in sports, we just want them to do it safely.”