After concussions forced Ben Utecht to retire from football, he put his mind to work promoting brain health and research.
By Rick Moore
Ben Utecht (B.A. ’03) never imagined the day last year when he found himself sitting on a plane pouring out his love and fears in a letter to his wife, Karyn, and their daughters. Having suffered five confirmed concussions in his Gopher and pro football careers, Utecht was staring in the face the possibility that memory loss, early onset Alzheimer’s, or another brain disease might someday render him unable to express his feelings for his family.
Utecht was a strapping 6-foot-7-inch tight end for the Gophers with great hands and a golden voice when he met Karyn Stordahl (B.S.B. ’03), who was also a U student athlete. She first noticed him singing the national anthem before a Gopher hockey game and thought to herself, “Why can’t I meet a guy like that?” She ultimately did, they married, and they now have three daughters, with a fourth on the way.
Utecht gushes when he talks about his wife. “She was Miss Minnesota [in 2005], she was the captain of the women’s golf team, state champion out of Owatonna, top of her class from Carlson School,” he says, then starts to chuckle. “I mean, I married up big time, seriously. She’s amazing.”
His heartfelt letter became the basis for a song he cowrote titled, “You Will Always Be My Girls.” In the accompanying music video, which has more than a million YouTube views, Karyn breaks down sobbing next to Ben’s hospital bed. It’s an emotional, albeit fictional, moment that Utecht is working hard to avoid in real life through his advocacy for concussion awareness and brain health.
Utecht’s first concussion came in his freshman year for the Gophers in a game against Baylor, when he was briefly knocked unconscious. Three more concussions were interspersed in a decade of football success. In Utecht’s senior season in 2003, Glen Mason’s Gophers went 10–3—the team’s only 10-win season since 1905. Utecht finished his Minnesota career second all-time in receptions and receiving yards by a tight end. He then played four years for the Indianapolis Colts, catching 37 passes on the way to the Colts winning Super Bowl XLI, before moving to the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008.
His last concussion came during a training-camp blocking drill for the Bengals in 2009. He was knocked out for 90 seconds. “It took about eight months before I was cleared to go back and play if I wanted to,” he says.
In the ensuing months, one moment in particular shook him. He was at the home of former Gopher teammate Matt Anderle (B.S. '03) with both of their wives, talking about Anderle’s wedding. “I chimed in and said, ‘Why wasn’t I able to be at your wedding?’” Utecht says.
After some awkward silence, Anderle and his wife retrieved their wedding album. “Page after page, there I was as a groomsman in the wedding,” Utecht says. “I sang at his wedding. And I don’t have any memory of that. I don’t have any memory of that today. Those kind of situations began happening and my wife and I decided I just couldn’t, in good conscience, continue to play.”
Scenes from the video "You Will Always Be My Girls," which stars Ben Utecht and his wife, Karyn
The Mysterious World of Concussions
In the aftermath of Utecht’s penultimate concussion—a blow to the back of his helmet when he played for the Indianapolis Colts in 2007—the former Gopher had one prevailing thought. “Shake it off and let’s get back in there and play. That’s kind of where we were at with the game at that point,” he says. “Concussions were not high on the radar.”
Less than a decade later there’s been a dramatic shift in concussion awareness. In April, a federal judge approved a $1 billion plan to resolve thousands of lawsuits by former National Football League players who are actively experiencing—or believe they may be developing—dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). And this past March, 24-year-old former Wisconsin star linebacker Chris Borland announced his retirement from football after his rookie season in the NFL, a preemptive move over fear of the long-term effects of repeated head trauma. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I just don’t think it’s worth the risk,” he said.
But for all that has been learned about the ubiquitous sports concussion—which afflicts not only football players but also athletes playing hockey, basketball, soccer, rugby, even volleyball—much remains a mystery.
“I think we’ve gotten much better at understanding the seriousness of this problem,” says University of Minnesota School of Kinesiology researcher Don Dengel. “We’ve had really significant improvements in handling them. What I think we’re lacking now is understanding, ‘When do I put the athlete back in?’”
Part of the problem is that concussions, unlike, say, knee injuries, are largely invisible to diagnostic equipment. “The brain is very different than any other organ you have in your body,” Dengel says. “One reason is that it’s encased in a very hard shell and floating in a bath . . . and that makes it very difficult to look at.”
Dengel has been researching the functional physiology of the post-concussion brain by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the blood, which in turn stimulates the brain to dilate its blood vessels—an effect that shows up in imaging. The more and faster they dilate, the healthier the brain.
Dengel’s colleague Diane Wiese-Bjornstal examines the psychological aspects of sports injuries in general, and began focusing on concussions a couple of years ago when the U’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport coproduced a video examining the dearth of research on concussions in female athletes.
One thing she’s discovered is that people may have preexisting conditions that can complicate their recovery from a concussion. Some examples are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, and post-traumatic stress syndrome—the latter either in returning veterans or in athletes who have had a traumatic injury.
Take someone with ADHD, which can be characterized by impulsivity or an inability to focus and concentrate. “Well, those are also consequences of concussion,” Wiese-Bjornstal says. “So if you already have a problem with that and then it’s compounded by the [concussion] injury itself and the neurological complications of that, then you can see why it might be a double whammy.”
Research also suggests that there are some differences in how the sexes experience concussions, she says. Female athletes have a higher rate of concussions per time spent playing the same sports, like hockey, basketball, and soccer. This could be a result of females being more likely to report their concussions, she says, or musculoskeletal differences may be at play—for example, women’s necks not being as proportionately strong as men’s.
Female athletes also tend to report more symptoms, she says, which again could simply be a function of better reporting systems or perhaps an increased sensitivity toward those symptoms.
As for what goes on in the brain in terms of mental recovery, “I still don’t feel like we know anywhere near what we need to know about the psychology of concussion,” she says. Many athletes struggle with cognitive deficits, depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges after a concussion, yet often receive little therapy or psychological care aimed at alleviating these symptoms.
Dengel adds that while education continues to be paramount, there is no way to eliminate concussions altogether, especially in athletes—let alone in violent sports like football. “Many of us have probably had a concussion—it’s very difficult to find someone who hasn’t—but the severity of what we’ve probably experienced is much different from a soldier with a concussion blast or a football player getting hit by another helmet or bouncing off the playing surface. There are so many variables that we just can’t control, and [much to understand about] how the brain really takes that blow.”
Family, Music, and Brain Health
Soon after his last concussion, Utecht exhibited some uncharacteristic behaviors—namely, anger and lashing out—that startled family members. Those behaviors have disappeared, as have most of his primary concussion symptoms, although he suffers an occasional headache and long-term memory gaps still occur. But, he says, they haven’t gotten any worse. In April he started a 20-week cognitive skills training program designed to work different parts of the brain and strengthen short-term memory, long-term memory, and speed in brain processing. Since he retired from football, Utecht—who comes from a musical family—has pursued a professional singing career. Growing up in Hastings, Minnesota, Utecht was in theater and played tuba in the band. Then in 10th grade he switched his focus to singing. “I was in five choirs. I was in more choirs than I was in sports,” he says.
In college, he started singing national anthems, both at the University and for just about every professional sport in town. Mason even asked Utecht and his singing partner, former U placekicker Dan Nystrom (B.S. ’03), to sing the anthem at the game immediately following the 9/11 attacks.
In Indianapolis he met Christian singer Sandi Patty, who became a mentor and a coach. “She was really the one that said, ‘Man, you really should pursue this professionally,’” he says. In the ensuing years he’s released several records, including a Christmas album, performed at many symphony shows, and toured nationally in 2012.
And Utecht has become an advocate for concussion crisis awareness and brain research. “I was beginning to have a passion to emotionally connect people to the importance of their brains, but I didn’t really know how to do it,” Utecht says. “At the same time, the American Brain Foundation and American Academy of Neurology (AAN) were looking for a committed person who was going to help them get people emotionally connected to their brains.” He smiles. “This will be the second year that I’ve joined forces with them, and we’re just getting started.”
Last summer he testified before the Committee on Aging in Congress, and his public service announcement for the AAN aired during the state high school tournaments in March. Titled “When in Doubt, Sit it Out,” the spot urges coaches, parents, and athletes to have concussions properly assessed. He was the recipient of the 2014 Public Leadership in Neurology Award.
The video for “You Will Always Be My Girls” struck a chord worldwide. Utecht says the producers had originally wanted an actor to portray his wife. “I said, ‘Guys, you just gotta trust me on this. I know my wife, and honestly, she’s going to go there.’ It was amazing. Honestly, everyone in the room was just weeping. All that was natural—there was no acting. But it was hard, because she had to think about the worst.”
Thinking about the worst has elicited the best from Utecht, from that letter penned on the plane to his efforts to help others. “I’ve learned that living for what is right overshadows any concern for what could be wrong in the future,” he says. “My story has really affected people. It’s been able to bridge the mind and the heart. . . . It’s a way to get people to care about their minds and their brains and then lead them down a path, hopefully, where they begin to understand the importance of research.”
Rick Moore is a writer and editor for University Relations.