Ben Utecht
Bobak Ha'Eri/ Wikimedia.org

“Our essence as human beings,” as Ben Utecht writes, “lies in our ability to remember.”

Utecht, at 35 years old, is slowly losing his memories as a result of concussions suffered during his football career as the former tight end for the Indianapolis Colts and the Cincinnati Bengals. Faced with the prospect of one day not recognizing his beloved family, Utecht hopes to use his upcoming book, “Counting the Days Until My Mind Slips Away,” to share what he’s learned, distilling his pain into wisdom that others can benefit from.

From a young age, Ben idolized Superman, the ubiquitous, nearly-invulnerable superhero protagonist of DC Comics. And as we all do at that age, he felt that he was just as tough as the Man of Steel. That is, until he flew headfirst into a wooden dresser, incurring a head wound severe enough to require several stitches. And again, like all of us, Ben Utecht found that he was, after all, a mere mortal in the physical sense.

Almost, anyway. Athletes have always been our superheroes, our larger-than-life modern-day gladiators. At 6' 6", Ben fits this image perfectly. He led his Minnesota high school football team to victory after victory, and he went on to become a four-year starter for the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gophers. During his first game as a part of the NFL, he caught a pass from Peyton Manning, made it past Deion Sanders, and scored a touchdown—quite a feat for a rookie. In 2007, Utecht even went on to play in Super Bowl XLI as a starting tight end for the Indianapolis Colts. His NFL career, lasting from 2004 to 2009, is marked by success.

Unfortunately, he later would prove to be as fragile as any of us. Ben’s first concussion occurred when he was 19 years old, when he slammed, helmet-to-helmet, into another player on the field, knocking him out cold, much to the dismay of his watching parents. Ben writes that players often referred to this as “getting our bell rung, or getting lit up”. Within sports culture, a concussion is often no big deal—something to recover from on the bench, dust off, and get over. But it’s not so simple as that.

The effects of a concussion don’t stop at seeing stars or a moment’s blackout. And, contrary to pop culture, it is a big deal. In movies and television, we see fighters get knocked out over and over with no consequence. They get right back up and keep fighting. Utecht writes that “On television, the whole thing is a big joke.” Adding to this, concussions are a functional injury, not a structural one, meaning that they usually show no physical symptoms like bruising that can show up on hospital scans. So we don’t think much of them. But let’s take a look at what actually happens during a concussion.

“Our brains are soft,” writes Utecht, “the skull is hard.” This is the essence of a concussion. When the head is struck with violent force, the brain, which floats in a protective cocoon of cerebrospinal fluid, collides against the inside of the skull, damaging it. Repeated concussions cause accumulated damage, which has now been labeled as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy—the determination and shrinkage of parts of the brain due to repeated concussions and other similar brain injuries. The symptoms of this deterioration are debilitating and life-changing. They include memory loss, impulsive behavior, impaired judgment, and depression. After 5 documented concussions and a slew of undocumented ones, Utecht is currently suffering from the first of these.

After Ben’s 5th, and most severe, concussion, he was placed on the injured reserve list by his team, the Bengals, meaning that he could not return to the field for that season. Then, much to his shock, Ben was let go from the Bengals on November 18th, 2009. Not only was his career over, but he was cut off from the earnings the rest of the football season would have given him.

Fortunately, though, Ben’s NFL Player Contract states that any player injured in the performance of his services “will continue to receive his yearly salary for so long, during the season of injury only.” Ben then filed a grievance against the team, the process of which shows exactly how the NFL, at that point, viewed concussions. The team’s neuropsychologist had, without telling Utecht, cleared him for play, opening the door for his dismissal. He hadn’t taken Ben’s concussion symptoms seriously.

His case quickly changed how the NFL handled concussions, and on November 24th, 2009, it issued a memo that stated that players diagnosed with a concussion could not return to play until they had been evaluated and cleared by the team physician and by an independent physician, as well.

Utecht writes that “Through 2004 and 2005 the NFL’s concussion committee churned out one paper after another that said concussed players could safely return to the field.” Ben Utecht, with his case, helped change this, and his upcoming book set set to not only relate the inspiring tale of a man facing the loss of his memories, but to also raise awareness of the invisible effects of concussions in sports—effects which have long been underestimated.

Ben still struggles with his memory, with depression, and the stigma of his condition. In his book, he describes the feeling of being looked at differently, of being viewed as “fragile and broken”. But instead of giving up, as many other sufferers of his condition have, he has used his condition as an impetus to engage with his family—to be the best father and husband he could possibly be. To be human, to know that our lives are finite and that we are racing against a clock, motivates us. But for Ben, that motivation is now stronger than ever.

Today, Ben makes a point to speak about the risks of brain injuries, raising awareness wherever he goes. His efforts have taken many forms, finally culminating in his book, “Counting the Days.” A singer, Ben also composed a moving song—a love letter to his family, should he ever completely wholly lose his memories of them. “You Will Always Be My Girls,” is his love for them, distilled, and its emotional verses have touched thousands.

This is a man who has taken one of the most difficult situations that anyone could face, and turned it into an opportunity for not only self-improvement, but to love on those around him, and to generously teach what he has learned. His upbringing as the Christian son of a pastor instilled in him a desire to help others, and to show the face of God in all he does. His unshakable faith, according to his book, keeps him going.

In 2014, Utecht was awarded the Public Leadership in Neurology Award for his work in advancing understanding and awareness of neurologic disease, an accolade he richly deserves for the fight that he continues to this day. Ben Utecht is not one to give up.

And in that way, he truly is like Superman.

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