Ben Utecht: I Left With Some Long-Term Memory Issues

Former NFL tight end and Super Bowl champion Ben Utecht dropped by CBS Sports Radio on Tuesday to discuss his book, “Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away.” Utecht, who suffered five concussions in six NFL seasons, is losing his memory.

He is 35 years old.

“Let’s face it: It is a reality, especially as younger players transition out of the NFL,” Utecht said in studio on Tiki and Tierney. “All we have is to look ahead at some of the players and how they’re being affected today. So the book is written about my fears for the future. I left at 29, 30 years old, with some long-term memory issues. That made it real for the first time. The thought of those memories being taken away and losing potentially my family is frightening.”

Utecht, who played college ball at Minnesota, played for the Colts from 2004 to 2007 and for the Bengals from 2008 to 2009. He finished his career with 87 catches for 923 yards and three touchdowns.

“I love football,” Utecht said. “My message has always been pro-brain, pro-game. There’s a way that we have to create messaging around elevating the game but doing it the right way. I think if anything really gets me passionate, it’s how can an organization that has created the greatest game on the planet step up (its) integrity and keep making decisions that will help better take care of players’ long-term health?”

But how do we do that?

“I think you have to start by emotionally connecting with people,” Utecht said. “You can’t change culture if you can’t change the heart. It does not work. For former players, we need more people to be out talking and sharing stories, emotionally connecting people to the importance of their mind and memories. Allow that to change the way people view the situation. That’s what the book is designed to do.

“You cannot have football without concussions,” Utecht continued. “You can’t have it. They exist, and they exist in adult lives who should have a full assumption of risk when they sign that  contract to go play. So now, how do we take care of those players? If we are taking care of those players, then as fans and as former players, we can at least sit back and go, ‘We’re okay. We’re getting taken care of.’ That’s where the integrity lies.”

Utecht realized he had a problem when he moved back to Minnesota. He would sit around with friends and family and watch them recount memories all the way from childhood to just a few years ago. Utecht was drawing blanks.

“I kind of sit there, just completely lost,” he said. “You don’t know until the conversation comes up. It kind of comes out of nowhere and can sucker-punch you. You kind of just sit there. I internalize a lot of these things because I don’t want people to worry. I kind of keep it to myself.”

Utecht didn’t remember attending his friend’s wedding and even expressed regret for not being there. Then he saw the photo albums.

“Page after page, there I was as a groomsman, a singer in the wedding,” he said. “I have no recollection of that. Nothing. No matter how times I go back and look. It’s moments like that. And there are unfortunately handfuls of those that have happened in the last five years.”

So, Utecht is doing something about it.

“I’ve done my best over the last year especially to pour into this cognitive brain training,” he said. “I just finished a 100-hour program where my (neurology) evaluation told me I really struggled with short- and long-term memory.”

Utecht was in the 12th and 17th percentile, respectively.

“After 100 hours,” he said, “it went to the 78th percentile.”

Utecht worked with LearningRx, a brain-training program that improves cognitive skills. It cannot help you recall lost information, but it can help you retain information going forward.

“The way the neurologist described it to me is the brain is filled with neuro pathways, cities, and there are multiple ways to get to this radio station today,” Utecht began. “When one of those ways gets broken, you’re going to see a detour sign. It’s a path that’s not really typically been used, but then you’re going to start to use that until it becomes a highway. Now that creates new pathways for you to store information going forward. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to retrieve what’s already been lost, but you can strengthen and groove out new pathways to store and recall memory. I sat across from a brain trainer four days a week for an hour-and-a-half, and he kicked my butt. I was sweating at times. It felt like I was in training camp of a different nature. But my ability now to store short- and long-term memory has improved. My family has seen it. You can hear it in the way that I’m talking. It was almost like over the course of those 100 hours I was lifted out of a fog. The whole ending of the book revolves around this hope – that there are things that we can do to strengthen those cognitive abilities that can be damaged.”

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