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Strand Notebook | Super Bowl champion speaks to REEL Kids about brain health

Ben Utecht, Super Bowl XLI champion with the Indianapolis Colts, gives a motivational speech at the 15th annual HTC REEL Kids Awards. HTC honors 51 students from area schools who have overcome diversity to reach high levels of achievement.
Ben Utecht, Super Bowl XLI champion with the Indianapolis Colts, gives a motivational speech at the 15th annual HTC REEL Kids Awards. HTC honors 51 students from area schools who have overcome diversity to reach high levels of achievement. jlee@thesunnews.com

When Ben Utecht spoke at the HTC REEL Kids ceremony last week, he wore Superman socks on his feet and a Super Bowl ring on his finger.

He said he had promised his daughters that he would always wear something they gave him when he spoke, and he was keeping his word by wearing the socks one of them had given him.

He earned the ring on a rainy Sunday in 2007 playing tight end for the Indianapolis Colts.

In 2009, while he was with the Cincinnati Bengals, he took a hard hit at training camp that knocked him unconscious for about 90 seconds, took eight months to recover from and ended his football career. It was his fifth documented concussion.

As the son of a pastor growing up in Hastings, Minn., Utecht had two goals, football and singing, and he apparently was good at both, playing football for his high school team and singing publicly since the fifth grade.

With his football career over, he began his singing career. One of his first three albums, “Christmas Hope,” was nominated for Holiday Album of the Year by the Dove Awards. He most recently completed his album “Standing Strong,” which was the theme of the HTC REEL Kids ceremony honoring Horry County students who are overcoming obstacles in their lives.

After suffering traumatic brain injury from concussions, Utecht, now 33, said he began losing memories at 29 years old.

He said he and his wife were visiting one of his best friends and his new wife when he started asking his friend why he had not been at their wedding. The couple just looked at him, he said, thinking he was being funny. But he kept asking, and they took out their wedding album. In picture after picture, he saw himself, but he still does not remember being there.

He worried. Would he have dementia in his 40s or 50s? Would he forget his wife and three little daughters?

He wrote a letter to his family, which inspired a song and video, “You’ll Always Be My Girls.” The video can be seen on the Internet, along with others related to his life as a football player, a singer and advocate for brain heath.

He was one of many players involved in a concussion lawsuit and settlement with the NFL. He testified before Congress about his concussions and brain injury, telling Congress that his greatest fear was to be trapped inside the coffin of his mind, to wake up one morning and not remember the faces and names of the people he cherished the most.

He received the Ambassador Award from the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance and is national spokesman for the American Brain Foundation and the American Academy of Neurology, which awarded him its most prestigious award, the 2014 Public Leadership in Neurology award.

At the REEL Kids ceremony, still facing the fear of losing his memory, Utecht asked, “How differently would you live your life today if you knew the day you would lose your memories?”

Contact PEGGY MISHOE at pegmish@sccoast.net or 365-3885.

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