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Hastings native speaks out for brain health

On June 25, Hastings native Ben Utecht appeared before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging to testify about his personal experience with brain injury.

Utecht is a former NFL football player who, over the course of his football career, has suffered five documented concussions. Utecht knows from experience that his injuries have left him with long-term effects, some of which are extremely troubling.

Information on such long-term effects of traumatic brain injuries and concussions were exactly what the committee was looking for. Utecht’s testimony showed them a very personal look.

His fifth documented concussion in 2009 ended his football career. Afterward, he experienced amnesia, sleeplessness, night sweats, dizziness, fatigue, behavioral changes and more, he said in his testimony. The worst effect, though, was that he began to lose his memory.

“My memories began to fade away along with pieces of my identity,” he said in his testimony. “My wife Karyn and I, along with our three beautiful daughters, visited one of my best friends and roommates from college. Matt and Kim began sharing favorite moments from their wedding as Karyn nodded in remembrance while I sat in mental darkness trying to understand why nothing sounded familiar. I stopped Matt mid-sentence, asking him, ‘Why wasn’t I able to be at your wedding?’ He looked at me awkwardly and continued, but again I asked the same question. This time Matt, Kim and Karyn stopped talking and studied me looking for a comedic reaction, but nothing came. I continued, ‘When was it… surely I wasn’t busy?’ Kim got up from the table and retrieved their wedding photo album. Page after page – I was in disbelief, seeing myself in numerous pictures, as a groomsman and singing for them a song. To this day I still have no memory of that event. Unfortunately for my family and me, that is only one of multiple memory gaps in my 32-year-old brain.”

After leaving the gridiron behind, Utecht has become an advocate for brain health and safety. When he returned to Minnesota a few years ago, he became an ambassador for the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance, which led him to be the national spokesperson for the American Academy of Neurology and the American Brain Foundation – the largest association of neurologists in the world.

His focus, he said, has been telling his own story of traumatic brain injury and concussions to help the mission of finding cures for all brain diseases.

“The overall goal is really to find the cures for brain disease,” he said.

He’s also encouraging those living with brain disease or brain injury to establish a relationship with a neurologist.

The problem of brain disease

Utecht’s involvement naturally stems from the fact that he is affected by brain injury. But the impact of brain disease is much bigger than him. One in six people are affected by some sort of brain disease, Utecht said.

“That’s a staggering statistic. … It’s unlike any other injury. It’s different than a knee injury or a shoulder injury. This is an injury to the makeup of who you are as a human, and that really hits home for me,” he said.

Concussions can happen even when the injury doesn’t seem severe. In 2007, Utecht experienced his third concussion when another player’s foot grazed his helmet while the player was jumping over him. Utecht was knocked out for 20 seconds, and said in his testimony he had no memory of getting up and running to the sidelines. That was his first experience with amnesia, he said.

While discussion of brain injuries – especially concussions – typically focuses on sports, it can happen to anyone. You could walk out of work, slip in the parking lot and hit your head on the ground, Utecht said.

“It affects the entire population. However, it’s been increased by the number of youths in organized athletics,” he said. “We want to promote athleticism, we want to promote sports, but we need to find a way to make those sports healthier for our children.”

Senate hearing

The Senate hearing, titled “State of Play: Brain Injuries and Diseases of Aging,” took Utecht’s testimony alongside former WWE wrestler Chris Nowinski and two prominent medical researchers, Jacob VanLandingham, PhD, of the Florida State University College of Medicine and Robert Stern, PhD, of the Boston University School of Medicine.

Utecht was invited to testify through the NFL Players Association, which has worked closely with Utecht over the past three years and knows of his advocacy work, Utecht said.

The hearing itself was mostly an information gathering opportunity. The committee sought to better explore the relationship between traumatic brain injuries and diseases associated with aging, said Sen. Susan M. Collins, R-Maine, at the beginning of the hearing.

Utecht is hopeful that the information recorded at the hearing will lead to more answers to more questions and some well-structured policies in Washington, D.C., that will make sports safer for children, he said.

The hearing can be viewed in its entirety online at www. state-of-play-brain-injuries-and-diseases-of-aging. Utecht’s prepared statement is also available there.

Advocating through music

One of the highlights of Utecht’s experience is his budding music career. A friend asked him to write a love letter to his wife and daughters from the perspective of a 50-year-old NFL player who doesn’t remember them anymore. The prompt – and the fear that that could very well be his future – inspired a new single, “You Will Always Be My Girls.”

The music video for the song, which can be viewed on YouTube, was filmed at Regina Hospital and has been viewed more than 350,000 times. The song will be included on his new album, “Man Up,” which is expected to be released later this year.