Ben Utecht's professional football résumé included a Super Bowl championship with the Indianapolis Colts and five productive seasons as an NFL tight end. It also included a traumatic brain injury.
Concussions, usually caused by a blow to the head, are most common in contact sports. Recent research from Mayo Clinic shows that while most high school athletes, their parents and coaches can identify the possible effects of a concussion, only about one-third know it is a brain injury.
Ben, who grew up playing small-town football in Minnesota, had been diagnosed with five concussions during his playing career. When the effects of those injuries started to disrupt his daily life, Ben turned to Mayo Clinic.
"I've been in the Mayo system for such a long time, and its reputation obviously precedes itself," Ben says. "They do an exceptional job in patient care and really making patients feel like their situation is genuinely and authentically important."
Though his love of football was strong, Ben knew it was time for a change when he started experiencing noticeable memory loss. He found himself faltering in the middle of conversations. He began decorating his computer with sticky notes to remind himself to complete everyday tasks. Routines that were once unremarkable suddenly felt daunting.
"There were long-term memory gaps," Ben says. "I would be with friends, and everybody would be talking about a universal memory. For me, it was like it didn't even exist. I couldn't even place myself there. That was pretty scary."
When someone experiences a concussion, experts at Mayo Clinic typically follow a plan that includes evaluating the individual's signs and symptoms; reviewing the medical history; and conducting a neurological exam to test vision, hearing, strength, sensation, balance, coordination and reflexes. The care team evaluates cognitive skills, including memory, concentration and the ability to recall information. Brain imaging tests also may be performed.
For Ben, a neurological evaluation revealed some cognitive weakness. Another brain injury could be catastrophic. His football days had come to an end.
Knowing his professional football career was over, Ben focused on his other passions — music and motivational speaking. And his music career began to take off. Ben, who grew up in an athletic, musical and theatrical family, sold out 21 shows in a holiday concert tour in 2017.
"No one really expects the singing football player to ever be any good. But I love that because I've poured a lot of time and training into it, and it's always fun to walk out on stage," Ben says. "You can see people thinking, 'All right, let's see what this football player can do,' and then they're like, 'Wow, he really can sing.'"
In addition to music, Ben felt inspired to share his story with others, including athletes, parents, coaches and medical staff, as well as individuals and caregivers dealing with memory loss. His motivational talk, "MVP: Mind, Value, Purpose," tells about his personal journey with concussions. It's focused on emotionally connecting people to the importance of their memory.
"What makes us relevant and gives us identity as human beings is only what we can remember," Ben says.
In his presentations, Ben challenges people to consider how differently they might live their lives if they knew they would lose their memories and encourages people to live every moment with a distinct sense of purpose. Ben strives to model this approach in his own life. With his wife and four young daughters, he relishes the "beautiful chaos" of a busy career and a family schedule full of piano, dance, golf, volleyball and family movie nights. He's also written a book and launched a consulting firm.
To make sure the future stays bright, Ben continues to manage his health with annual exams and monitoring at Mayo Clinic.
"The experience has been fantastic," he says. "Having the concussion history that I have, if I can make sure that I've got the best experts in the world looking at my brain at Mayo, then I know I'm in good hands."
By sharing his story, Ben hopes to help inspire change and shed light on the significance of concussions and returning to sports too quickly.
"Concussion for me as a player carries a different level of importance than any other injury because you're dealing with the one thing that makes you who you are," Ben says. "My hope is that every adolescent and parent is educated about what a concussion is and who to go see. I think that's possible. I think that medical evidence is going to be the most essential part to any change in sports culture."
Note: A version of this story was previously published in Mayo Clinic Magazine.