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How music is saving ex-Gopher Ben Utecht's football-ravaged brain

Ex-NFLer Ben Utecht says music helps restore his mind

Ex-NFLer Ben Utecht says music helps restore his mind Jon Evans (Clarity Films)

Ben Utecht is well-versed in worst-case scenarios.

The former University of Minnesota tight end knows 40 percent of ex-NFLers show signs of traumatic brain injuries. He knows one study of deceased NFL players found 96 percent of them suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. He knows CTE -- which can only be diagnosed posthumously -- often dovetails into dementia, and that NFL vets are four times more likely to die of ALS or Alzheimer’s disease than the general population.

Even though science is only beginning to understand the long-term effects of repeated trauma to the human brain, Utecht knows his situation is dire.

Five concussions in four seasons. Despite a five-year NFL stint that included a 2007 Super Bowl win with the Indianapolis Colts, Utecht’s NFL legacy is not tabulated in receptions, yards, or touchdowns. This is the grim statistic that defines his career as a professional football player. The concussions forced Utecht to retire in 2009 at the age of 28. By the time he was 30, he was already experiencing drastic memory loss.

“I left the NFL and had to Post-it note everything,” Utecht, 35, says. “It was hard for me to remember tasks that my wife would give me. I used to be able to remember schedules easily, but then it became a nightmare.”

Following his retirement from the NFL, Utecht turned back to a passion he’s had since the age of five: music. The son of a Methodist minister and a classical soprano, Utecht has always balanced his athletic pursuits with a penchant for song.

Ben Utecht as a University of Minnesota Golden Gopher (Photo: Carlos Gonzalez)

Ben Utecht as a University of Minnesota Golden Gopher (Photo: Carlos Gonzalez) Star Tribune

At Hastings High School, he was a three-sport athlete and a member of the glee club. During his last professional season with the Cincinnati Bengals, he released his self-titled debut album, and after the Bengals released him, Utecht moved to Nashville to try to crack into the inspirational gospel scene.

You might expect the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Utecht to have a voice to match his meaty stature. He looks like he could conjure a baritone deep enough to rumble the plates in the china cabinet. But his voice comes out in big, earnest peals. It’s churchy but instantly engrossing — powerful, though not strong enough to protect it from the damage of a lifetime of helmet-to-helmet contact.

In 2011, Utecht was invited on a 32-show tour with adult contemporary pianist Jim Brickman. At the time, he was having difficulty retaining new information. During the shows, he played with a lyric sheet taped to the floor.

“Remembering songs that I’d sing over and over again was difficult,” Utecht says. “That’s where my fear comes from. The reality that we’re seeing in NFL veterans is where my fear comes from.”

As Utecht’s anxieties about his memory mounted, he penned a somber ballad apologizing for the grim day he foresaw: when he could no longer remember the names of his wife and four daughters. The first line of “You’ll Always Be My Girls” became the title of his memoir, Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away, released in August.

The book chronicles Utecht’s mortifying journey to reclaim his mind from the fog of concussion-related symptoms, and its opening salvo is an unhindered punch to the heart.

“Your relevance as a human really only resides in what you can remember,” Utecht says. “Everything that makes me relevant as a husband and a father comes from memories. Here I am at the end of the first chapter holding my fourth daughter and thinking, ‘Gosh, I hope the worst doesn’t come.’ That’s not an easy place to get to.”

But the book does not end with the despair of the first chapter.

When he began Counting the Days, Utecht didn’t know whether the degeneration of his mind was reversible or not. He eventually discovered brain-training company Learning Rx. Utecht says the tutoring center, which has been sued by the Federal Trade Commission for misleading advertising claims, has helped restore some of his neurological functions.

Utecht enrolled in a 100-hour cognitive testing program, devoting 90 minutes three days a week to Learning Rx’s intensive tests. It started with rudimentary tasks like remembering colors and the position of numbers on flash cards, and progressed to situational mathematics and high-order sequencing. Each trial was set to a metronome. Utecht’s replies had to fall in time with the clicks in order to register as correct, gradually rebuilding his memory at a rate of 120 beats per minute.

“The way that the neuroplasticity of the brain has responded to the training has been incredible,” he says. “It’s significantly helped my short- and long-term memory. I’m talking taking it from the 12th percentile according to my neuro-psych evaluation to the 70th and 90th percentile.”

This month, Utecht will join legendary Twin Cities soul singer Mick Sterling as part of a 14-show homage to the Christmas music of Andy Williams and Bing Crosby. It’s a fitting reintroduction point for Utecht, whose holiday collection Christmas Hope was nominated for a 2012 Dove Award — aka the Christian music Grammys.

Both Sterling and Utecht envision the series — which continues Wednesday at St. Paul’s James J. Hill Center — as being an annual traveling show in the vein of Mannheim Steamroller. Such ambitions might not have been possible if not for the therapeutic power of music.

“The thing that makes Ben so unique is that he took [his] issue and decided to use music to help,” Sterling says. “A lot of people play football their whole lives and that’s it. He had the ability to sing, and I’m sure it saved him. In all facets of his life.”

Ben Utecht scoring a touchdown while with the Indianapolis Colts in 2006 (Photo: Associated Press)

Ben Utecht scoring a touchdown while with the Indianapolis Colts in 2006 (Photo: Associated Press)

Utecht says that singing, along with brain-training exercises, has improved his short- and long-term memory drastically. Thanks to the musical construct of rhythm, he believes his mind is no longer slipping away. Sterling proposes that music has a “mystical” quality that made the recovery possible, but Utecht contends the link between rhythm and his improved neural pathways is not merely an act of providence.

“Music is used as a form of treatment in dementia patients,” Utecht explains. “Emotion is connected to music. Music evokes emotion, and your brain stores those memories differently. It’s really incredible.”

This spring, Utecht will release his new album, Standing Strong. The LP is a proggy, 10-song proclamation that leans heavy on rock ’n’ roll antecedents like Imagine Dragons and 30 Seconds to Mars. In terms of content, the record acts as a sort of sequel to Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away and “You’ll Always Be My Girls.”

Where the book and the single confront the daunting reality of a worst-case scenario, Standing Strong is a testament to the perseverance of not only the mind but also the heart.

“All of us have been concussed by life in different ways,” Utecht says. “Trials are just a period of refinement. My message is that you have the opportunity to allow the trials that you go through to define you.”