Ben Utecht played tight end for Glen Mason at Minnesota, then went on to play in the NFL for the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals. He has written a book called “Counting The Days While My Mind Slips Away: A Love Letter To My Family” about his life centered around football, his family, and his Christian faith.
The book starts out as a typical football “glory story”. A little boy playing catch in the backyard with his father, a Methodist minister. Boy goes on to be superb athlete, meets girl of his dreams, and swears he will marry her someday. She’s destined to become Miss Minnesota. He’s destined to go on to the NFL and win a Super Bowl.
Utecht details his time playing football throughout college at the University of Minnesota under Glen Mason, and then as an undrafted free agent playing for Tony Dungy and the Indianapolis Colts. He doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to the injuries, pain, and drugs that are involved in playing both in college and in the NFL.
It can be pretty cheesy, pretty sappy, especially the early parts about his family. It’s supposed to be - it’s a book-writing formula that works well with personal interest stories.
It’s when he gets his fifth concussion while playing for the Cincinnati Bengals that things get, quite frankly, more interesting and more depressing regarding how a professional football team would treat one of their players who has clearly been injured while doing his job.
The problem seems to be that no one really understands quite how serious Utecth’s fifth concussion is. Utecht himself doesn't understand it and from a certain perspective his football career mirrors the evolution of understanding of mild traumatic brain injury (concussions) to the point of how we know it now.
I do have to admit a personal bias. When Utecht talks about his memory issues with regards to his brain injury it hits home at a personal level for me. He doesn’t remember getting his Super Bowl ring from the Indianapolis Colts. While I don’t remember getting my Super Bowl ring either, (ba-da bing!), there are a lot of memories missing for me as well.
During a visit with a close friend, Utecht gets upset after his wife and close friends discuss the friend’s wedding. Utetch has no memory of it, telling his friend that he should have been invited. HIs wife has to show him a photo of him as a groomsman. He wasn’t just a groomsman, he also sang at the wedding.
I understand the position he’s in. Sometimes when my wife and children are talking about something we did when the kids were young I have to ask my wife if I was there or not. It’s pretty disconcerting. Some memories are glitchy; my college friends show up in my high school memories where they’re not supposed to be. I coached youth soccer for a decade, and was a Boy Scout leader for 17 years. I remember a lot of kids; they’re just not in correct timeline.
Brain injuries can be very bizarre.
I won’t give away any more of Utecht’s book, but I will say that Utecht’s dealings with the Cincinnati Bengals, the NFL, and arbitration will infuriate you. And while the book starts somewhat sappy, he is very honest when it comes to personal incidents and feelings that most of us would rather hide.
His thoughts about whether his brain will turn to mush in 20 years; I have those too. The book is marketed with the idea that Utecht will lose his memories due to his brain injuries, hence the framing as a “love letter to his family”. I'd like to think that's melodramatic, but I admit my bias because I don't want to lose anymore of my memories either.
In the end it turns out to be a pretty good book. I’d recommend it to anyone. Note that Utecht’s Christian faith plays an integral part and is a central theme throughout the book. The book’s cover suggests that it should be read by parents who are considering getting their children into contact sports. That’s a little incorrect. It’s not a bad idea for parents to read it, but it may be better for their teen-aged children to read it. It may lead them to understand that they’re not invincible superbeings; that injuries may ultimately lead to long-term debilitating problems.
If there’s a single bit of solid advice to be gathered as we learn more about the long term effects of brain injuries, it’s to take time out and let the body heal. Perhaps Utecht’s book can help get that message through.