OWATONNA — Karyn Utecht, a 1999 graduate of Owatonna High School and the wife of Ben Utecht, who had his career in the National Football League cut short by repeated concussions, will speak on sports-related brain injury awareness Monday night at OHS.
“I love to do questions-and-answers, so there will definitely be time for that,” Karyn said. “This won’t just be me speaking at the crowd; there will be a dialogue.”
Karyn will discuss her husband’s recently released book, “Counting the Days while My Mind Slips Away,” on Monday, said Community Ed’s Deb Karaus. Ben Utecht — who played for the University of Minnesota before going onto an NFL career with the Indianapolis Colts, where he won a Super Bowl ring, and the Cincinnati Bengals — had his career curtailed by five documented concussions.
His multiple brain injuries caused memory loss, hence the title of his book, Karaus said. He has since emerged as an advocate for brain trauma research and treatment, testifying before Congress about concussion issues in 2014, as well as embarking upon a successful music career.
When they were deciding whether Ben should make a comeback or retire after his fifth concussion, “we didn’t know what we do now” regarding the seriousness of concussions, Karyn said. Now, she understands “we should’ve been talking about [stopping] before [that final concussion].”
“I’ve learned so much through this,” she added. “I could’ve been a better support system then if I was more informed, and I want to do that for others now.”
Though Utecht wasn’t knocked out by his previous concussions, his fifth, which was captured on the HBO series “Hard Knocks” during a practice prior to the 2009 season, did leave him unconscious — the most severe type of concussion — and his “recovery time was markedly longer,” she said. In the days, weeks and months that followed, he experienced emotional changes, as well as memory loss.
Ben’s memory had always been one of his strongest attributes, she said. For example, if they had marital disagreements, he would play the trump card of his memory, and she knew the argument was over because his recall was so much better than hers.
He now has situational memory gaps he cannot get back, she said. In fact, he once visited a close friend, but couldn’t remember attending the friend’s wedding, having to be shown photographs of him as a groomsman and singing at the ceremony.
Fortunately, he’s seen some improvement working with Learning RX, a company that has franchises in states including Minnesota but is based out of Colorado, she said. The brain exercises he’s acquired through Learning RX “are strengthening new memory pathways in his brain.”
Both Ben and Karyn are familiar with tales of ex-players slipping into dementia and madness, even being driven to suicide. Junior Seau, who was named to the NFL’s 1990s all-decade team, shot himself in the chest and was discovered to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of chronic brain damage. Andre Waters, who played roughly a decade in the NFL, suffered from severe depression after his playing career ended, and, like Seau, shot himself in the chest before Doctor Bennet Omalu determined Waters also had CTE. Omalu also found CTE in Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose death was preceded by exceptionally odd behavior — like living out of his truck — and depression. Like Waters and Seau, Dave Duerson, who won a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears, was also discovered to have CTE after shooting himself in the chest at age 50 in 2011. And these are just four of many, many more players found in recent years to have CTE, which can only be diagnosed after death.
Omalu’s battles with the NFL over CTE were brought to the big screen in the 2015 film “Concussion,” where Will Smith played the doctor. For years, the NFL has been engaged in a protracted legal battle with players over whether the league did enough to warn players of the dangers associated with playing football and of the concussions endemic to the game.
Ben and Karyn feel “it doesn’t do much good” to worry about what might happen to him decades from now, she said. “We’re hopeful and prayerful, and our faith is very important to us.”
Despite what they know now, retiring was a difficult decision, she said. He felt like he hadn’t lived up to his potential, that he could still play the game and that he was letting down his family, his team and his fans.
Though the NFL denied a link between football and brain damage in players for years, the league has changed positions in recent years in the face of an avalanche of evidence. The league has shifted toward attempting to make the game safer, from emphasizing better tackling techniques to trying to limit kick returns in games.
Tackle football participation among those ages 6 to 14 has dropped from 3 million in 2010 to just over 2 million in 2015, according to USA Football, youth football’s national governing body. This may be led in part by numerous experts promulgating the hazards of contact sports for youth, like Dr. Robert Cantu, one of America’s foremost experts on head trauma, who said in 2014 nobody under age 14 should be involved in contact sports like football.
In a poll conducted this summer by the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion, 87 percent of American adults surveyed said they believe that brain trauma resulting in CTE is serious health concern, and four out of five did not think tackle football is appropriate for children under the age of 14. While 94 percent of women surveyed oppose it before age 10, and 84 percent generally oppose it before 14, there wasn’t a gender bias, as 72 percent of men also felt tackling should not be allowed in football for children under 14.
As to whether football is too dangerous — or shouldn’t be played by youth — Karyn agrees with Ben’s line that, “I am pro-brain and pro-game,” she said. Both believe team sports, including football, offer benefits like wonderful life-lessons and relationships, but they also advise parents to form close relationships with neurologists and other medical professionals to establish baselines for their children.
Results from baseline testing can be used if an athlete has a suspected concussion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Comparing post-injury test results to baseline test results can assist healthcare professionals in identifying the effects of the injury and making more informed decisions on whether an athlete is ready to return to school and on-field action.
Ben and Karyn have four daughters, but if they had a son, they wouldn’t dissuade him from football, she said. However, they would discourage contact until he turned at least 12.
Neurologists note the ages of 2 to 12 are the most important for brain development, she said. Consequently, sports that avoid head contact — or even flag football — are judicious at those ages.
Pop Warner, the largest youth football program in the U.S., has put limits on contact in response to the research linking tackle football to life-altering brain injuries, according to USA Today. USA Football mandated a 30-minute limit on full-contact practices in 2015.
“Ben and I feel football is a beloved sport in America, so we don’t see it dying out,” Karyn said. “As long as efforts toward safety keep being made, we can continue to enjoy the sport of football.”
Karyn was a gifted athlete and musician at OHS before graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in marketing from the Carlson School of Management, Karaus said. She also earned the crown of Miss Minnesota.
The small group forum begins at 6:30 p.m., and pre-registration is required by calling Owatonna Community Ed at 507-444-7900, or online at www.owatonnacommunityed.org, Karaus said. The cost to attend is $10 per person, $15 per couple or $20 per family, and copies of Ben’s book will be available for purchase.