In the middle of working with his co-author to edit his new book, “Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away’’ — about trying to save his memory after multiple concussions — retired NFL tight end Ben Utecht saw a story he didn’t remember.
Much like in the stories he told in the book, Utecht said, it caught him by surprise when he realized it, and that worried him badly. “'Where in the world is this coming from?'” Utecht, in an interview with Sporting News, recalled asking co-author Mark Tabb. “'I didn’t tell you this story.'"
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“Well, I got it in my interview with your mother," he was told. “Don’t you remember it?” He didn’t — not hearing it from his mother, not talking to Tabb about it, not discussing putting it in the book.
Fighting for his memory, and coming to grips with the true price of his years of football, is Utecht’s life work now. At 35, and out of football since the 2008 season because of his fifth lifetime documented concussion, he is a leading advocate for brain health, football- and non-football-related. He serves as the national spokesman for the American Academy of Neurology and the American Brain Foundation, and is a popular public speaker.
His decision to write letters to his wife and three daughters to record his memories of them led to the idea for the book. The title comes from one of those letters, which he later turned into a song, “You Will Always Be My Girls," written as he began a post-football music career. The book’s subtitle is “A Love Letter to My Family."
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It reads just like one, full of stories about growing up, becoming a football player, meeting his wife and raising his kids. At the same time, though, it’s a bracing, stinging reminder that football can destroy the body, the mind and — as he reminds his audience over and over — the memory.
As a bonus, it’s a reminder that he’s the rare player who got the NFL to pay for mishandling concussions. He won an NFL Players Association grievance in 2013 to win back pay after the Bengals cut him after his final concussion.
Readers of the book should be prepared, fairly frequently, to g
At the same time, though, be prepared for him to be upbeat and enthusiastic about where his life is now and where it’s headed, even after some of the nightmares he describes.
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“Most of my days are really, really good,’’ Utecht said. He has a full slate of promotional appearances, interviews and book signings behind him and plenty more ahead. As proof, he said, he recently completed a brain-training course at the LearningRx Brain Training Center in Savage, Minn., which, he said, has more than quadrupled his ability to retain information.
“It’s an incredibly positive ending to the book," he said. “These are hardcore results from a credible, medical, neuropsychological professional."
Wrestling with the aftereffects of all the concussions, the gaps in his memory and the fear of losing parts of his life with his family, he said, has served an even greater purpose. His faith has guided him in that direction, he said, and has taught him perspective in ways he’d never imagined.
“Because I don’t take memory for granted anymore," Utecht said, “every moment in my life has more value now. I’m going to choose happiness, and I’m going to pray that it doesn't get worse."
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“Maybe that’s where some of the calmness comes from," he added.
Including the calmness to tell yet another tale of a memory falling through the cracks since he finished work on the book. He was visiting a longtime friend, he said, and complimented him on a vintage hat from the old NHL Minnesota North Stars, the team they were both fans of growing up.
“'Where’d you get that hat?'" Utrecht asked him.
The answer probably isn’t hard to guess by now.
“'You brought it to me. You came out here and gave it to me a year ago,'" his friend told him.
“It seems to me that’s something I wouldn’t forget," Utecht added with a chuckle.
Now he has a book that, among the lessons to readers, will help him remember a lot more.