It’s a question that Ben Utecht gets asked a lot, and by now, the former NFL tight end and brain advocate has no problem answering it: If he had a son, would he let him play football?
“I would hold him out through the age of 12,” Utecht said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “And the reason why is after spending the last two or three years with many sports neurologists in America, that’s the truth that I’ve been given from medical doctors. Those are such important years. For me as a parent, that’s the decision I personally would make. I wouldn’t allow my son, if I had one, to play until that eighth or ninth grade year.”
Utecht, 35, played in the NFL for six seasons. He spent four years in Indianapolis, from 2004 to 2007, and won a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning, and he spent two years in Cincinnati (2008-09). He retired before the age of 30 and has recently authored “Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away: A Love Letter to My Family.”
As a player, Utecht never felt that teams or team doctors withheld information from him about concussions or brain health. In hindsight, he does.
“Well, not really because there’s such an interesting relationship between players and coaches and players and training staff,” he said. “It’s almost parental, that family environment of a team, so you trust the people that you work with. It wasn’t until my last concussion in Cincinnati when I had a chance to go outside of that group and consult my second-opinion doctor that I learned the wealth of knowledge that was available about this injury and the long-term affects that can possibly happen. After that, I did go back much more skeptical about what I was being told in the league, but obviously that’s changed a lot in the last six years. Now I think players do have the full assumption of risk and do now understand what’s at stake with their brain.”
Aside from memory loss, many players fear that – as seen with Steve Gleason and others – football may cause ALS. Utecht admits he is afraid of that possibility.
“Well, of course,” he said. “I’ve always said that I would tell a vulnerable, authentic story, and at 29, leaving the game that I love to play and facing long-term memory gaps, yeah, I do have that fear. I think what’s interesting, though, is as an athlete what do you do in that situation and how do you choose to approach that type of situation? The way that I’ve chosen to approach that fear is to allow it to make me a better person. I think if anything, the fear of losing my memories in the future has made me realize how valuable every moment is in my life now, especially with my daughters. That has really motivated me to live every moment to its fullest, and that’s given me more purpose.”