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Average NFL player tells his concussion story

Ben Utecht, a former tight end in the NFL, autographs his book, ???‚??“Counting Down the Days While My Mind Slips Away,???‚?? for Garrett Rhoden at the Barnes & Noble in Minneapolis, Nov. 18, 2016. In the book, Utecht, who won a Super Bowl title while with the Indianapolis Colts, discusses the dangers of repeated head hits, and his personal experience battling their side effects. (Bridget Bennett/The New York Times) XNYT126

Ben Utecht, a former tight end in the NFL, autographs his book, ???‚??“Counting Down the Days While My Mind Slips Away,???‚?? for Garrett Rhoden at the Barnes & Noble in Minneapolis, Nov. 18, 2016. In the book, Utecht, who won a Super Bowl title while with the Indianapolis Colts, discusses the dangers of repeated head hits, and his personal experience battling their side effects. (Bridget Bennett/The New York Times) XNYT126

MINNEAPOLIS — Getting readers to spend $25 on a book about athletes and concussions can be a hard sell. The topic isn't uplifting, and the biggest audience for sports books — people who are fans — typically prefers to read about famous coaches and players.

Yet Ben Utecht, a tight end who retired from the NFL in 2010 after absorbing too many hits to the head, still managed to draw a small group of people at a Barnes & Noble in Minneapolis recently, most of them eager to shake his hand and buy a copy of his book, Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away, which is published by Howard Books, a division of Simon and Schuster.

With a soft voice and an aw-shucks grin, Utecht, the son of a Methodist minister, was so disarming and eager to please that it was difficult to imagine that he played a violent game like football. He posed for pictures, swapped stories about mutual friends — Utecht is from Minnesota and played his college ball there — and showed off the diamond-encrusted Super Bowl ring that he received while playing with the Indianapolis Colts.

"You can really make people feel better about themselves," Utecht said. "It sounds a little corny, but I really feel that way. You can really speak into their lives."

These days, Utecht's mission is to speak into their lives about the dangers of repeated head hits, and his personal experience battling their side effects. Utecht suffered hits so hard he says they erased many memories and left him foggy, forgetful and irritable for years afterward.

Since leaving the league, Utecht, now 35, has tried to make the most of his situation. He testified in front of Congress about concussions, became a board member at the American Brain Foundation, and then wrote a book. It came out in September and details the harrowing hits he suffered and his daunting recoveries from the damage they did.

Utecht was never a star. He played parts of six seasons in Indianapolis and Cincinnati, spending considerable time on the injured reserve list with various ailments. He caught 87 passes in all and scored just three touchdowns, hardly the stuff that makes for attractive memoirs.

But in recent years, book publishers have tried to respond to the growing interest in head trauma and the dangers of football and other sports.

The first wave of books attempted to define the problem and expose how leagues like the NFL tried to squash concerns. The second wave has been written by people who suffered head trauma and how they coped. They have been followed by books aimed at parents who are trying to decide whether to let their children even play football and other sports.

"There has been so much coming down the pike in the last five years, but there's a lot of conflicting evidence out there and people are trying to cut through the clutter," said Rick Wolff, senior executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which recently published a book, QB: My Life Behind the Spiral, by former NFL quarterback Steve Young, who retired because of concussions. "I don't think the category of concussion books is going to end because there's still a lot of interest in it."

Utecht's book fits mostly into the second category: an autobiography about his journey from a small town to the professional ranks but punctuated by his thoughts about concussions, how they altered a life and how, in his view, the NFL did little to educate players about the dangers of trying to play through them. But the book, at once heartfelt and disturbing, raises an awkward question: Are ex-players trying to cash in on their head injuries?

Deadline, a website, reported that Utecht received a six-figure advance for his book. Utecht did not say how big the advance was. To date, according to Nielson Bookscan, the book has sold 2,693 hardcover copies (Young's book, which came out in October, has sold more than 24,500.)

Some advocates for retired players do see Utecht's book as primarily an effort to make money, particularly because he is still young, relatively healthy and highly functioning. "I think he's milking the system," said Gay Culverhouse, who is a former president of the Buccaneers and who helps retired players with health issues. "It's a book that tries to take advantage of the conversation on concussions, and it's in poor taste."

Utecht does not duck the allegation. He said he wrote a "lifestyle" book about the ups and downs of his life that gives readers an insight into the perils of the game of football and how one player overcame them. The title, with its reference to his mind "slipping away," might sound maudlin, he said, but it was taken from a song that Utecht, a professional musician, wrote to highlight the possibility that he may eventually develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disorder linked to repeated head hits.

"There's a chance I won't have it, won't have CTE," Utecht said. "There's so many possibilities, so we just pray every day that I don't have it, but it doesn't mean the fear isn't real and the cause isn't important."

The debate over Utecht's motives does not diminish his efforts to raise awareness about head trauma. In his pro bono appearances for the American Brain Foundation, he tries to put a face on the devastating effects of repeated head hits, and the need for more scientific research. In his corporate speaking engagements, he talks about the importance of memory. He has told politicians that children should not play tackle football before they are teenagers.

The book, too, vividly illustrates the sometimes harrowing consequences of concussions. Not long after one head hit, Utecht and his wife, Karyn, were chatting with friends who were happily talking about the friends' wedding, memories that Utecht could not recall.

"Why didn't you invite me?" he asked. Stunned, the couple reminded Utecht that he had been a groomsman and had sung at the wedding.

Elsewhere in the book, Utecht talked about being unable to remember events that he and his wife shared with a different couple. "For the first time I started to wonder how many of my memories now had an expiration date," he wrote.

Utecht even had no memory of the ceremony where he and his Colts teammates received their Super Bowl rings. Some episodes in the book were pieced together by co-writer Mark Tabb, who interviewed Utecht's friends and family.

"His willingness to talk about how difficult his experience was is important, and he's putting it in the right perspective, which is that postconcussion syndrome just doesn't affect you, but your family," said Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Institute. "It's ugly stuff."

Utecht's book also looks at a contentious moment he encountered as he dealt with his head traumas. During the 2009 preseason, Utecht suffered his fifth major concussion, one serious enough, he writes, for a Bengals team doctor to advise him to retire. Each time, Utecht said, that he tried to return to the field, he would experience blackouts, headaches and other symptoms associated with post-concussion syndrome.

Though unfit to play, he wrote that that doctor declared him eligible to return, which allowed the Bengals to release him. Utecht went to court and eventually won $1 million in lost salary.

The money has given Utecht the cushion to pursue his advocacy work, but also to try to improve his memory. For the past year or so, he has regularly visited a testing center that focuses on improving cognitive skills. At an hourlong session recently, Utecht sat across from his trainer, Brad Olson, who showed him a series of numbers to add, multiply and subtract, all with a metronome clicking at 120 beats per second. With each new exercise, Utecht started to sweat and turn red from the tension.

The mental workouts have improved Utecht's short-term memory significantly. "There's no more Post-it notes all over the place at home," Utecht said. "It doesn't mean I'll regain what I lost, but if I can store more, I can hang on to memories" in the future.

Average NFL player tells his concussion story 12/20/16 [Last modified: Monday, December 19, 2016 9:31pm]
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