Don Heinzman column: Refusing to lose the memories

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Don Heinzman

Don Heinzman

Ben Utecht has written a book about his life as a college and professional football player who suffered five major concussions. He has surprising advice for parents of youth football players.

Utecht, whose concussions slowly are eroding his memory, believes boys should not play tackle football until they are in ninth grade.

His book, “Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away,” details his love of football, despite the injuries it caused, and his deep love of family and his amazing effort to preserve his most precious asset: his brain.

In talks throughout the country, Utecht advises parents: “Speaking as a parent, I would like to consider a later entrance age for children into contact sports like football … and in return follow the National Football League’s example of creating a national first-through-eighth-grade, highly competitive, noncontact football league.”

He goes on to stress that such a noncontact football league could prevent seven years of head trauma during the most important developmental time of a child’s brain, while at the same time allowing the child to participate in a sport that can provide great life lessons.

The book, now in bookstores, with contributions by Mark Tabb, details Utecht’s love of football and his family, wife Karyn and his four daughters, and the impact of Christianity on his life.

Utecht suffered numerous minor concussions and five major ones while playing football for Hastings high school, the University of Minnesota, the Indianapolis Colts and the Cincinnati Bengals.

He wears a Super Bowl ring earned while playing tight end for the Colts and coach Tony Dungy. He paid the price for playing football, suffering an unbelievable number of injuries while sometimes playing through pain.

The concussion that had the most impact on Utecht came in a 2006 game against the Houston Texans. He caught a pass and was hit cleanly as he was falling, only to have another player target his head, spearing him helmet-to-helmet.

“My head violently snapped to the side as my helmet flew off. I thought I had broken my neck. A curtain slowly drew down into my field of vision, in a circle, like the end of an old movie. I blacked out,” he wrote in the book.

That blow, plus all the others, took its toll on his brain and caused the Bengals to release him.

More recently, Utecht and his family are hopeful because he has had incredible success in strengthening his memory through a cognitive fitness program applied by Learning Rx. A recent test showed all those classes and mental workouts are paying off.

“I am overwhelmed with joy to share that I tested in the 78th percentile for long-term memory and remarkably in the 98th percentile for delayed long-term memory,” he wrote.

The book, which is a fast read, tells how Utecht made a nationally received music video and recording of a love song he wrote to his wife and daughters, telling them they will always be his girls.

He has become a national spokesman for brain health and in 2014 he received the Public Leadership in Neurology Award from the American Academy of Neurology.

His message, as he wrote in his book: “Memories are the essence of what makes us human. They hold our identity. What has relevance in our lives if we can’t remember it? Can we all grasp the importance of our mind and memories and no longer take for granted the most important things in our lives? If we can, then I believe we can all better ourselves.”

Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers.


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