By: Christa Meland
Many know Ben Utecht as a former NFL player and Super Bowl champion. Others know him as an advocate for brain health and a prominent voice in the national conversation about sports-related concussions. And some now know him as a singer and songwriter.
Rev. Lori VonHoltum, pastor at Balaton United Methodist Church, also knows him as a person of faith, having heard him talk last summer about his life and faith journey. “I was impressed with how his faith has carried him,” she said.
She was so moved, in fact, that she and several others in the 630-person town of Balaton arranged for Utecht to come there to share his story on Sept. 3—and all are invited to hear his message.
Upon first glance, Utecht may seem to have a life that’s close to perfect. But the Hastings native (who also happens to be the son of Pastor Jeff Utecht, appointed to Evangel United Methodist Church in Mankato) faced and overcame a significant challenge when a series of traumatic brain injuries forced an early retirement from football.
Utecht’s NFL career spanned six seasons, and he was a tight end for the Indianapolis Colts when the team won Super Bowl XLI in 2006. But while playing for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009, he was knocked unconscious for 90 seconds and suffered his fifth documented concussion. He was 29.
Since then, Utecht has experienced memory loss, amnesia, dizziness, and sudden mood changes—and he has become a national spokesperson, advocate, and author for brain health and worked to spread awareness about traumatic brain injury. He’s a spokesperson for the American Brain Foundation and an ambassador for the American Academy of Neurology.
This summer, Utecht participated in a White House Concussion Summit and testified before the Senate Committee on Aging. He talked about the impact of losing his memory and said he fears that someday he won’t recognize his wife and three daughters.
But instead of letting his setback define him, Utecht—now 33—charted a new path as a singer and songwriter. On his new solo album, he co-wrote an original song called “You Will Always Be My Girls,” which expresses his love for his wife and three young daughters from the perspective of an aging football player who doesn’t remember their names and faces. (Click here to watch the music video.)
Utecht has shared his story on “ABC News” and “CBS This Morning,” among other media outlets.
When asked what VonHoltum hopes that members of Balaton UMC and residents of its surrounding community get out of hearing Utecht speak, she said: “Our faith is a daily thing. It’s not just a Sunday morning thing. It’s not just a Wednesday night thing. Our faith ebbs and flows in everything we do, whether that’s on the football field or in school or with your friends.”
By inviting Utecht to come and speak, Balaton UMC is staying relevant at a time when it’s increasingly difficult for churches to do so.
VonHoltum says she wants to impart on Balaton youth the importance of holistic health that encompasses body, mind, and spirit—and Utecht is a prime example of someone who values all three.
Denise Hoek, co-coordinator of Balaton UMC’s JAM (Jesus and Me) educational programming that takes place each Wednesday evening during the school year, agrees. She was instrumental in raising funds from community groups that enabled the church to be able to bring Utecht to speak for JAM’s fall kickoff.
“We all need to work together to raise our kids,” she said. “To stay relevant to people can be hard”—but Utecht will bring a new perspective to important topics to which everyone can relate.
On Sept. 3, before Utecht speaks with members of the Balaton community, he will address the local high school and spend some time with its football team. In addition to speaking at the event that’s open to the public, Utecht will sing some of his songs and plans to bring his own worship band. Balaton UMC is expecting 350 to 400 people to attend.
Utecht exemplifies hard work, integrity, leadership, and perseverance, Hoek said. “He faced a challenge and didn’t give up…I have this feeling that we will all be touched by what he shares with us.”
Time: 5-6:15 p.m, dinner at Balton Community Center (freewill donation); 6:30 p.m., JAM worship with Ben Utecht
Date: Sept. 3
Location: Ralco Technology Campus gymnasium (330 Third St., Balaton)
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church