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Ben Utecht sings "Amazing Grace" to Tracy Area High School students.

Amazing grace
Former NFL standout shares life lessons, voice virtuosity

By Seth Schmidt

 

Former NFL football star Ben Utecht left Tracy Area High School students with at least two vivid messages last week.

Making good choices and being a person of integrity, Utecht told students, will help each of them experience happier, and richer lives.

The imposing 6-6 Utecht, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Indianapolis Colts, also shattered a tough-guy football player stereotype.

“Sing something,” several students asked, after Utecht had completed a 20-minute presentation.

After a moment’s hesitation, the former Golden Gopher tight end demonstrated the voice that had sung for two presidents and accompanied the Minnesota Orchestra.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…” Utecht sang a cappella, with perfect pitch. Students responded with a loud ovation.

 

Career sidelined

Utecht shared his story of growing up in Hastings, “where hard work was a part of life,” and where he was involved in more music groups than sports.  He went on to play football for the University of Minnesota, and then in the NFL with the Colts and the Cincinnati Bengals.

“Football is a game I loved to play,” Utecht said. “Football was like family for me…It was a massive part of my growing up from a young boy to being a man.”   His years playing for the Gophers, he said, were “an incredible experience,” made all the sweeter by meeting his future wife, Karyn, who was the captain of the Gopher women’s golf team. The Minnesota native enjoyed an outstanding collegiate career, catching 82 passes for 1,201 yards and 25 touchdowns and earning All-Big 10 honors.

In 2003, he signed his first NFL contract with Indianapolis and helped Peyton Manning and the Colts beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.  In 2008 Utecht signed a “tood good to refuse” contract with the Cincinnati Bengals.

But there was a dark side to Utecht’s football career.

Periodic concussions (severe brain trauma) dogged his career.  His fifth documented concussion occurred in the Bengals’ training camp in August of 2008.

“It knocked me out for 90 seconds.  When I came to I was strapped onto an ambulance board,” Utecht told TAHS students.  After eight months of rehabilitation, Utecht was cleared to play.  But the athlete decided that the risks of continuing to play football were too great.

“It was a really tough way to end my career.  But it made me aware of how serious a traumatic brain injury is and made me think about how critical my mind is to who I am.”

The retired athlete, who played at 260-pounds, is worried about periodic memory lapses that he believes are related to his football concussions.   Once, while talking about a friend’s wedding, Utecht wondered why he hadn’t been invited.  Utecht was shocked when a wedding album was pulled out, and there was Utecht, who’d been a groomsman and sang at the wedding, in the photos.

“I have no memory of that wedding,” he told students.

His greatest fear, Utecht confided, is that someday he will be “trapped in a coffin of my mind” and won’t be able to recognize his wife or daughters.

“Uncertainty is a word I seem to be facing in my life.  Where am I going to be when I am 50?  Where am I going to be when I am 60?”

Utecht is now a national spokesman for the American Brain Foundation.

Worries about future memory loss, Utecht told students, have given him an enhanced appreciation for the present, and increased his love for his wife and children.

The former football star feels that he has a choice in dealing with his history of brain trauma.

“Do I carry myself as a man of integrity?  Or do I allow this to take me down the path of darkness. “

 


See this week's Headlight-Herald for more on this article.


Enrollments show small increase

By Kyleen Olson

 

District 2904 has  experienced a small enrollment increase for the 2014-2015 school year.  For grades kindergarten through grade 12 there was an increase of seven students.

St. Mary’s School had an increase of three students for grades K-6 from a year ago. Their preschool, however, dropped from 13 in 2013 to five this school year.

The Head Start pre-school program, located in the Kid’s World building, is at their maximum enrollment of 18.  Sara Davis, the assistant teacher, explained that this is common for the program. “We are usually full with a waiting list.”

Wee World Preschool, located at the Tracy United Methodist Church, has 12 children in their three to four-year-old class, and eight in a four to five-year-old class.  Chelsie Dallenbach is the new teacher at Wee World

The Balaton pre-school program, which meets four mornings a week, has an enrollment of 19 students.  Diane Peterson is the teacher. The Little Panthers pre-school program, located in the Kid’s World, has 10 students in a Monday-Wednesday class and 14 in a Tuesday-Thursday class. Kari Landuyt is the teacher.