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Nature of sports has to change to lessen frequency of concussions [UPDATED]

Published 11:19am Tuesday, April 30, 2013 Updated 2:47pm Tuesday, April 30, 2013

On the topic of concussions in today’s sports world, there’s one question former NFL player Ben Utecht wants to ask: “How do we change the nature?”

The question was his main message to ponder for those who attended the Concussion Education Seminar Monday evening at M State-Fergus Falls. Utecht dealt with five documented concussions over his playing career.

“How do we change the nature that oversees our athletics?” Utecht said. “How do we change the nature of people? How do we change the hearts of coaches?”

The Minnesota native, who said concussions have changed his life, was a three-sport athlete in high school and four-year starter with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football team before playing tight end in the NFL.

He won Super Bowl XLI with the Indianapolis Colts and signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008.

But he suffered his fifth career concussion in 2009 during a routine blocking drill in training camp. The hit knocked him out for 90 seconds and he spent more than eight months recovering.

“You’re just going through your base runs,” Utecht said. “It was just a routine hit. I have no idea why that hit created the havoc that it did.”

The Bengals released Utecht before he was cleared to play again, he said, which is why he filed a grievance against the team. It’s gone on for 2-1/2 years, the longest grievance in NFL history, he said.

“It all has to deal with how teams handle concussions,” Utecht said. “The nature of the NFL doesn’t really care.”

He talked about NFL doctors being under tremendous pressure from teams.

“Where does that nature come from that puts the sport before the player?” Utecht said. “I don’t know. That’s what I want to fix.”

The identity of athletes is more than just what they’re doing out on the field, according to Utecht.

That’s what the nature needs to be, he said, instead of the pressure society puts on young kids.

Utecht’s first documented concussion came during his freshman year at the U of M.

He doesn’t remember it, and he was back out on the field for practice the very next day.

“But at the time, it was football,” Utecht said.

The hits don’t have to be much for them to leave a mark. Utecht suffered another concussion in the first quarter of a game against the Denver Broncos. All it took to knock him out for 20 seconds was the toe of an opponent’s cleat to clip the back of Utecht’s helmet.

“That was it,” Utecht said.

Though he eventually got up and went to the sidelines, he said he doesn’t remember anything until the team went to the locker room for halftime.

Then the cognitive changes started for Utecht.

Overall, Utecht had an injury-riddled football career, concussions aside. He suffered muscle tears and broken bones, among other things. While he said he knows he’s going to experience physical pain as he gets older, his greater concern surrounds the concussions.

Memory loss is the biggest problem Utecht faces during his everyday life. He even had an example of that Monday night.

“This shirt is a product of Fergus Falls Target,” Utecht said.

He had forgotten his already-packed shirt and tie at home in what he called a concussion moment.

Utecht’s point of the evening wasn’t to bash sports. He loves sports and if he had sons he would put them in football, he said, but he would do it with education and sensitivity. He also has no regrets about his own playing career.

“I just wish I would’ve been given more information when I was playing in the NFL,” Utecht said.

He doesn’t know if there’s a definite answer to his question about changing the nature and who might be able to do that. It might have to come from people who are willing to speak up about it. Or maybe all the information that’s out there will help to educate parents and coaches.

“It’s going to have to be organic,” Utecht said. “How do we change that nature? Because it’s just a game.”

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