Sitting with his hat backward and sandals sprawled, Ben Utecht leaned forward, trying to concentrate as his massive hands engulfed his face. Slowly, a story began unfolding in his mind.
Across the small table from the former Minnesota tight end was Brad Olson, his mental trainer, reading off a different word every 3 seconds for 1 minute.
The words kept coming on the fixed rhythm. Nail. Ice. Slimy.
It was one of Utecht’s best attempts at the exercise, and the competitor and former athlete in him was happy to see improvement. But making strides is especially critical to the former professional football player as he attempts to rebuild his cognitive skills at LearningRx Brain Training Center in Savage, Minn., after suffering five documented concussions in his playing career.
“This is an injury unlike any other,” Utecht said. “It changes who you are.”
The holidays have become a hard time for Utecht.
While his family sits around a table reminiscing, he can often only stare blankly ahead. The repeated injuries to his brain have crippled his long-term memory.
“Oftentimes, I just sit there and have no recollection of what people are talking about,” Utecht said. “It’s just completely gone, like a blackboard’s been wiped clear. No matter how hard I try, nothing jumps. Nothing comes out.”
Utecht isn’t sure of the number of concussions he suffered during his playing career, which included four years at the University of Minnesota, four with the Indianapolis Colts and a little more than a year with the Cincinnati Bengals.
There are five documented concussions, four of which knocked him unconscious. After those, he estimates there were at least five more that never went reported before he retired from football in 2009.
“I just began to see how this was an injury that wasn’t just affecting my stride or my walk,” Utecht said. “This was something that was beginning to affect my personality.”
United by chance
After his retirement, Utecht became an outspoken advocate for victims of brain injuries, hoping to inspire more research into the long-term effects of concussions on the brain so future players could be better informed.
“When I was playing, we didn’t have the full assumption of risk when it came to traumatic brain injury,” Utecht said. “We didn’t know. Call us naive athletes; we knew the long-term effects of what would happen if you had a knee injury, but we didn’t know that a concussion led to any kind of long-term damage.”
Fearful that his injuries would cause him to forget his wife and daughters, Utecht wrote a love song last summer titled “You Will Always Be My Girls,” which now has more than one million views on YouTube.
Utecht has tried to treat his brain in a number of different ways, from spending time in oxygen chambers to eating various supplements.
But nothing ever clicked, until LearningRx was featured on an episode of the local television show “Twin Cities Live” he was guest hosting.
“I think without that, none of this would be happening right now,” Olson, the assistant director of the Savage branch, said.
LearningRx, a national company, aims to better people’s cognitive skills by having them do exercises one-on-one with a mental coach.
Savage branch executive director Richard Frieder compared the experience to having a personal trainer, which clicked for Utecht.
“Maybe it was because I was an athlete that it made sense to me,” Utecht said. “It felt, in a lot of ways, similar to going into the weight room.”
Utecht’s initial tests at LearningRx, based on the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities, confirmed his fears about his brain. His long-term memory fell in the 17th percentile.
“It was horrible,” Utecht said. “But at the same time, in a weird way, it gave me peace of mind because this is what I’ve been advocating about for the last three years. ... This kind of [said] ‘OK, I’m not crazy.’ ”
In the 20 weeks since then, Utecht went to LearningRx three to four times a week for an hour-and-a-half-long session with Olson.
His exercises involved words, numbers, letters and even colored arrows, all designed to help him retain and recall information quickly.
In one exercise, “memory hold,” Olson continually threw out numbers and Utecht had to alternate adding, subtracting and multiplying each number with the last number Olson gave him.
After starting slowly, Utecht could do the addition and subtraction with two- and three-digit numbers.
“Where we were at the beginning and where we are now, I think are considerably different,” Olson said.
With Utecht’s background as a professional athlete, Olson said he was able to push him more than the usual pupil.
“Ben doesn’t quit on himself,” Olson said. “He doesn’t quit on me and on this process. ... I just keep asking him to do more and more.”
Through Olson’s prodding, Utecht gradually made progress. On his assessment Tuesday at the end of his session, his long-term memory score was in the 98th percentile, which Frieder said was an above-average increase.
Utecht will be tested again in a year to see if his gains held, but his hard work seemingly paid off.
“I wish every student was like him,” Frieder said.
Even before his test results came in, Utecht said his ability to multitask and focus was getting better.
It needed to, with a wife and four daughters at home, the youngest of whom is just 11 weeks old.
“I don’t stress out as much,” Utecht said. “Before I started, by the end of the day, I had no patience. I would just get such a brain overload I couldn’t handle being around four crazy, screaming girls and a wife who really needs help.”
Besides being better at home, Utecht is making small strides in other aspects of his life. For the first time in a while, he’s handling his own calendar again.
Another small victory came two weeks ago at his parent’s 40th anniversary party.
When his mother and father sat down to go through their years of marriage, Utecht was able to keep coming up with memories and was complimented for remembering so many.
“As small as that may seem to people, I haven’t gotten that compliment since before 2008,” Utecht said.
Now, he’s hoping that compliment comes again.