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NFL can be 'pro-brain and pro-game' as concussion fears soar: Former player

Ben Utecht
Cindy Ord | SiriusXM | Getty Images

Football is back, and so are concerns about player concussions. With that said, it's rare to hear from a player living with the impact on their mental health after leaving the game.

Former NFL tight end Ben Utecht won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts in 2007. While he has the ring, he has almost no memory of the night he got it. In an interview with CNBC's "On the Money," Utecht said that's just one of many memories that have been erased.

"It reminds you of how challenging the game can be and how hard it can be on your body," Utecht told CNBC.

He described how in a Colts-Broncos game in September 2007, he had amnesia after his fourth major concussion, and what it was like when he saw video footage of the game and his injury.

"To watch myself get up off the field, high-five teammates , sprint off to the sidelines, talk with coaches, talk with doctors and to not remember any of it," was a strange feeling, Utecht told CNBC, adding that the day had been "completely erased" from his memory.

Utecht moved on to the Cincinnati Bengals, and it was during a practice in August 2009 that he suffered another injury, his fifth major concussion. "It was after that concussion that I started to noticed some differences in cognitive abilities, some gaps in my long term memory," Utecht said.

It took months "to kind of find a place of normalcy again. It was just a challenging time, and having to walk away from the game I love because of that injury was difficult."

There’s a way we can put brain health first, put player safety first and celebrate the game that we love to watch on Sundays.
Ben Utecht
former pro-football player, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals
Concussion impact

Still, he was released by the Bengals midway through the 2009 season. His five season NFL career was over, but evidence of the damage he suffered occurred in his post-NFL life began surfacing.

Utecht offered an example of some of the memory complications he experienced. "I was sitting across from family and friends and stories would come out where everybody there, everybody in the room, everybody at the table would remember, except for me," he said.

"As a dad with four beautiful little girls and so much life ahead of me, I mean that was the scary stuff," he added. Fearing future memory loss, he has written a book dedicated to his wife and four daughters, "Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away."

Utecht added that "the book is really designed to tell a story that will emotionally connect you to how important your memories are. To who you are. That's what makes us relevant," he told CNBC. "What's relevant if you can't remember it? That's kind of the lesson I've learned through this process."

As for the NFL's progress to confront the concussion issue, Utecht said that "clearly in the last 5-6 years they've made some big strides."

David Bruton of the Denver Broncos lies on the ground with a reported concussion, December 28, 2014.
Getty Images

In May, the NFL acknowledged a link between the game and traumatic brain injury. And last year, the league settled a lawsuit from former players for $1 billion dollars. He said the league appeared to be taking "the right steps" and that people should be supportive.

"My message has always been 'pro brain- pro game,'" Utecht said. "There's a way we can put brain health first, put player safety first and celebrate the game that we love to watch on Sundays. That's the goal we need to have to find that balance."

Utecht himself has taken proactive steps to improve his own memory, participating in "brain training" programs. Although he's been told he "probably not going to regain memories that you've lost from the past, the ones that have been damaged."

He says the exercises are helping his brain "store memories for the future."

Amid the increasingly pitched debate about whether children should be allowed in contact sports, Utecht was circumspect. "When you have 5 and 6 year olds putting helmets on in America, we really need to ask ourselves" at what age kids should be allowed to play, he said.

"If I had sons who were interested in playing football, they wouldn't play until after 12," he said.

On the Money airs on CNBC Saturday at 5:30 am ET, or check listings for air times in local markets.