Ben Utecht's passion for everything he does in life is inspiring, and he will be sharing some of his insight and enthusiasm in the Balaton and Tracy area on Wednesday.
An athletically- and musically-gifted Utecht grew up in Hastings and went on to play football at the University of Minnesota and in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals. As a 6-foot-6, 250-pound starting tight end alongside quarterback Peyton Manning, Utecht was with the Colts when they won Super Bowl XLI during the 2006 season, achieving one of his childhood dreams.
Three years later, Utecht was with the Bengals when he suffered his fifth documented concussion, a serious one that took more than eight months to recover from and left him with serious memory problems and behavioral changes. It was then that he truly began to contemplate his future.
Utecht decided to retire from football and now refers to his brain trauma experience as a "hidden blessing" because he was able to funnel his passion for football into another avenue dear to his heart - music.
Since retiring from football five years ago, Utecht, 33, has dedicated his life to being a singer, songwriter, motivational speaker, writer and an advocate for brain health. That's in addition to being a family man for wife Karyn and their three young daughters.
Utecht will give a concert and speak at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Ralco Nutrition gymnasium (330 Third Street) in Balaton, for the fifth annual kick-off for J.A.M. (Jesus and Me), a youth organization collaboration between United Methodist Church, Trinity Lutheran Church and Sillerud Lutheran Church.
"I'm looking forward to the event," Utecht said. "I'll give a big concert at the gymnasium with my band (SMA Worship Team), and I'll speak about halfway through it. I'll share my testimony about what it means to surrender everything you have to your faith."
Earlier in the day, Utecht will speak at an assembly for students in grades 7-12 at Tracy Area Public School.
"With the kids in school, I'll talk about what it means to be a champion," he said. "There are so many ways, with integrity, character and how you treat people. It'll be a lot about my story, what I learned in college football and in the NFL."
From 3-4:30 p.m., Utecht will meet with the TMB Panther squad at football practice.
"I'll change it up a little when I meet the football players," Utecht said. "Hopefully I can answer some questions for them. I like to do a question and answer session when I talk with kids."
Before the concert, from 5-6:15 p.m., there will be a freewill donation supper at the Balaton Community Center. Subway sandwiches, chips, cookies, water and pop will be served.
"We thought it was a perfect fit to have Ben come talk with our area youth because of everything he's gone through," J.A.M. co-coordinator Denise Hoek said. "He can talk about his career, playing for Tony Dungy, and the concussion that ended his football career. Schools have really had more concussion awareness now, so it all fit."
Hoek was instrumental in raising funds for the event and thanks sponsors Balaton American Legion, Balaton Dental Clinic, Richard Brown DDS, Cans for Kids, Chester Johnson Charitable Trust, Tracy Eagles and Ladies Eagles Auxiliary, Tracy American Legion, Tracy Lions Club, Subway of Tracy, Tracy Area Public Schools and Tracy Panther Booster Club. She was also appreciative of Ralco for donating the use of the facility and of Victory Christian Church for helping out with the sound system and equipment.
"We've invited area churches, and we're hoping the youth will wear matching T-shirts so we can place them together in the bleachers," Hoek said. "We just ask that they let us know how many are coming so we can be prepared. It'll be fun to meet Ben. I think it'll be a very positive event."
The concert and keynote address is open to the public.
"It's going to be very cool," Hoek said.
The special event was made possible in part because of a chance meeting between Utecht and the Rev. Lori VonHoltum, pastor at Balaton United Methodist Church.
"Pastor Lori went to a clergy gathering, and Ben was there," Hoek said. "It was in Springfield. She told me about it, and I said, 'wouldn't it be cool if we could get him to come down here this fall and connect it with the school?'"
Utecht's credits his mother and father, a Methodist minister, for the success in his life.
"I'm a family guy," Utecht said. "Growing up, my dad brought his ministry home. So I have my parents to thank."
Since picking up the microphone, something he often did in high school, Utecht has recorded several albums, including "Christmas Hope," which was nominated for Holiday Album of the Year by the Dove Awards. Recently, a new music video from the first single off the soon-to-be released "Man Up" album ("You Will Always Be My Girls") came out. The song is one Utecht co-wrote and deals with the fear of losing the memory of his family.
Utecht is featured on the Neurology Now magazine, is a national spokesperson for the American Brain Foundation and has received a number of awards for his dedication to traumatic brain injury awareness. He was presented the 2014 Ambassador Award from the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance as well as the 2014 Public Leadership in Neurology Award by the American Academy of Neurology, which is its most prestigious award.
In addition, Utecht has been cast in four independent films. He's also nearing completion on his new book in which he challenges readers to redefine their life's GPS (global positioning system).
This summer, Utecht participated in a White House Concussion Summit and testified before the Senate Committee.
"I do a lot of speaking, singing and advocacy," Utecht said. "I stay pretty busy."