Ben Utecht steps from NFL limelight to center stage

Ben Utecht was a four-year starting tight end for the Gophers.

Former Gopher tight end Ben Utecht leads the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in God Bless America June 18, 2009 at the Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Courtesy Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Former Gopher tight end Ben Utecht leads the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in “God Bless America” June 18, 2009 at the Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

by Samuel Gordon

Not many people can say they have a Super Bowl ring and a record deal.

Ben Utecht can.

After playing football at the University of Minnesota for four years, Utecht went on to play in the NFL for four seasons before shifting his focus to a musical career.

He released a Christmas album Oct. 11 and is set to begin touring the country Nov. 3 with professional singer Jim Brickman.

Utecht, a three-sport athlete at Hastings High school, developed a passion for musical performance and football at a young age.

âÄúMy passion for music was kind of fostered at the same time as my passion for football,âÄù he said. âÄúMy dad is a minister, so I kind of grew up with the opportunity to get in front of people, so thatâÄôs kind of where I sang.âÄù

He started performing as early as fourth grade and balanced music and athletics throughout high school.

After his junior year, Utecht, a wide receiver, attended a football camp at the University and performed well enough to garner a scholarship offer from then-head coach Glen Mason, which he accepted on the spot.

âÄúHe was a tall, rangy exceptionally good athlete with really good hands,âÄù Mason said.

âÄúYou could just tell by looking at him either he would be a very tall lanky wide receiver, or if he filled out at all, he would be an ideal tight end.âÄù

He did indeed bulk up, and was a four-year starting tight end during his tenure with the Gophers.

âÄúIt never mattered to me about rankings or standings or going to a better or more successful football program at that point,âÄù Utecht said. âÄúI always wanted to be a Gopher.âÄù

When he wasnâÄôt busy with football and school, Utecht spent time showcasing his musical talents and performed at different open microphone events.

Entering his senior season, scouts saw enough potential that analysts projected Utecht as a first- or second-round selection in the 2004 NFL Draft. But Utecht suffered an abdominal tear near the end of the year, causing his draft stock to plummet.

âÄúI was basically told by all the teams that everybody was unsure of my situation and no one was going to draft me,âÄù he said.

However, Tony Dungy, who at the time was the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, promised the young tight end a contract offer if he went undrafted.

Dungy held true to his word.

Soon after the draft, any undrafted players can file for free agency when the free agent period begins.

âÄúHere I am sitting in my agentâÄôs office,âÄù Utecht said, âÄúthe market bell just goes off, and 20 seconds after the free-agent market opens, the phone rings.âÄù

Sure enough, it was Dungy with a contract offer.

Utecht had to sit out the 2004 season, as he was still recovering from the injury he sustained during his senior season at Minnesota.

But his vocal talents didnâÄôt go unnoticed.

Colts teammate and fellow tight end Dallas Clark said he discovered UtechtâÄôs prowess as a vocalist in the 2004 preseason.

âÄúHe was injured for the game, and what most guys do is get treatment and try to get ready for the next week,âÄù Clark said. âÄúBut Ben actually went to the front office and said, âÄòHey can I sing the national anthem for the game?âÄô and they let him.

âÄúIâÄôve been here nine years. ItâÄôs the first and only time a current player has sung the national anthem at a football game.âÄù

He recovered in time for the 2005 season, and soon found himself catching touchdown passes from possible future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.

âÄúIt was incredibly special. The guy will go down as one of the greatest, and he proved that every time he threw the ball,âÄù Utecht said of playing with Manning. âÄúIt was just an honor to have an opportunity to play with a guy like that.âÄù

In 2006, Utecht established himself as a starter. The Colts went 12-4 and their season culminated with a Super Bowl title, which he said was one of the highlights of his football career.

âÄúThe environment that [Dungy] created was just so close-knit that it really felt like a family,âÄù Utecht said of the 2006 team. âÄúIt really felt like a family so much more than just a team. I think that was one of the reasons that we were a successful group of men.âÄù

Utecht spent the 2007 season with the Colts before signing a free-agent contract with the Cincinnati Bengals for the 2008 campaign.

He spent one season with the Bengals before a series of concussions forced him into retirement.

Throughout his football career, singing took a backseat to football, especially during the regular season, Utecht said. But he found time in the offseason to polish his other craft.

âÄúIn the offseason I would spend quite a bit of time [doing] everything from playing guitar and songwriting to getting vocal coaching,âÄù he said. âÄúThat was something I took very seriously.âÄù

Upon retiring, he decided to pursue professional singing. The transition was not an easy one.

âÄúThe last concussion in Cincinnati was a pretty serious one and it was about eight months before I really started to feel normal again,âÄù Utecht said. âÄúI think the fortunate thing for me is I knew what I wanted to do. A lot of guys donâÄôt necessarily have that, but I did.

âÄúOnce I was able to get healthy I tried to formulate my new goals and move toward that process.âÄù

Utecht got his foot in the door when the director of the New York Pops, the largest independent symphonic pops orchestra in the country, introduced him to Brickman.

âÄúSomeone suggested I go hear this âÄòfootball player that singsâÄô at Birdland Jazz Club in NYC. I thought to myself, what is this, Glee?âÄù Brickman said in an email.

âÄúWell, I was blown away when I heard Ben and knew immediately I wanted him singing my songs.âÄù

In a short matter of time, Utecht had the opportunity to sing as the two began working together. The two co-produced UtechtâÄôs Christmas album released earlier this month.

While he has enjoyed a share of success in the music business, Utecht said that it has been challenging for him to adapt to a more simplistic lifestyle.

âÄúMy whole life up until a couple years ago has been fighting every Sunday and working out three hours a day,âÄù he said. âÄúHere, IâÄôm having to do something new. ThatâÄôs definitely a hard part.âÄù

Utecht said he stays in touch with his former college and professional coaches and teammates to this day.

Although his football career didnâÄôt end on the most desirable terms, Utecht said that heâÄôs thankful for the chance to disprove athletic stereotypes through his musical career.

âÄúAt the end of the day, no one would think that some football player could come out on stage and sing,âÄù he said.

âÄúIt gives me an opportunity to bridge those gaps that have always seemed to be there between athletics and the arts.âÄù