Former NFL player does his Andy Williams tribute in Burnsville on July 28

He has several plates spinning in the air already, but Ben Utecht was willing to take on one more project – bringing Andy Williams back into the pop culture consciousness.

Considering that the peak of Williams’ music career came before Utecht was born, he seems an unlikely candidate to do tribute concerts. But Utecht has been digging into Williams’ persona and musical style for a few years now, and the result – “Moon River: The Best of Andy Williams” – comes to the Ames Center in Burnsville at 3 p.m. Sunday, July 28. More information is available at www.ames-center.com.

At points during the show, the audience might hear references to Utecht’s previous career as a tight end in the National Football League. That’s part of who he is, but it’s not everything. He’s also a husband and father, author, entrepreneur, motivational speaker, brain injury survivor and advocate in the effort to make football safer.

The football career had its highs; Utecht, a Hastings native, was part of a University of Minnesota team that had a 10-victory season and played for the 2006 Indianapolis Colts team that won the Super Bowl. The lows? Multiple concussions that cut short his NFL career in 2010 and had some ugly aftereffects, such as significant memory loss.

Now 38 and living in Lakeville with his wife Karyn and their four daughters, Utecht has spent a lot of time in treatment trying to reverse the damage done by the concussions. He said there has been significant progress, and it’s allowed him to dive into the next phase of his life, part of which is making sure people remember who Andy Williams was.

Moon River

“I got a call a couple of years ago from (veteran Twin Cities musician) Mick Sterling,” Utecht said. “He had an idea for a show called ‘An Andy and Bing Christmas.’ He would play Bing Crosby and my role would be to play Andy Williams.”

The show has been a Twin Cities holiday music staple since 2015. But for Utecht, the fascination with Williams’ music didn’t stop there.

Some might remember Williams for the network television variety show he hosted in the 1960s and early ’70s, or for the professional golf tournament in San Diego that bore his name. But he also was one of the most popular recording artists of the 1960s, as well as a top record producer. Williams died in 2012 at age 84 and after a 74-year career in entertainment.

“Moon River,” was sung by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Numerous artists covered the song, including Williams, who recorded it in 1962. It became closely associated with Williams when he sang a portion of the song at the start of his TV variety show.

“If you think about music from that era, you tend to think about (Frank) Sinatra and the Rat Pack, but not so much about Andy Williams,” Utecht said. “He sold 110 million albums in his career. As we continued doing the Christmas show, my curiosity grew about who this American balladeer was.”

That led to the show Utecht will headline at the Ames Center. “We’ll do 25 of his all-time greatest hits, and we’ll mix in some Johnny Cash and Ella Fitzgerald, too,” he said. “We’ll have a 12-14 piece orchestra, and I’ll do some duets with (backup vocalist) Aimee Lee.

“We’ve piloted the show at the Chanhassen Dinner Theater, but this is kind of the premiere in a larger theater setting.”

At Hastings High School, Utecht was “a two-sport athlete, and I was in five choirs and a band.

“And I grew up as a pastor’s kid. My dad just retired after 45 years as a Methodist minister. I saw him get up in front of people and speak every weekend. It just seemed natural for me to sing in front of people.”

After retiring from the NFL, Utecht moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to try to advance his music career. He returned to Minnesota in 2011. He has recorded albums, including a holiday collection called “Christmas Hope,” which was nominated for a Dove Award in 2012. He’s also part of a theatrical pop trio called reBORN, which recently performed in Burnsville.

The holiday shows with Sterling will continue. “December fills up pretty quickly with the Christmas shows, and I’ll try to do four to six of the solo Andy shows a year,” Utecht said.

Dungy influence

Utecht signed with the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent in 2004 after being undrafted coming out of the University of Minnesota. He did not appear in a game in 2004. The next year he played in 12 games and had three receptions, two of which were for touchdowns.

In 2006 he had 37 catches for 377 yards in the regular season for a Colts team that defeated Chicago 29-17 in Super Bowl XLI. Utecht had one reception for eight yards in that game.

He played on a team with a number of stars, including quarterback Peyton Manning, receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, and defensive lineman Dwight Freeney. But the biggest impression was made by the head coach, Tony Dungy,

“The year we won the Super Bowl, we were the smallest team in the NFL,” Utecht said. “We had a good record (14-2) the year before and had a lot of the same players back, so we knew we had a good chance of making a run in the playoffs.

“What Tony Dungy talked about from Day 1 was family. He talked about building relationships. I’ve heard (University of Minnesota coach) P.J. Fleck refer to it. It’s a powerful organization-building tool. It was the strongest group I’ve ever been part of, and I think it had a lot to do with why we were able to beat teams that were physically bigger than us.”

Utecht’s relationship with Dungy continues to this day. Dungy, who retired from coaching after the 2008 season and now is a football analyst for NBC. Dungy also is associated withe Uncommon Award, awarded at Arise with the Guys, an annual gathering of college and professional Christian athletes. Utecht received the 2019 award in April in Eden Prairie.

He seeks to transfer some of the elements of those Colts teams to businesses through Keystone Culture Group, a consulting organization he co-founded with Daniel Zismer, a former University of Minnesota professor who was chair of the healthcare administration program. Initially, the organization focused on health care clients because that was Zismer’s expertise, plus Utecht had spent a lot of time with health care providers while seeking treatment for concussion symptoms.

Dungy was not a top-down leader, Utecht said; instead, the coach wanted players to feel free to seek information and ask questions, while retaining accountability. Utecht said he and Zismer have tried to emphasize that with clients.

“We knew very clearly there was a connection between successful organizations in business and football,” Utecht said. “It goes back to some of the things I learned from coach Dungy, and they’re things I still talk about today.”

Recovery

Utecht signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008 following four seasons with the Colts. He played 10 games in the 2008 season, making 16 catches.

But he had at least five documented concussions during his time with the Colts and Bengals. The last one, chronicled by the HBO series “Hard Knocks” during 2009 training camp, effectively ended his career. The Bengals eventually released him. A 2016 New York Times story reported Utecht went to court to recover lost salary from the Bengals.

The concussion symptoms persisted. He needed to leave Post-It notes everywhere to remind him of tasks he needed to perform that day, lest he forget them. Some events he doesn’t remember, such as the ceremony where he received his Super Bowl ring. His family noticed his demeanor had changed for the worse.

Utecht appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 2014 to talk about brain injuries. He’s on the board of the American Brain Foundation and makes speaking appearances for the organization. He authored a book, “Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away,” in which he described the concussions he sustained and their aftermath.

He also sought treatment, getting help from the Mayo Clinic and with LearningRX, a national company that specializes in training to improve cognitive skills. He committed to 100 hours of treatment at LearningRX, being graded on what he could remember after five minutes and one hour of therapy.

The early results weren’t hopeful. At the start of his training, Utecht said he graded out in the 12th percentile after five minutes and the 17th percentile after 60 minutes. By the end of the 100 hours, he was in the 78th percentile after five minutes and the 98th percentile after 60. He’s not likely to recover any memories already lost, but Utecht said he’s much more likely to retain new memories.

He would like to see this kind of training available to football players while they’re still active, as opposed to taking it after they have left the game.

If he had it to do over, Utecht said he’d still play football, but he probably wouldn’t have stuck around long enough to sustain five concussions.

He believes the game is safer now than when he played. “I’m 6-7, and a lot of the pass routes I ran were over the middle,” he said. “I was a big target. Some of the hits I took were just brutal. But now there are rules against targeting the head. Those didn’t exist when I played.”

One other thing he’d do differently – he said he would have given his book a less-dour title because everything that’s happened since has been encouraging. Asked about his cognitive function compared to before he entered the NFL, Utecht said, “I think I’m better today than I was then.”

Utecht said life is good. He’s busy with his varied interests. His daughters have been introduced to music – and to golf, because Karyn Utecht played at the University of Minnesota.

The big question, which so far is unanswerable, is whether Utecht will develop any of the illnesses associated with brain trauma. A number of former NFL players were found to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, helping trigger a lawsuit that led to a $1 billion settlement in 2016. The matter remains contentious as some families of former players received far less than expected from the settlement fund.

“I hope I never see a cent of that money,” Utecht said.

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