(WASHINGTON) -- Retired NFL player Ben Utecht has written a letter to his wife and daughters for the day he can no longer remember who they are, he told Congress Wednesday. “I wrote the letter on a plane ride home with the brim of my hat over my eyes to hide the tears as they began to flow,” said Utecht, 32, who was a tight end for the Indianapolis Colts and the Cincinnati Bengals before suffering a career-ending concussion in 2009.
Utecht said he spent eight months in rehab battling dizziness, amnesia, sleeplessness and night sweats after the injury, which was his fifth documented concussion. Now, his memory is fading away.
“What’s my greatest fear?” he said to Congress. “It’s to be trapped inside the coffin of my mind. To wake up one morning and not remember the faces and names of the people I cherish the most.”
Head injuries among professional athletes continue to spark lawsuits and fuel a burgeoning field of brain injury research. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a degenerative brain tied to repeated hits to the head. Its symptoms progress from confusion and depression to full-blown dementia.
Though it can only be diagnosed after the patient has died, researchers have spotted signs of CTE in the brains of dozens of deceased football players, including Junior Seau, 43, and Dave Duerson, 50, both of whom died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the chest.
The Senate Committee on Aging hearing in which Utecht spoke came a day after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a reauthorization bill that would help individuals with traumatic brain injuries and their families get access to rehabilitation and other programs. It will now go to the Senate for consideration.
Utecht said he took his memory for granted after his retirement from the NFL until a moment of “mental darkness” in which he failed to recall being at his friend’s wedding despite appearing in several photos from the event.
“Page after page I was in disbelief,” Utecht said of flipping through the photo album. “Seeing myself in numerous pictures, as a groomsman and singing for them a song. To this day, I still have no memory of that event.”
Now, Utecht said he hopes to help “tackle” brain disease, and asked the Senators in the room to be his coaches and come up with a strategy.
“We can become world champions on a new gridiron -- the field of our identity,” he said.
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