Ben Utecht, a tight end for the Cincinnati Bengals, has just released a self-titled CD, and describes his music as a Christian fusion of passionate vocals (think Josh Groban) with a contemporary side to it. Photo special to The Denver Post
Being injured is nothing new to Cincinnati Bengals tight end Ben Utecht, who missed Sunday’s game against the Broncos with a concussion. But what Utecht does know is that good things resulted from his past injury — a sports hernia his senior year at the University of Minnesota led to him being signed by the Indianapolis Colts, and because of his Indy connections some “amazing” doors are opening for him. Not only in football, but in the music industry. Utecht, a budding Christian musician, recently released his first CD, a self-titled soft rock worship record on Sandi Patty’s new label, Stylos Records. In a Q&A session, Utecht explains his journey from the University of Minnesota to the Super Bowl to Nashville.
Q: Coming out of college, you were not drafted.
A: No, not drafted. I was suppose to be from 15th to 42nd pick and I had a serious injury my senior year, a pretty bad sports hernia, and it took me out of the draft. It was crushing, and I didn’t know what was going to happen.
But it’s really one of my miracle stories, because two months prior to the draft I spoke at one of these Athletes in Action events with Tony Dungy. We both went to the same college, University of Minnesota. I remember getting up before everybody and razzing him a little bit, saying, “You know coach, us alums have to stick together so if you have the opportunity to draft me go right ahead. Feel free.” And he got up and said, “We would love to but we just drafted Dallas Clark.” And this is no lie, then he said in front of everybody, “But I promise you if for some reason you slip through the cracks, which I don’t think you will, but if you do I’ll be the first to call.”
I kind of thought, you know it’s a nice thing to say but I thought I was going to get drafted. And I remember driving up to my agent’s office after the second day of the draft really trying to hold back the tears because it was a really tough situation and it was really embarrassing too, my family was there. It was tough. So 5 minutes into free agency the phone rings, and it’s Tony Dungy. He was the first person to call me, he and Bill Polian, general manager of the Colts. Free agency is pretty much a cattle call and for Bill Polian and Tony Dungy to call me themselves and for him to follow up on his promise is pretty amazing to me. They got me surgery so I could heal. They told me not to worry about the season that they would give me the whole year to recover and get back because we really believe in you, you have the talent and gave me a small signing bonus and they paid me as an active rookie. That doesn’t happen in the NFL. They paid me a full rookie’s salary, and I did nothing but heal. So it really was by the grace of God, a miracle, to make it to that team. And three years later I’m one of the tight ends in the Super Bowl. God really does work in amazing and wonderful ways.
Q: Ben, this is your first CD and you have some pretty big names – Sandi Patty, Jeremy Camp – on it.
A: If it wasn’t for that call (from Tony Dungy) I wouldn’t have met any of these people. I had a chance to meet Sandi Patty through speaking to a group of kids when I was with the Colts. This joyful woman in a Colts jersey came up to me afterwards, and I didn’t recognize her, and she said, “She is the biggest Colts fan and can you sign this for me, please?” “Sure who do I make it out to? And she was like Sandi Patty, and I handed the pen back to her and said, “You need to sign this for me.” I grew up on Sandi Patty. And I became the kid in the candy store. And she became like my surrogate mom. She really took in my wife and I being new to Indiana.
It’s just amazing how the Lord has brought all these people into my life. Later that year I met Jeremy after one of his concerts in Indianapolis. And we just really hit it off. It was like two brothers. We have very similar backgrounds, very similar testimonies. We just click.
It was all an answer to my prayer. Whenever it come to music I always prayed Lord if this is something that you want me to pursue bring the right people into my life to get me there. And bam, bam, it just continues to come. It was through Sandi that I met my manager Mike Atkins, who is one of the moguls of Christian music managers. Sandi started her own label, Stylos Records, and she asked me to be the first artist on her label. I couldn’t believe it. All these things have just fallen into place for me to walk through the doorway
Q: So what is football now? Is that a hobby?
A: No, football is not a hobby. You can put that in quotes. I have made it very clear that football is a priority. It is something that I know God has given me to use as a platform, and it’s a very serious job. It is something that I have to do to provide for my family. Once the season starts, music is put on hold. And that is really OK. It’s always been that way ever since I played. So it won’t be any different, and I’ll still be able to minister throughout the season using football. As far music performances, concerts and shows that is what the offseason is for. That is one of the benefits of being a pro athlete. Plus, I have this avenue that a lot of Christian artists might not have the opportunity to reach. I’m very excited to see what God does with that, because it is a massive audience.
Q: Now you are with the Bengals, going from one of the top teams to a struggling team.
A: It is tough. I knew it would be tough. I think it’s a whole lot more than just football going on there that it is to serve a purpose greater than football. Tony would tell you the same thing. When I had a chance to talk to him about the Cincy thing, he said that he had been praying about it, which is amazing to me that he was praying about what to do. He said that he just felt the Lord was telling him that that team needed some more light and that I would be a great asset to that team as a leader and a Christian. That kind of just helped seal the deal, in my mind. That’s kind of how the Indianapolis Colts have operated. They bring in character guys and mold them into champions then they get moved to other teams and they help those teams become successful, and I’m hoping that is what the Lord is using me for.
Q: How do you deal with egos like Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson Ochocinco?
A: A guy like TO or Chad are great locker room guys. They bring a lot of energy to a team, which is important. One thing, Chad he’s a comedian. He brings a lightheartedness, a joy, to the team, and that is very important. I think there is a Hollywood aspect for these guys. And I think there is a Hollywood aspect in the NFL, if you want to take it there. I’m not going to be the one to take it there. Definitely there are those that do, and done in the proper way can be a pretty good marketing tool. That’s important for people to understand that football doesn’t last forever and the better you can market yourself the more opportunities you will have when football is done.
On a marketable approach, they are really geniuses. The name Chad Johnson Ochocinco is world-wide. If that was his goal, he has succeeded and that’s something to give him a little credit for.
Q Is it tough being a Christian in the NFL market, where there’s drugs, alcohol women?
A: It is tough. I was so fortunate to go to the Colts to be a part of an organization that never has dealt with those issues. And it really helped me grow not only as a football player but as a man. Which is something very special to say. I grew up in a strong Christian family, my dad is a United Methodist minister. I was really grounded in my faith going into college and the NFL. So I really knew who I wanted to represent and why. So for me I’ve never been afraid to go against the grain. I like to be outspoken in what I believe, and if you do it in the right way people respect you for that. If there is anything I learned from Tony Dungy is that when you approach faith properly — out of love — often times it’s received in love. That is a great thing to understand as a Christian. In my 4 years with the Colts, I don’t remember anything bad written about Tony Dungy, no matter what his stance was on things. Because he did it the right way and consistently lived his life in that manner. That’s something that I really want to make sure that I do.
Q: How do you do it? By example? Prayer before games?
A: Absolutely. I think you hit nail on head when you said example. Talk does not go very far in the NFL. For a lot of the reasons we talked about. In any pro industry, whether it be music, movies, sports, issues of pride and vanity these things become very prevalent and hard to work around, because to try tell somebody about the importance of having a relationship with Christ might not always have an impact. Because basically guys in their 20s have been given the world right out of college. But when you live your faith and consistently live it and they see you loving on brothers, loving on teammates and people, serving the community. When they see you doing it that’s when they say, “Hey there’s something there. Something different about that person.” That’s what people say about Tony — there’s something different about this guy. He never yells on the sideline, you never hear him swearing or cussing out his players. He’s always so calm and collected and there is a reason for that. Tony wouldn’t do that because he’s a passive guy, because he’s not. He does it purposefully, because he knows he’s under a magnifying glass, and he wants to represent Christ consistently.
Q: During concerts what kind of testimony do you give?
A: A lot of testimony comes through the music, a lot of my songs are written through personal experiences and to share those experience. Another aspect is Q and A. I always love getting real with people. I think one thing as Christians is that we can be more of is vulnerable. I have no problem being vulnerable, if anything I want people to hear my mistakes. I want people to know my weaknesses so that maybe those who have dealt with the same thing that I have can maybe learned some things.
Q: You said something interesting in concerts you want to be vulnerable. You can’t be vulnerable on the football field.
A: No you can’t and it’s almost the opposite. When a person is vulnerable they have nothing to lose. It’s all laid out on the table. I think if you look at it at that aspect maybe being that way as an athlete you really have nothing to lose. Hmm. I want people to know is that I am a Christian and I’m sensitive and that it doesn’t make me less strong or any less capable to be a hard-hitting tight end in the NFL. That’s my job and that’s something I take serious. What I want people to understand is that to be a Christian raises the bar for me as an athlete to a place that I can never reach but that I can always strive for. That is to give God everything that I have. That to me is amazing motivation that should tell a coach and team that I’m always going to give all that I have to the team.