MINNEAPOLIS — Ben Utecht played college football in his hometown for the Minnesota Gophers, caught touchdown passes from Peyton Manning in the NFL and won a Super Bowl championship. He understands what it's like to perform on a big stage.
Now he's getting a taste of it in a more literal sense.
An aspiring singer, Utecht caught the attention of platinum-selling recording artist Jim Brickman, who was intrigued by his backstory as a former NFL player and wanted to learn more. He didn't expect Utecht to perform for him on the spot the first time they met, however.
A demo tape in hand, Utecht offered to sing the Italian song "Caruso" during his impromptu audition.
"I was so blown away," said Brickman, a Grammy-nominated pianist and songwriter. "He had completely memorized it. Right off the bat, his preparation for what he was walking into was very impressive."
That ambition helped jump-start Utecht's second career, which began sooner than expected after a series of concussions forced him to retire from football. Utecht made such an impression on Brickman that he invited the Hastings, Minn., native to perform in his annual Christmas concert series. The 32-city tour included a collaborative performance with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall.
Utecht has performed in front of hometown fans many times over the years, although the former Gophers tight end is recognized primarily by his athletic accomplishments. He wants to make his mark in a different venue now.
"There is a vulnerability on the stage that I had never experienced in sports," said Utecht, who performs on 10 songs in the show. "In sports, you walk out with a mask on and you're 50, 100 yards away from every fan. On the stage, the minute you walk out there, they see your face. They see and hear everything you do. It's intimidating but, at the same time, an exciting experience."
A career in music was always his goal, except with a different timeline. Utecht won a Super Bowl title in 2007 as a member of the Indianapolis Colts and figured he'd play 10 NFL seasons before moving on to something else. A routine block during training camp in 2009 resulted in his fifth diagnosed concussion and changed everything.
The frightening incident was captured on film as part of HBO's "Hard Knocks" documentary of the Cincinnati Bengals. Utecht, who is married with three young daughters, said it was a "strange and sad thing to watch" after the fact.
"The hair on my arm stood up because you don't really think about what others go through while you're lying there on the ground motionless," he said.
Utecht did not play again, retiring after six seasons. He still experiences occasional memory loss as a result of his concussions. At a get-together with former Gophers teammate Matt Anderle last summer, their weddings came up in conversation. Utecht apologized for missing Anderle's wedding. Everyone in the room stared at him with puzzled looks.
Utecht had been a groomsman and also had performed a song.
"Things like that are the scary things that kind of pop up out of nowhere and I hope don't get worse as times goes on," Utecht said.
Music and performance arts were as much a part of Utecht's life growing up as sports. His dad was a vocal music major, his mom a singer. In addition to playing three sports at Hastings High, Utecht also sang in the choir and performed in musicals.
"I was a nonfiction 'High School Musical'," he said.
Performing was more than just a hobby though. He received classical training and focused on different languages in high school for solo/ensemble competitions.
He sang the national anthem any chance he got. He's performed the anthem before events at the Metrodome, Xcel Energy Center, Target Center, Target Field and three different Gophers on-campus venues. He also sang for both Bush presidents at a political event.
Utecht met legendary gospel singer Sandi Patty when he played for the Colts. She became a mentor and encouraged him to pursue a singing career. He hired vocal coaches, performed publicly at every opportunity, started networking.
"It was at that time where I began to say, 'OK, football is not going to last for a lifetime,' and I wanted to be prepared for when that day comes," he said. "I started to get serious about it."
His big break came when he met Brickman in New York through a mutual friend. Brickman played the piano as Utecht, a tenor, sang in Italian. Afterward, he asked Utecht to be the male guest performer on his 16th annual holiday tour. "His voice is really fantastic," Brickman said.
Brickman sees Utecht becoming more comfortable on stage with each performance. The nerves and excitement he feels before taking the stage, Utecht said, are comparable to what he experienced before a football game. But this is different. He doesn't wear a helmet and he's not surrounded by hulking linemen. It's just him and his audience.
"The first couple of dates, he was sort of taking it all in and saying, 'What kind of environment is this?'" Brickman said. "He's basically out there by himself. They're all watching him do something that he knows he does well but he doesn't have 10 years of experience doing it. I think what he's done is realize that you have to be authentic and not try and be what somebody thinks you should be. Or create a persona. He's not out to create a mystique about the brand of Ben Utecht."
Utecht said he's just chasing a childhood dream. His next step after the tour is to finish recording his album. He describes his music as "classical crossover," a style partly influenced by Michael Bublé and Josh Groban.
"It has a classical foundation but my music is going to bring a little bit more of an edge," he said. "Powerful and romantic is kind of how I like to describe it."