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Ex-football player fears future with brain damage

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former NFL tight end Ben Utecht told a Senate hearing Wednesday that he fears where his history of brain injuries will leave him in the future.

Utecht said he started experiencing memory loss at age 29, after a football career in which he sustained five documented concussions and innumerable dings to the head.

''It took losing my mind to care about my mind,'' said Utecht, 32.

His testimony came as brain injuries in sports, particularly contact sports like football, remain a concern for players and families. More evidence suggests a link between head injuries and neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer's and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

On Wednesday, the NFL agreed to remove a $675 million cap on damages from thousands of concussion-related claims. More than 4,500 former players have filed suit against the league.

Utecht, who was a member of the Indianapolis Colts' championship team in 2007, said his final concussion, suffered while playing for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009, required eight months of rehabilitation and forced his retirement from the NFL after a six-year career.

In addition to memory loss, Utecht said the brain damage he has suffered has changed his behavior to the extent that his 5-year-old daughter is scared of him sometimes.

''As a father, it puts the idea of traumatic brain injury on a whole different level,'' Utecht said, choking up as he talked about his daughter.

The Senate Special Committee on Aging asked a four-person panel of witnesses what Congress could do to help improve the prospects for those at risk for neurodegenerative diseases.

''Money, money, money,'' said Robert Stern, professor of neurology, neurosurgery, and anatomy and neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine. ''That's what it comes down to.''

Stern said that studying diseases like CTE could not only benefit people suffering from that disease, it could help researchers learn more about similar neurodegenerative diseases, ultimately helping more people.

Stern said that hits to the head that do nearly the same damage without displaying the symptoms of a concussion are relatively under-studied and possibly more dangerous than concussions, which he called ''just the tip of the iceberg.''

''I fear that we have a major public health threat looming,'' Stern said.

Each panelist said he would not allow his child to participate in contact sports before high school, at the earliest, because of the risk of brain injuries.

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