“There really is a rift between athletics and arts at school, and I want to be an ambassador for how we can overcome some of those issues,” he says. “It puts a lot of pressure on young adults, especially when they have outside influences.” Utecht is the son of two athletes, but his mom was also a singer and pianist, and his father was a vocal studies major who became a Methodist minister. So, Utecht was lucky to be gifted in both areas, and have plenty of support for both at home.
The six-foot-six athlete participated in four sports growing up in Hastings, Minnesota, and also played tuba, had parts in numerous musicals, and sang in five choirs beginning in fourth grade, the same year he first played football. Outside the sanctuary of home, it was more difficult to reconcile his two passions—sports and music. “There definitely were some difficult decisions,” says Utecht. “I remember having to quit one of my choirs because of some influence from one of my sports coaches to focus more on the sport.”
And, of course, there was the ribbing from his classmates. “I had to fight popularity cliques, and I would be thinking, ‘What are all my sports friends going to think if I quit the sport and instead stay in the choir?’” he says. “It put me in a tough position.”
“My kind of ‘stepping out’ came in my junior year of high school,” he adds. “I decided to perform in the all-school talent show. That was sort of like my proclamation to the entire school that this [music] was also a passion of mine.”
Utecht stuck it out and continued both performing music and playing sports throughout high school, college, and even during his professional football career. “I just knew it was all going to work out, and it really has,” he adds optimistically.
Following the “easiest” career path first, Utecht became a professional football player. “With sports, the doors opened up more quickly—I got a scholarship to play Division I football,” he says, adding, “I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, and from that, how do you pursue a music career?” He earned a degree in speech communications from University of Minnesota, then signed as a free agent with the Indianapolis Colts in 2004, and then joined the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008.
Through it all, he continued to prepare for a post-football career in music. “My identity has always been a dual one. I got professional song coaching all through my career in the NFL to get ready for the transition,” says Utecht.
The classically trained musician taught himself to play piano and guitar while at college, and took on various singing engagements along the way. Highlights include singing the national anthem at a Colts preseason game and at a Cincinnati Reds season opener, and also performing with the Indianapolis Symphony, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Cincinnati Pops, as well as for both President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush.
The Best Laid Plans
However, not all went as planned. Utecht had hoped to play NFL football for 10 years and then launch into his singing career, but a severe concussion (his fifth) during a training session for the Bengals in 2008 cut that career short.
“Brain injury can affect the creative side of things, and even the tonal side of things. That was part of the reason I walked away,” he says, though the most important reason was the family he had already begun with his wife, Karyn Stordahl-Utecht. The couple has three little girls—all toddlers.
After eight months of recovery, Utecht began working towards a second career in music, which meant proving himself all over again. “You tell people about the singing football player, and you get this, ‘Oh yeah, here we go, now he thinks he wants to be a musician,’” he says. “It’s one of those gimmicks I have to fight; but I love to prove people wrong—that almost makes it sweeter.”
Utecht says that, as much as the two career paths are different, the emotions involved are similar. “I remember my first NFL game against the Baltimore Ravens, feeling sick to my stomach because this is what I dreamed of my whole life. I went out on the field just shell shocked … like, is this really happening? It’s the same thing when I step out on that stage for the first time. [With football] once the first play was over, it was almost like it all went away. It’s almost the same thing when I go out and sing that first song—it’s like … ahhhh,” explains Utecht as he gives a sigh of relief.
Two years into his music career Utecht’s already got one recording under his belt—a Christmas album (Christmas Hope!) that he recorded with pianist Jim Brickman in 2011. This January he completed a one-month tour with Brickman’s A Christmas Celebration show. It was Utecht’s first real touring experience, and it was far from the glamour and glitz that you might imagine.
Life on the Road
A typical night meant eight to 10 hours traveling and sleeping on the bus, after having performed 10 to 12 songs. “You finally get done around 1:00 a.m., after it all gets packed up. Then you get up around 9:30 a.m. and it’s a day of interviews, preparation, and going through songs to get ready,” says Utecht, adding that he usually tried to fit in some type of workout session, even if it meant running around the venue.
“Every night you’ve got to make people believe and make them feel the same thing. That’s a tricky thing when you do the same songs for one month straight,” he says, adding that he has new respect for his friends who are touring musicians. “I had no idea what it was going to be like to sing every single day. The nice thing about football is that I was at least able to come home every night and spend it with my wife, and now that we’ve got three little girls, this has brought a whole new difficulty to traveling.”
Following the tour, Utecht looked forward to spending some time with his family before the release of a new album of original material, which he describes as “Bocelli or Groban meets U2 or Coldplay,” a kind of classical crossover, with lots of pop and rock influences. “It’s very cinematic, emotional music,” he says, explaining that he draws inspiration from real-life experiences and events.
Role Model Mentality
Utecht’s been called a real-life “Glee guy,” a comparison to the character of Finn on the Fox hit television show Glee, who has passion for both singing and sports. It’s a comparison that Utecht doesn’t mind because he says being a role model is part of his “contract.”
“I always had that mentality as a football player, and I will carry it over into this career, if this happens,” he says. “If anything, I want to encourage young adults, as somebody outside of film and television who can say, ‘Go after what you love to do and turn your head to everybody that tells you not to.’ I want to help them find their identities and be excited about who they are.”
Aside from arts, he also sees himself as a sort of ambassador for sports injuries, in particular concussions. “Concussions are a big issue in sports these days,” he says. “I think I can speak about it with vulnerability and openness about how it has impacted my life and how we can make it better.”
To read our full March-April 2012 issue click here!