(WASHINGTON) — Football heroes crushed by the violence of the sport they love — household names like Brett Favre, Junior Seau, Jim McMahon and Wednesday an even younger victim of head trauma, Super Bowl-winning tight end Ben Utecht — learned Wednesday that the NFL has legally promised unlimited care for any retired player suffering from brain disease.
The settlement replaced an earlier agreement between former players and the league that would have capped the damages at $765 million, but a federal judge said it wasn’t enough money.
It was welcomed news to Utecht, 32, who won the Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts and also played for the Cincinnati Bengals.
“Hearing this news tells me that the organization that I gave six years to is stepping up to be a part of helping players and that makes me happy,” Utecht, 32, told ABC News. “That makes me happy, as a player who has friends that are continuing to play and friends that are retired. That is what…being part of a fraternity like the NFL is all about, taking care of each other, and it looks like we’re headed in that direction.”
While the league agreed to fund open-ended payouts, which could drive the potential cost for care beyond a billion dollars, it hasn’t publicly admitted to any responsibility for the brain injuries.
“Nobody makes a gift of hundreds of millions of dollars unless they believe they are implicated in the wrongdoing in some respect,” Chris Seeger, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the NFL concussion litigation, told ABC News. “I don’t know where the NFL puts themselves on that spectrum. I put them very high. I blame them.”
Utecht, who suffered a career-ending concussion in 2009, said a brain injury “is unlike any injury that I’ve ever faced.”
“You can’t walk it off, you know, like a knee, or you can’t go and get orthopedic surgery to fix my torn shoulder,” he said. “This is an injury that could have a long-term effect on my health and that’s not an easy thing to have to think about.”
The damage done by repeated brain injuries was dramatically illustrated on Capitol Hill Wednesday in a video that Utecht made.
“It [The concussion] was a really tough way to end a career,” he said in a pre-recorded video for the hearing.
Utecht, now a father of three girls, shared with lawmakers how he began to lose some memories — including serving as a groomsman at a friend’s wedding — and started to experience behavioral changes that frightened his daughters.
“Hearing my 5-year-old daughter tell my family practice doctor that at times she’s afraid of me,” Utecht said as he grew emotional. “As a father, it puts the idea of the effects of traumatic brain injury on a completely different level.”
Utecht told the committee he is now dedicated to working to raise awareness about traumatic brain injuries and likened lawmakers to coaches in the fight.
“I can’t help now but throw myself into a new target, neurology, to tackle a new opponent, brain disease and particularly traumatic brain injuries and concussions,” Utecht said. “You as senators can really become our new coaches. You can help decide the game strategy, put in the countless hours of work and research into creating policies that can change this nation, connecting people to their most valuable asset — their mind.”
Utecht and an estimated 18,000 NFL retirees and their families are covered by the NFL settlement, which could deliver its first seven-figure checks within a year.
Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio
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