Bengals' Ben Utecht doubles as a recording artist

April 18, 2009 5:32:30 PM PDT
Ben Utecht was as nervous as an American Idol contestant. The University of Minnesota tight end was standing on the Metrodome field, looking up into the stands before a Twins game. He was going to sing the national anthem. Thousands of people had their attention riveted on him. Utecht, now with the Bengals, had sung to crowds before, but nothing like this.

"I remember being extremely nervous, more nervous than when I'm getting ready for a football game," he said, leaning against the armrest of a leather couch at a performance center last week.

He remembers something else: The rustle in the stands when the public address announcer mentioned his name as he stepped up to the microphone.

"People don't expect that from a football player," he said. "They announce you and you can kind of hear people in the crowd going, 'Is this a football player?"'

He opened his mouth, and fans realized he's a whole lot more.

The 27-year-old Utecht becomes a professional artist-and-athlete this week with the release of his first album. The album, titled "Ben Utecht," is the first produced under the Stylos (pronounced STEE'-lohs) record label started by Christian music mainstay Sandi Patty, a five-time Grammy Award winner.

Patty met Utecht through football - how else? - and thought he was perfect for that first album.

"Ben and I kind of tossed the idea around for a while," Patty said, in a phone interview from her home in Oklahoma City. "I said, 'You know, you need to make a record."'

Utecht wrote or collaborated on nine of the 12 songs, most of which deal with his religious faith. The self-taught guitarist also shows a vocal range that surprises everyone who knows him as an athlete.

"To be honest, I had the same reaction when I heard that he enjoyed singing," Patty said. "I was like, 'Yeah, uh-huh, whatever. You just go and play football."'

Utecht has done both since he was a boy, growing up in a music-filled family. His father studied to become a music teacher. His mother loved to sing. He grew up playing the tuba in school bands and performing in choirs.

"It was hard to balance that with sports," he said. "It's tough when you have two passions in your life that you love to do."

Sports would pay the fare to get through college, so that became his focus. Utecht expected to go high in the NFL draft in 2004, before a severe abdominal tear jeopardized his career.

He saw former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy - a Minnesota alum - at one event and jokingly asked him to look out for him if he slipped in the draft. Dungy promised he would.

On the draft days, there were no takers.

"It was crushing," Utecht said. "I remember driving to my agent's office with my father, trying to hold back tears, thinking to myself: 'What am I going to do now?' Not even knowing if football was going to work out. I got to my agent's office, and I got a call from Tony Dungy."

The Colts signed him and gave him a year to have surgery and heal. Dungy also knew what Utecht could do in Christian music and urged him to pursue those talents.

"That's why I encouraged him to perform in a musical (event) with Sandi Patty, even though it would take place during our football season," Dungy said, in a statement provided through Utecht's publicist. "I knew he could handle it and not let it take away from his focus as a football player. But I also felt the world needed to hear Ben Utecht sing."

He won a Super Bowl in 2006 in Indianapolis and made several connections that helped his musical career along, too. Patty, who was a season ticket holder for many years, met him at a youth event in Anderson, Ind.

"This lady comes up to me wearing a Peyton Manning jersey and asks for my autograph," Utecht said. "I said, 'Who do I make it out to?' She said, 'Sandi Patty.' When she said that, my mouth dropped and I said, 'Actually, you need to sign this for me."'

That started a friendship that took a turn one night at a Patty family get-together. They were gathered around a piano, and someone encouraged Utecht to join in.

"He started singing, and literally our jaws dropped," Patty said. "It was amazing. There are people that can sing, and people that know how to really communicate a song. He not only signs beautifully, he knows how to communicate a song."

When Utecht signed with the Bengals before last season, his teammates didn't know about his musical interests. Utecht doesn't perform during the season, concentrating solely on football.

With the encouragement of his wife, Karyn, who is a former Minnesota golfer and classical pianist, Utecht decided to take it another step. His debut album will be released Tuesday, and he'll make appearances to perform his material.

He's not the first Bengals player to go the music route. Defensive tackle Mike Reid left after five seasons in the 1980s to pursue a successful song-writing career. Several professional athletes have dabbled in hip-hop. Reds starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo plays guitar and sings when he's not bothered by carpal tunnel syndrome.

There aren't many who have made the crossover. The athlete-recording artist combination is so unusual that Patty thinks it could work in Utecht's favor.

"When he sings, people's expectations are going to be so low because he's a football player, let's face it," she said. "Because of the stereotype, I think he has the potential to win people over. I've seen that happen."

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