Former NFLer to present Christmas show

A few decades ago, many family holiday traditions included watching televised Christmas specials featuring Andy Williams and Bing Crosby. The rich smooth vocals from these two crooners brought true meaning to classic yuletide carols.

Twin Cities musicians Ben Utecht and Mick Sterling will revive these nostalgic tunes at a special concert at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Fairmont Opera House.

This is the third year Utecht and Sterling have been doing the Christmas show, and it continues to grow.

“We started at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre with two shows,” Utecht said. “Last year, we did 14, and this year, we have 21. It’s become a big success. The show has grown because of the degree where we set the bar to honor these two legends, and I think we’ve done a good job of that.”

The two are backed by what Utecht calls “20 of the best instrumentalists in the state of Minnesota,” plus four female singers: Mary Jane Alm, Cate Fierro, Aimee Lee and Shalo Lee.

“All of them are full-time leading ladies here in the Twin Cities. You are getting the best,” Utecht said.

“This is not a holiday show. This is a Christmas show,” he said. “We really wanted to hang on to what those two men created around Christmas. All of the songs are recognizable.”

Songs will range from Utecht’s favorite, “Oh Holy Night,” to a lively “Jingle Bells” competition.

“You have Bing Crosby’s classic “Jingle Bells,” and you have Andy Williams ‘funked-ified’ version,” Utecht said. “We go right from one into the other, and we do a battle. We leave it up to the audience to decide who the winner is. It’s a riot. It’s truly an experience.

“There’s a lot of crowd participation which makes it fun. The combination of all that is what really makes the show special.”

Football fans might recognize Utecht’s name. In 2006, he played tight end on the Indianapolis Colts team that defeated the Chicago Bears, 29-17, to win Super Bowl XLI. Tony Dungy was coach, and quarterback Peyton Manning won MVP honors. Fellow Minnesotan Prince was featured in the halftime show.

Utecht attended Hastings High School and the University of Minnesota. He played for the Colts from 2004-2007 and the Cincinnati Bengals from 2008-2009 until he was released for medical reasons, after suffering a career-ending five known concussions. About six years ago, at the age of 30, he started noticing some memory loss.

“It initially was something I was really nervous about, and I really feared,” he said. “Then I got involved with a brain-training program that completely changed my cognitive abilities. Over the last year, I’ve not only regained all of my cognitive strength, but if anything, I’ve surpassed it. I’m in a really good place right now. I’m healthy. It’s a great prognosis, and I’m very blessed to say that.”

Utecht’s segue from professional football to professional musician was a natural transition. His father was a vocal music teacher and pastor. His mother was a singer.

“I grew up in a house full of music,” he said. “While I was a three-sport athlete in high school, I was in five choirs and band and was a theater arts student as well.”

After his football career ended, Utecht spent some time in Nashville, where he earned a couple of record deals. He and his wife, Karyn Stordahl, whom he met in college, decided to move back to Minnesota after starting a family. The couple has four daughters that are 8, 7-year-old twins and 2.

“I have a champion wife. She is truly amazing,” Utecht said. “She’s been my support system through all of this. She’s also an entertainer in her own right. She was captain of the University of Minnesota women’s golf team and Miss Minnesota in 2006, and she’s a classical pianist. She’s the real reason I’m able to do this type of work and this type of travel.”

Utecht has always been drawn to music because it gives him the ability to express himself.

“Music has always been there, and the one time of the year that really is very special for music is Christmas,” he said.

Tickets for the show are $25 and are available at the Opera House box office, online at www.fairmontoperahouse.org or by calling (507) 238-4900.

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