From O-lineman to frontman
Ex-Pats practice squad player Brian Barthelmes plays on with his band, Tallahassee
Sweating under the spotlight, with swaths of hair plastered across his forehead, Brian Barthelmes stands like a lineman bracing for an oncoming rush. Strumming his Fender Telecaster to the crescendo of the song, he commands attention. When the Tallahassee frontman's 6-foot-6 frame is on the stage, you can't help but think, "Jeez, I bet that guy played football."
Barthelmes washed through the rank-and-file NFL experience, entering the churning mill of bodies that shuttle into training camps this time of year only to be jettisoned into the free-agent abyss by Labor Day. The University of Virginia product was lucky in some regard, catching on with the Patriots practice squad in several stints during the 2006 season. He played in the now-defunct NFL Europe and had another cup of coffee with the Patriots at training camp in '07.
His name doesn't appear on the Patriots all-time roster. He never played a single down in a regular-season game. His was as most NFL careers are -- fleeting.
From early on, even in his high school days at Kenston High School in Bainbridge, Ohio, where he played football under his father, Lee, Barthelmes never felt like a football player. He was a standout basketball player, but in Ohio, linemen are linemen and he didn't have much say in the matter. Football was his ticket to a Division I scholarship, and he considered it foolish to turn that down.
By the time he was let go by the Patriots for the final time during training camp in August 2007, Barthelmes' mind was all but made up -- he was leaving the game for good.
All it took to crystallize the truth were some terse, poignant words delivered by Bill Belichick.
"I'd been cut other times, but that time was different," Barthelmes, 29, said of his exit meeting with Belichick and Scott Pioli. "It was more serious. The other times, it was always along the lines of 'We're cutting you because of numbers' or 'We'll have you back in a couple weeks.' This time it felt very final.
"[Belichick] told me that I needed to figure out what I really wanted to do."
That's when Brian Barthelmes became a musician.
THE GENESISAt Virginia, Barthelmes had a peek into his future when he started plucking on banjos and learning guitar chords in his free time. Then, it was just a hobby. He went on to be a four-year letter-winner for the Cavaliers before landing a rookie free-agent contract with the Patriots.
Through a series of signings and releases by the Patriots, he was living in Plainville, Mass., in 2006. His apartment was spartan; he slept on an air mattress on the living room floor. He turned the bedroom into a soundproof room filled with his instruments and an 8-track recorder -- a private studio of sorts. Without any formal instruction, he began writing songs and recording them.
It was in this humble surrounding where Barthelmes began to settle into his skin. He had always been more court jester than jock or prom king, but he never got around to starting to live like it.
In 2007, not long after he was released for the last time, Barthelmes was introduced to Scott Thompson while out with a friend one night in Providence. He talked to Thompson, then a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, about music and mentioned that he'd been working some solo material. Thompson, a guitarist, was busy with school but invited Barthelmes to come over to play early one morning.
"I can't believe he actually did it," said Thompson before a recent Tallahassee show in Allston. "I could tell he was really serious about it from that point."
Barthelmes, spreading his giant wingspan across a railing while sitting with his bandmates on the outdoor patio, added, "It wasn't a problem for me. I was used to getting up at the crack of dawn for football. I was ready to go."
From there, Thompson helped Barthelmes refine his playing and they started collaborating on songs. It wasn't anything formal. The idea of starting a band hadn't come yet, outside of the prospect of playing a mutual friend's house party.
"That's pretty much the extent of it, playing that one show," Thompson said.
Thompson's friend and fellow RISD student Shawn Carney joined in on the bass. Later on, Matt Raskopf sat in on the drums and Tallahassee took its present form.
The band first released an EP in 2008, and their first full-length, "Wolfe Moon," was released in 2009. Their 2011 follow-up, "Jealous Hands," was warmly received on the taste-making My Old Kentucky Blog. The band members have spent most of the summer shuttling between Boston, New York and Providence while recording their third album, filling in the dates in between with live shows.
Tallahassee's sound straddles indie-folk conventions, drawing as much from John Denver's sensitivity as it does My Morning Jacket's penchant for freaking out. But material for the forthcoming third album has a more straightforward rock quality.
The unifying quality to the music is in the collaboration between the band members, who do pretty much everything together.
"Even when we go on vacation," Carney said. "We spend an awful lot of time together and that's a result of the fact that we all really like each other. When we hang out, it's all of us, our wives, we'll go camping together. We hardly go a day without seeing each other."
Barthelmes, as the primary lyricist, is just one part of the creative engine behind the band. He states it plain when evaluating each band member's place within the dynamic of Tallahassee.
"This is it. If somebody were to leave the band, there would be no band. It's either all of us together or the band doesn't exist; it's simple as that."
THE PIED PIPERIn Barthelmes' time with the Patriots, back when there were two-a-days, before the current CBA limited practice time in training camp, there was a lot more downtime during camp. Players looked for ways to keep themselves occupied in between meetings, practices and workouts. Some players dutifully would use the time to bury their nose in the playbook or watch film. Or they'd turn their attention to non-football hobbies, such as playing video games or cards, or brush up on reading. Sleeping rooms filled with mattresses were also common.
Of course, Barthelmes' favorite pastime was playing the guitar. Sometime during the 2006 season, he began giving "lessons" to his teammates on the offensive line. Matt Light and Dan Koppen were among the first to be captivated by the six-string.
Eventually, players on the other side of the ball joined in, including Tedy Bruschi and the late Junior Seau. "I actually purchased a guitar from my local music store and began to learn," said Bruschi, who is also an accomplished saxophonist. "The season came and my interest faded, but Junior continued to play and he loved his guitar and ukulele."
Barthelmes has fond memories of Seau and recalled the process of teaching him how to play. Because Seau's catcher's mitt-like hands were so big and his fingers so thick, Barthelmes took the novel approach of first teaching Seau on a 12-string with its octave strings removed. It allowed Seau more room to work with on the fretboard.
"I remember this one day, I was walking by a room and Junior was laid out on a bed, he told me to come in and sit down and start playing for him," Barthelmes said. "So there I am, playing a future Hall of Famer to sleep and I'm thinking, 'This is just crazy.'"
While Barthelmes' turn to music wasn't immediate, his teammates could clearly see where his passion was.
"[He was] someone that knew where his future path led," Bruschi said. "Music was obviously it."
THE FUTUREFootball isn't an easy game. Barthelmes is confronted with that fact every day when he hops into bed or tries to get out of it. He has a couple of bulging disks in his back thanks to the game. His wrist sometimes flares up as well, a leftover reminder from a surgery he had during college.
Yet, the music industry can have the same effect on people. There's certainly no guarantee of success.
The band has taken a humble, grassroots approach to building the its name. This weekend, it's hosting the "Talla-Galla Carnival," a festival of food, old-fashioned carnival games and performances from their musical friends in Jamaica Plain. It's using the event as a fundraiser to offset the cost of recording its new album.
While Tallahassee continues building its name in the region, gaining fans at every show, you get the sense from the band members that they'd be doing exactly what they're doing even if nobody came or nobody listened.
"This is my life," said Barthelmes, who's spent time as a social worker outside of his Tallahassee responsibilities. "And these are the people I choose to live my life with."
No matter how much time is placed between Barthelmes and his football career, it will never disappear. All you have to do is look at him on stage.
His hands are the size of a bear's paws. When his left hand is wrapped around the guitar's neck, each of his fingers seemingly spans the width of a fret.
"It's funny, because it's guys like Brian who were the ones threatening to beat me up in high school," Thompson said from behind a pair of John Lennon-like glasses. "I knew he played football, but that didn't really mean anything to me.
"All I remember is the energy he had the first time I met him. He's such a kind soul. He's a thoughtful, artistic person who just happened to play a sport really well."