Free Reign turn up metal in offseason

Free Reign really is heavier than metal, featuring NFL offensive linemen Marc Colombo, Cory Procter and Leonard Davis. That's also the title of their full-length debut, released on their aptly named DC Rightside Music label.

The curiosity factor of three NFL players together in a band might seem like a contrived marketing ploy. But Colombo insists it's more than just a novelty, suggesting that their deep-rooted love of heavy metal has laid the groundwork for a possible second career after football. Some high-profile fans already agree, with Rob Halford, Zakk Wylde and Vinnie Paul on board the Free Reign train.

Free Reign formed in the Dallas Cowboys' locker room, when Colombo and Procter's jamming allured Davis, who then brought childhood friend Justin Chapman into the fold on guitar. So far, the demanding schedule of their NFL careers has limited Free Reign to playing mostly one-off shows in the Dallas area, including their recent Night To Support Our U.S. Troops event at Gilley's that was broadcast live on Ustream.

Juggling Free Reign around football hasn't been easy. It's been the carefully calculated use of offseason time that has allowed them to pursue their musical ambitions, says Colombo. But the 6-foot-8, 318-pound Cowboy says there are many similarities between the stage and line of scrimmage.

The Life: How grueling do you expect it will be to eventually tour with your band, compared with an NFL season?

Colombo: Wow, that's a good question. I think it will be tough, man. It's a totally different way of life. There are a lot of similarities, but getting out on the road and playing anywhere and everywhere, getting in a bus and that type of thing, we're used to doing that eight to 10 times a year, maybe more with preseason. But some of the bands I know and talk to are out on the road a lot. They don't have much time to go home and see their families and stuff.

The Life: Security will probably not be a line item on your touring budget.

Colombo: [Laughs] Yeah, definitely not.

The Life: Free Reign was formed in the Cowboys' locker room. What tipped you off that there were other metalheads in your offensive line?

Colombo: I was [always] the metal guy [on the team]. I played in a few heavy metal bands in Chicago. I grew up idolizing James Hetfield and early Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer and Pantera, coming into the '90s. Those were my bands.

When I got out here [to Dallas], Cory was a good friend of mine. I brought my drum kit -- I had a used, beater drum kit, so when my drummer in Chicago would come over to my house and jam, he didn't have to keep setting up. In my move from Chicago out here to Dallas, I had it set up. Cory came over one day and I was playing a song that I wrote. He just hopped on the drums and started playing. I was like, I didn't know you could play drums.

He's always been a country fan, a country-rock type of guy. I think I turned him to the dark side, turned him into a metalhead. All of a sudden, the double bass came, and that's kind of how it all started. [We] just started writing songs. Leonard came into the band a little later, when it was a fun thing and we were just messing around. He had picked up the bass not too long before he started messing around with us. I don't know if it's bad or good, but he picked up my songs pretty easily. [Laughs]

We were a three-piece band for a while. I remember playing a Michael Irvin charity event at House of Blues. That was the first chance we got to be up on a big stage and play, [but] we were kind of missing something. We did good for three offensive linemen, but in comes Justin Chapman. He was a buddy of Leonard's, growing up, and he's been a guitarist his whole life. To us, that's his football. He got in here and started pushing everybody like crazy. He pushed me with my vocals; he micromanaged Cory and got him to play -- I mean, Cory's unbelievable right now. Same thing with Leonard. We just started writing good music and good songs, doing the most we can with it.

The Life: There are musicians who love football, but you don't necessarily hear a lot about football players who are metalheads. How prevalent is metal being played in a typical NFL locker room?

Colombo: That's true. But growing up, heavy metal and that type of stuff has always been true to me. Every game I ever got ready for, whether it was Boston College or Chicago Bears or Dallas Cowboys, it was metal before the games, nonstop. From 8 o'clock in the morning, up until five minutes before the game, it was heavy metal to me.

There are a lot of people who use heavy metal to [prepare]. A lot of guys on the team listen to heavy metal before games, guys you wouldn't even think of.

The Life: Who's the most unexpected, that people might say, "Wow, really?"

Colombo: Before our games -- and I know he listens to this pretty much before every game -- our Pro Bowl nose guard, Jay Ratliff, listens to Lamb of God. He always comes up to me, 'cause he knows I'm a heavy metal guy, and shows me his iPod. It's a type of music that just gets you pumped up, gets you going, and I think it's cool that anybody can get pumped up to heavy metal. It's awesome that that's part of his pregame routine, kind of like mine, the same type of thing.

The Life: Most musicians choose music as a career much younger in life. So what prompts three older, married guys, with NFL careers no less, to form a band?

Colombo: It's just a passion for music. It's really difficult to juggle both worlds. Football, that's what we've been doing since we were 8 years old. Believe me, as soon as July comes around, the band's over -- for seven months it is. Us three guys in the band are some of the hardest-working guys on the team. We can't let any outside influences -- even music, which we love -- trickle into that during the season.

But as soon as the season is over, it's like a switch flips, and we go directly into music mode. At first it was hard to do, but this is our second year of really getting after it, so it's going good. We found ways to basically do things quick. Some of these long, drawn-out things -- album releases and stuff like that -- we've found little ways to speed up the process. At any moment, especially with the way the NFL is now, we could be, "Hey, we're coming in for a mini camp." We've got to be ready to flip the switch right back again. So, we try and make the most of the amount of time we have.

Yes, we are all family guys, too, so it is really hard to do. That's why I'm really proud of the way the band has stuck it out. It hasn't been easy, but we've done some really good things. In a few years, when football is completely over [for us], I think we've built up enough and done enough stuff where we'll be able to take that jump into getting on a tour and doing stuff like that.

The Life: What took it from "just for fun" to a serious vocation?

Colombo: The combination of Justin joining the band and signing a record deal. We signed a record deal two years ago with Riot! Entertainment. They had Chris Jericho from the WWE and his band, Fozzy. They heard our music and got really excited about what we were doing. We signed on the dotted line and produced our first EP, which was five songs. That was kind of when we started taking it real serious.

When Justin joined the band, he told us, "If I'm going to do this, we're going to have to put in some time and effort. It can't be just, 'Hey, you want to practice? You want to write a couple songs?' It has to be something where we make a schedule and put some effort into it."

The Life: You brought up Jericho, who successfully took Fozzy from a WWE novelty to a regarded metal band. Naturally, the curiosity factor of three NFL players in a band is also going to attract attention. As a fan yourself, you know that metalheads are very guarded about the integrity of their music.

Colombo: When we got invited to [Revolver magazine's] Golden Gods last year, we were in the category of Most Metal Athletes. We ended up winning the award, and Dave Mustaine [from Megadeth] gave us the award. We got to hang out with a lot of guys I grew up idolizing -- you know, Dave Mustaine, Rob Halford, Vinnie Paul, Scott Ian. A couple of 'em came up to me -- Scott Ian, he was one I remember -- like, "Man, I saw that thing you guys did on 'E60.' It seems like you have a love for it. Keep at it, keep working."

It was pretty humbling to hang out with those guys, never mind win an award and have it presented by Dave Mustaine, and hear guys give us support in the metal community. When you hear stuff like that, it kind of makes you feel like you're on the right path. Believe me, this takes up so much time, it can't be a novelty. If that was the case, we wouldn't do it. It's not worth all the time we've put in.

The Life: What was the timeline for writing and recording "Heavier Than Metal"?

Colombo: We did this with the EP, and we did this with the full-length: Justin writes songs during the season. He'll send me all the music, and I'll start writing the lyrics, the melodies, and it's kind of an ongoing process. Then, before training camp, when we have a little bit of time off -- usually around late June -- we'll head into the studio and record the tracks before we take a quick break, then head to training camp.

Once the music is recorded, we're in football mode. [During] football season, it's getting mixed, mastered -- nothing that we really have anything to do with until the season is over. Once the season's over, we hear the final product, figure out what we want to do with it, and market the album and do some shows. That's kind of been the formula. It seems to work, and it's the only thing we can do because of the time constraints.

The Life: Music is, of course, a very personal form of creative expression. Since football is such an integral part of your lives, has the game inspired any of the songs?

Colombo: Yes, it's inspired a lot of it. A lot of the lyrics you hear on "Heavier Than Metal" are inspired by that. Like anything in life, there are a lot of ups and downs in football. There are a lot of things that happen, and it's a good place to write from. I do write during the season. I jot things down. I've got little notes on my iPhone. I write songs whenever I feel inspired, and a lot of that does come from football.

The Life: What song on "Heavier Than Metal" comes from football inspiration, that we, as an audience, would never guess came from that?

Colombo: If I sat down and thought about it, I'd probably give a better answer. Our new single, "One Step Away," was actually written by Justin before he joined Free Reign. He played it for me, and it had a lot of relevance.

I really felt passionate about the song. Basically, it's about one step away from having it all. That's in the chorus. It was something he wrote way back, when he was in another band. They were one step away from being the band they wanted to be, getting signed and doing tours. But there was something that was always standing in their way. He said, "You know, to me, it relates to your football, too."

I was sitting there thinking about it. I, personally, have never won a championship in the NFL, and I'm going into my 10th season. Now that you hear the song, it was that thought process, between being a band not having it all and [me] not winning a championship. I think it can relate to a lot of people, and a lot of people's lives, something keeping you from taking that next step.

The Life: Is the rush of adrenaline that comes from being onstage anything like being on the field?

Colombo: Yes and no. We get fired up for the game, but it's a little bit different. You've got [90,000] to 100,000 people in these stadiums, and it's a huge buildup. A lot of study and work goes into these games. Being offensive linemen, it's not about going and catching touchdown passes and getting the ball. It's about doing your job, doing your assignment right, making holes and keeping the quarterback clean.

Being up onstage, and being the lead singer, it's different. I'm basically the quarterback up there, [Laughs] and it's a release. I feel like music is kind of my other side, where I get a chance to not be an offensive lineman; I get a chance to be a quarterback and lead us into our set.

The practice, and the will to succeed, is very similar in football and in music. Technique is everything. If I scream too hard, I won't be able to sing the next note. There's a lot of technique that goes into singing, a lot of technique that goes into playing guitar, drums, bass. That's very similar to football. And you don't want to let the guy next to you down. It does relate to football in that way.

The Life: Lots of musicians are passionate NFL fans, and they wear their hearts on their sleeves … and on their instruments … and on their road cases -- and, in the case of Vinnie Paul, his entire tour bus.

Colombo: Oh, he's a big Cowboys fan. We love Vinnie Paul, man. He's a great guy.

The Life: But what about an NFL player who's a metalhead? Is your locker decked out with band stickers and concert T-shirts?

Colombo: Oh, of course! I wear band T-shirts every day. I have old T-shirts -- you know, I wear my Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica, Pantera shirts. We've got Free Reign stickers up in the locker room. I sneak 'em up on people's lockers every once in a while.

My wife has been trying forever to take away all my metal shirts. I have a million of 'em, and ones that I haven't worn forever, I'm like, "No, you can't throw that away!" I have five that I always wear, and they're basically … they don't even look like T-shirts anymore. Those concert T-shirts are amazing, a place in time, especially if you were there at that particular show.

The Life: Which call happens more often, high-profile musicians hitting you up for Cowboys tickets, or you, Leonard and Cory looking to get on a band guest list?

Colombo: Oh, that's a good question. I would say bands trying to contact us for tickets. I'm not going to name names, but there are a few in particular where I've gotten [requests]. In the drop of a dime they would put me on a guest list, but we don't really have time, especially during football season. But I take care of my guys.

The Life: What's next, in terms of getting on the road to support "Heavier Than Metal"?

Colombo: That's probably our biggest obstacle as a band, finding time to get on tours. We try to pick and choose key shows. We just did a show in Leonard and Justin's hometown of Wortham, Texas. It's literally in the middle of nowhere. We set up a stage and had five bands, and kind of made it our CD release festival.

We like the House of Blues out here. We played the House of Blues out in Las Vegas, we've played in San Antonio. We've played some good shows, but it's really hard, especially with the way the NFL is right now. There's uncertainty, so it's hard to commit to anything. We try as hard as we can to get out there, and the shows that we do have, we try to make them available to everybody. Our Wortham show was a free show. We want people to come out and be able to see us, put a face with some of this music.

The Life: There is a lot of uncertainty right now with the lockout, in terms of the normal schedule of gearing up for an NFL season. Has that afforded you any unexpected time to devote to Free Reign?

Colombo: Yeah! We've gotten a little bit more time this year, and we've done some good stuff. We did a music video, and we've never done that before. We decided this time we weren't going to shop our music around to record labels. We released the album ourselves, and it's doing really well right now. That's been another time-consuming thing. But we get up every day and work out for half the day. Whatever time is left over we devote to our families and this music.

The Life: Should there not be football in September, is Free Reign part of your contingency plan, rather than not doing anything at all?

Colombo: I wouldn't like to think that there won't be … I hope there will be a football season. That's what we're working for now, and I just don't see that as a possibility. But if it was, I'm sure we could call it the Lockout Tour or something. [Laughs]

The Life: Of course, Cory was traded to the [Miami] Dolphins in 2010. Hoping there is football this season, come that last Sunday of November, what happens when Dallas plays Miami?

Colombo: [Laughs] You know, Cory's an offensive lineman, we're an offensive line. We don't technically go up against each other --

The Life: Right.

Colombo: But me and Leonard are gonna want to win that game. So, if we hurt Cory's feelings, oh well. But at least we won't be hitting him that game. We're good friends, and Cory, I think, has made a home here in Dallas for when football is over. It's pretty cool to have all the band members together, even if we go off and do different things.

The Life: Besides, he's only the drummer. [Laughs]

Colombo: Seriously, I mean, yeah. I used to write songs on the computer, and I would keyboard the drums. It came out pretty good, and I used to mess with him and say I could replace him with a keyboard. But Cory is a really good drummer, and he was on that VH1 show not too long ago, "Rock N' Roll Fantasy Camp," so he's doing pretty well for himself.

The Life: Hey, if not, maybe [ex-Dream Theater drummer] Mike Portnoy is looking for a gig.

Colombo: [Laughs] Yeah, he would fit in with Justin. I don't know about the rest of us. We'd have to really up our game for that one.

Roger Lotring is an author, freelance writer and radio show host based in Connecticut.