(This story was first published in the Dec. 19, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Katy Savage, Standard Staff
HARTLAND — Brian Barthelmes used to have a ritual before every football game — he would make himself angry.
I’m mad at something, he would tell himself. I’m really going to hit this guy hard.
But all Barthelmes really wanted to do was talk to the other team about what kind of music they liked.
Barthelmes spent two years as an offensive lineman for the New England Patriots. But while he was blocking and working out, his mind was exploding with lyrics.
He’d wake up every morning at 5 a.m. to his usual cup of coffee thinking about music. He’d put pen to paper, but eventually he’d have to get in his truck and drive to practice.
“It was like making the decision everyday to keep doing it,” he said. “I’ve always been ethically against doing anything for money. I found myself at a crossroads. I was only playing a sport that I didn’t like to get ahead financially somehow.”
So in 2008, he gave up what most consider a dream job in the NFL and moved to Rhode Island to write songs.
“A lot of people go backpack for a couple of years,” he said. “I would go play in the NFL for a couple years. It’s a weird way to figure out how to do nothing but be an artist.”
While in Providence, Barthelmes met his fellow musicians, who helped form the band, Tallahassee. Barthelmes liked the name, which is a Creek Indian word for “old field” or “small town.” Barthelmes and his bandmates also liked how the word looked — with two Ls, two Ss and two Es.
“You know a band is all art nerds when one-third of the name selection had to do with how it looks,” he said. “It’s a gorgeous word.”
Tallahassee recently performed at the Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction, opening for local band Bow Thayer and Perfect Trainwreck. The gig was a short drive from Barthelmes’ new home in Hartland.
To make ends meet, Barthelmes works as a freelance artist and also part-time at King Arthur Flour Company.
“It’s funny to watch my income from when I was 20 years old to now,” Barthelmes said, as he made a downward curving motion with his hand.
But it’s all worth it, according to Barthelmes, who uses writing to cope with anxiety and his struggles with mental health.
“For me writing is a big part of self-actualization therapy,” he said.
Barthelmes grew up in an 1,000 population town in Ohio and after living in cities for years he moved to Hartland. He’s noticed a change in the lyrics he’s been writing.
“Days with friends are days well spent. It’s not a hard concept, but one worth remembering,” wrote Barthelmes in a recent song.
“I kind of sat back and said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’” Barthelmes said. “This place is making me slow down and reflect. I’ve been doing a lot of writing.”
Barthelmes now has a fullgrown beard and long hair. Despite his 6-foot-7 height, he looks like a typical musician. Football is a largely a thing of the past for Barthelmes and he rarely watches football games anymore. When he looks at old photographs of himself, when he was 100 pounds heavier and his hair was shorter, his football career seems like a lifetime ago.
“I look at (the pictures) and I’m like, ‘That’s so weird — I did that,’” he said.
But the lessons he learned from the sport are still instilled in him.
In football, he always had a set schedule. Every half-hour to 10 minutes of his life was planned. So whenever his bandmates get together to practice, or write songs or go on drives to gigs, he puts together a comprehensive list of what they’re going to accomplish.
“If I say I’m going to have this many songs written, and this many recorded, I go and do it,” he said.
“My bandmates love to tease me.”
On a 22-hour drive to the Midwest, for example, Barthelmes made up a schedule for who was going to be driving, who was going to be sleeping in the back seat and who was going to sit in the middle. If Barthelmes is five minutes late going on stage for a show, he thinks he’ll get fired.
“I think it’s really helpful but that’s total football training in me,” he said. “I can’t help it.”
Barthelmes started playing flag football when he was a child.
“I was just bigger than everyone,” he said. “I didn’t mean to knock them over.”
His father, who is currently a middle school football coach, never coached Barthelmes, but he did encourage him to play sports. Barthelmes played football, basketball, baseball and track in school and eventually went to the University of Virginia on scholarship to play football.
“I had a lot of energy,” he said. “I think my parents just wanted to wear me out.”
His sister was the musician in the family who played trumpet in jazz band and in symphonies.
“I always just wanted to make music like her, it just took me a while to get there,” he said.
Brian Barthelmes, of Hartland, fronts the band Tallahassee that performed at Tupelo Music Hall in December.
Nancy Nutile-McMenemy Photo
Barthelmes taught himself to play the guitar when he was 19. When he got better, he taught his fellow teammates in the NFL how to play. He taught six football players, including former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, how to play mandolin.
“I should have charged them, looking back on it,” Barthelmes said.
Barthelmes found amusement after grueling practice sessions — when his legs were shocked and the players sat in tubs after practice to loosen their muscles.
“There’s something really weird and fun about a bunch of guys sitting in trash cans full of ice water waiting for their legs to return,” he said as he laughed. “I miss that.”
His life is drastically different now — he doesn’t exercise, except for “like eight pushups a month” and he doesn’t have strict practice schedules. Instead of a pregame ritual, he has a preshow ritual.
But in some ways, his life is the same. One of his favorite parts of football was working closely with his teammates. He still stretches before he goes on stage and he still does a pregame huddle with his bandmates before they go on stage, where they raise a glass of whiskey and say, “To the top boys,” just like the Beatles used to do.
His co-workers are smaller now and they have longer hair.
“It’s hard to make the same bonds with co-workers when you’re not sleeping in a van next to them and you both haven’t showered for eight days and slept for another nine,” he said.
But he still works in an occupation that consumes his entire life, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I guess I’m a sucker for extreme circumstances around work,” he said. “I guess what I miss about (football) is the same as what I found in music.”
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