Joe Barksdale doesn’t stop playing when the NFL season ends


When he’s not chasing his goal of becoming a Hall of Fame right tackle in the NFL, Los Angeles Chargers starting right tackle Joe Barksdale is looking to climb the music charts with his recently released blues-rock album.

Joe Barksdale knows a thing or two about late starts.

The Chargers’ big man up front recently signed an extension with Los Angeles that will keep him under contract until 2020. But growing up in Detroit, Michigan, Barksdale didn’t play his first snap of football until the age of 14.

A gifted student who was a member of the National Honor Society, Barksdale had engineering scholarships on the table as early as his sophomore year of high school. Out of the classroom, his activities included music — playing the violin and the saxophone — and participating in engineering camps over the summer with community service organizations.

But when Barksdale got kicked out of engineering camp on the third day the summer after his freshman year, he needed something else to do during the break. All the other summer programs were full; all, that is, except for his high school’s football team.

“The good news about public high school football is that there’s always an extra spot,” Barksdale told me. “And so that was my introduction to football.”

Now 6’5” and 326 pounds, Barksdale began his career on the gridiron at defensive tackle. By his senior year of high school, he was the top defensive tackle prospect in the Midwest, listed unanimously as a five-star recruit. The Detroit News named Barksdale its No. 1 blue-chip prospect thanks to his 73 tackles (17 for loss), 14 hurries, seven sacks, interception and three forced fumbles as a senior.

So how did Barksdale go from a novice football player to a blue-chip prospect in only three years?

“I think you get to a point where you love something so much that subconsciously you grind away at it, but it’s not really grinding because it’s a passion,” Barksdale says. He put in the work, and he reaped the benefits; as any of his coaches will attest, he has always picked things up quickly.

"“I think you get to a point where you love something so much that subconsciously you grind away at it, but it’s not really grinding because it’s a passion.”"

When it came time to select a college program, Barksdale was offered scholarships from all around the country. When he chose LSU, he became the first signee ever from the state Michigan.

With all those options on the table, I asked Barksdale: Why LSU?

“They had a lot of guys who looked like me,” Barksdale says. “What I mean by that is bigger guys who could still move, who were impressive to look at and who would push me and motivate me to get better throughout my career.”

That’s a reasonable draw, and it’s an answer Barksdale has given in the past when he’s been asked this question. But then he pauses.

ORLANDO, FL – JANUARY 1: Jerome Hayes
ORLANDO, FL – JANUARY 1: Jerome Hayes /

“Okay, I’ll tell you the real reason I went to LSU,” he says.

I grab my pen.

“My wife. I’ve known her for 20 years” Barksdale says. (The two met in third grade.)

“I wanted her to come to college with me, and it was really between LSU and Ohio State. I asked her if she would apply to Ohio State, figuring it was close enough and we could go there together. Well, unbeknownst to me, she filled out an application. I didn’t know. And so I had been thinking, well, if I don’t know anyone in Ohio and I don’t know anyone in Louisiana, I might as well go to the South and experience a different culture. I had been in the Midwest my whole life.”

Barksdale signed his scholarship offer from LSU and Brionna remained in Michigan to attend Michigan State University. Joe and Brionna remained in a long-distance relationship until they got married in 2015, moving to San Diego when Barksdale signed with the Chargers.

“So Brionna Barksdale is the real reason I went to LSU. Now you’re the only publication that knows the real story,” Barksdale laughs.

"“So Brionna Barksdale is the real reason I went to LSU. Now you’re the only publication that knows the real story.”"

Barksdale arrived at LSU as a defensive tackle, but by the time he left the Tigers he was playing on the other side of the ball. The frequently reported story is that the coaching staff at LSU asked Barksdale to make the position switch, but Barksdale has another little-known narrative to reveal.

“One of the common misconceptions is that people think they moved me to offensive line, but the fact is I asked to be moved to offensive line because it was the best opportunity for me to play there,” Barksdale explained.

“It was extremely difficult, but that being said I was happy to be on the field, and that was why I made the switch in the first place. They had Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson and those guys, and I knew I wasn’t gonna play over there.”

By his sophomore season at LSU, Barksdale was starting at right tackle for the Tigers. He started a team-best 39 consecutive games and, in his senior season, made the move to left tackle. The Oakland Raiders drafted Barksdale in the third round of the 2011 draft, and he played all 16 games as a rookie.

In 2012, however, both Barksdale and then-Raiders head coach Hue Jackson lost their jobs after each had only been in Oakland for one year — along with other team personnel — as the Raiders brought in a new general manager in Reggie McKenzie.

“There are no hard feelings with the Raiders, besides them being division rivals that we play twice a year,” Barksdale laughs. But he acknowledges that he hadn’t expected to be thrust into that situation only a year into his career.

"“There are no hard feelings with the Raiders.”"

The St. Louis Rams claimed Barksdale off waivers, but the team didn’t use him much in 2012. Barksdale wouldn’t be inserted into the Rams’ starting lineup until Week 3 the 2013 season. In the meantime, he found himself in a new city, in a long-distance relationship with Brionna, feeling lost.

Barksdale has suffered from clinical depression since he was eight years old, and not long after he arrived in St. Louis, the upheavals in his professional life were met with a devastating blow in his personal life.

Charleston Fobbs was Barksdale’s assistant high school football coach and, more importantly, a mentor and second father to him. Fobbs did everything from hitting the gym with Barksdale during college to serving as his business manager when Barksdale first entered the league.

But just as Barksdale’s career was beginning to pick up in St. Louis, his world came apart — Fobbs died in a car accident the week before his first start.

“I was devastated,” Barksdale recalls. Though the acute trauma of Fobbs’ passing hit Barksdale hard, it also exacerbated his depression symptoms. “It’s like going to a funeral, and the way that you feel, that sadness, that’s how I feel every day I wake up,” Barksdale says. “Some days it’s easier to talk yourself out of the hole than other days.”

ST. LOUIS, MO – SEPTEMBER 21: Joe Barksdale
ST. LOUIS, MO – SEPTEMBER 21: Joe Barksdale /

Barksdale is now on medication and seeing a therapist, but after the conclusion of the 2013 season, without football to consume his mind and his time, he struggled.

That’s when Jeff Fisher stepped in.

The then-Rams head coach could see that his player was hurting, and he wanted to help. Fisher and Barksdale met repeatedly in his office for long discussions, and Fisher knew that Barksdale needed something else in his life besides football.

“His heart was heavy,” Fisher told me.

“I asked him, ‘Joe, what do you do when you go home from here?’” Fisher recalled. “He said, ‘Well, nothing.’ I said, ‘We need to fill in the gap. You need something to look forward to. There’s so much more to life than football.’”

"“I asked him, ‘Joe, what do you do when you go home from here?'”"

Fisher, whose youngest son was teaching himself guitar, had an idea. “I said, ‘You’re really talented; did you ever think about taking up the guitar?’ And he looked at me kinda funny and said, ‘No,’” Fisher laughed.

But Joe took Fisher’s advice and started working with a guitar teacher in St. Louis.

“Joe thought maybe he could play left-handed because Jimi Hendrix was left handed,” Fisher recalled. “And that…didn’t work,” he laughed. “So he told me that he was playing right-handed and was really enjoying it.”

He began playing in clubs on Mondays, a day off from football practice, to raise money for charity. When Barksdale’s contract with the Rams expired after the 2014 season, he decided to test free agency and signed with the Chargers, then in San Diego.

That’s when Barksdale’s music career really began to take off.

“Whatever happens with my music career wouldn’t have happened if not for Jeff Fisher suggesting I play the guitar,” Barksdale says.

Fast forward to 2018, and Barksdale’s first album with his rock-blues band, Yours Truly, Joe Barksdale, was released on January 25. Butterflies, Rainbows & Moonbeams is the culmination of a late passion that blossomed quickly.

Barksdale wrote several of the album’s songs himself, including “Dreams,” whose second verse goes as follows:

"Please dont judge me,For wearing my hair longBeing differentDoesn’t make me wrongMy heart beatsRed blood runs through my veinsLast time i checkedYours did the same"

It doesn’t take a big leap to understand what Barksdale is writing about, given the tumultuous social climate surrounding the 2017 NFL season.

“If you’re not posting about football, then it’s like, you’re not supposed to have an opinion,” Barksdale says. “You’re just supposed to play football. And I’m not just a football player, just like you’re not just a journalist, just like a janitor isn’t just a janitor,” Barksdale tells me.

We talk about the dissociation (Barksdale’s word) many NFL players feel acutely between their inner selves and the personas they portray on social media. “These are people, with real lives and hopes and dreams,” Barksdale says.

Hence track No. 11 on his album — “Dreams.”

Music has given Barksdale a powerful opportunity to use his voice again. And to think — four years ago, he had never even picked up a guitar.

“Several weeks ago I got a text from Joe with the picture of the album cover,” Fisher told me the week of the album’s release. “And I just smiled. He said something along the lines of, ‘You got me started.’

“The whole experience was better than any win that I ever had, just to see that he found something outside of football that he was passionate about. That’s the relationship part of the game that I think people oftentimes miss.”

As we wrap up, I ask Barksdale about his goals both in the NFL and in music.

“The Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he replies instantly.

I laugh. “Sure,” I say, “but what are your more immediate goals?”

“The Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Barksdale says.

Why get out of bed for anything less?