The Hidden Talents Within – NFL Players Who Are Also Successful Creators
Recently, I excitedly watched as the 2022 NFL season began on September 8, 2022, with the LA Rams battling the Buffalo Bills (but I won’t tell you which team I was cheering for!). As the game got underway, I started to think about how much time it takes to train for and play football well enough to be a successful pro football player. Then I thought to myself, “I wonder what hobbies or creative outlets pro football players pursue off the field,” which led me to further ponder, “I wonder if any of them are creators.” This line of thinking was the beginning of some quick online searches (followed by many longer ones), which ultimately revealed that there are countless talented NFL players invested in creative careers that they began before, after, and sometimes during, their peak playing years.
These “NFL creators” may not have considered their artistic talents as their “day jobs” to pay the bills during their early football careers. However, many of them are skilled at their crafts and want to share their inspiring talents with all who will appreciate them. In fact, it’s fair to say that an untold number of National Football League (NFL) players express themselves off the field by painting, dancing, taking photos, making music, and much more. These players may have a tough, gritty, physical job on the field, but they have also scored big in the world of creativity. If you find this hard to believe, read on to learn about a few of the NFL players who have worked their magic far from the gridiron.
Artist Ernie Barnes
Born in 1938 in Durham, North Carolina, during the South’s Jim Crow era, as a young Black student, Ernie Barnes attended segregated schools throughout his early academic career. Upon graduating from high school, Barnes received an unprecedented 26 athletic college scholarships. But segregation prevented him from attending Duke University and the University of North Carolina, both of which were located near his home. Instead, he attended the all-Black North Carolina College at Durham. At North Carolina College, he played both tackle and center on a full athletic scholarship while majoring in art and honing his creative prowess. Following his college years, in December 1959, Barnes was drafted in the tenth round by the then-World Champion Baltimore Colts. He had originally been selected in the eighth round by the (former) Washington Redskins, which retracted their pick after discovering Barnes was Black. Needless to say, Barnes faced challenges finding a place on the NFL roster and moved teams often. Still, he successfully played for the Titans of New York, LA Chargers, Denver Broncos, and many other NFL teams during his football career.
Barnes, who passed away in 2009, is remembered as a talented and dedicated NFL player who overcame many challenges to play pro football, the sport he loved. However, despite the fact that some say he was overlooked as a significant artist, he is remembered for his prolific contributions to the art world, especially his paintings depicting Black life and culture. Some of his most significant artistic achievements include creating album covers for Marvin Gaye, being commissioned to do a painting for Kanye West, and being named as the official artist of the 1984 Olympics. In recent years, his work was featured at the California African American Museum, in an exhibit titled Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective from May 8 to September 8, 2019.
Country Songwriter and Singer Mike Reid
Born in 1947 and raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania, many who followed Mike Reid’s football career said he was born to be an accomplished NFL player. After a successful college ball career at Penn State where he was a defensive lineman (not to mention a serious pianist), he had a five-year run playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. When his Bengals career ended in 1974, Reid didn’t look for another NFL team, nor did he ever look back. Instead, beginning in 1975, Reid immersed himself into making country music. Moving to Nashville in the early 1980’s, he signed with Ronnie Milsap’s publishing firm. Although he didn’t initially perform live himself, Reid worked diligently behind the scenes with prominent country artists, including Milsap, co-writing songs such as “Stranger in My House,” which earned him a Grammy in 1984 for Best Country Song. Then, in 1985, Milsap’s recording of Reid’s “Lost in the Fifties Tonight” became the number one hit on the country charts and scored the number eight position on the adult contemporary charts, becoming the most-played country song of the year as well as ASCAP’s Country Song of the Year in 1986.
Reid eventually began a solo recording and singing career, releasing two studio albums for Columbia Records, and charted seven singles on the Billboard Hot Country Singles and Tracks (now known as Hot Country Songs Chart) as a singer, including his number one hit “Walk on Faith,” which was co-written with Allen Shamblin and released in November 1990 as the first single from his album Turning for Home. The song became a number one country hit in February 1991. In 2005, in honor of his incredible songwriting success and dedication to country music, Reid was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Photographer Tyler (Ty) Schmitt
Ty Schmitt is a self-taught, California-based photographer and artist who specializes in landscape and storm photography. But Ty’s very first passion was football. In 2008, he was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks after four successful seasons playing for San Diego State University as a long snapper. He was also the first NFL player drafted solely to play the position of long snapper. However, in August of 2008, not long after he began his NFL career, he was placed on the season-ending injury-reserve list due to a severe back injury and was released by the Seahawks in 2009.
It was a tough break for Ty, who became committed to finding his true path in life, and turned to a hypnotherapist for assistance, which helped him find his passion for landscape photography. Despite having no experience or training, Ty’s passionate pursuit of photography evolved into a full-time, successful career. According to Ty, “I got a chance to look deep down inside, and for some reason, landscape photography jumped out…and so I said, ‘I have to do this. I don’t care if everyone thinks I’m crazy—this is a calling.'” The only camera that Schmitt owned when he caught the photography bug was an iPhone. So, he bought a used DSLR camera from his aunt and watched endless YouTube videos to learn how to master it, while also garnering tips on becoming a seasoned photographer.
And as they say, the rest is history, as Schmitt is now a sought-after photographer whose breathtaking work has been featured by Disney+, National Geographic, and Fast Company, among others.
Dancer Kyler Gordon
Although it may not be widely known, there are a number of NFL players who have taken up ballet and other forms of dance to further develop their football skills. Why? It’s a combination of balance and precise footwork that draws players of all shapes and sizes to study ballet since these skills translate so well to the football field. Kyler Gordon started his football career in high school and then played at the University of Washington, where he became a full-time starter in 2021. On January 5, 2022, Gordon entered the 2022 NFL Draft and was a 2022 Chicago Bears first draft pick.
But long before his football or NFL success, Gordon studied dance at the urging of his mother. According to Gordon, “My mom actually got me into (dance) at a young age…It was the first competitive thing I ever did…I went to nationals. Did all that. The lyrical, ballet, hip hop.” Gordon now credits his mom and his dance background for providing him with the work ethic, discipline, and coordination he needs to succeed in football.
According to Bears’ scout Francis St. Paul, Gordon’s dance background is evident when watching him play on video. “You see it in his balance…You see it in his change of direction. He ran a 6.67 three-cone, and the most impressive part about it, he was stumbling and pulled out of that stumble to finish,” St. Paul notes.
NFL Players Choir
In case you didn’t already know, there actually is a group called the NFL Players Choir, which was founded in 2008 and which first performed at Super Bowl XLII in Phoenix, Arizona. The choir has been performing for more than a decade and consists of both current and former pro football players, including Tully Banta-Cain, Willie Yarbary, Bryan Scott, Bryant McKinnie, Isaiah McKenzie, Stephen Pierce, Leonard Weaver, Jamon Brown, Cameron Lamark Newton, Prince Amukamara, and Jamon Brown; and the only requirement to join is to be a current or former NFL player.
For years, the group performed at the annual Super Bowl Gospel Celebration alongside talented musicians such as Donnie McClurkin, Melvin Crispell III, Erica Campbell, and Hezekiah Walker. In 2020, the choir performed virtually for Share the Light, an event supporting the American Cancer Society. Then in June of 2022, the choir took the stage on the TV show America’s Got Talent (AGT) for season 17. Unfortunately, it got sacked while performing on AGT, but that didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits, and the group will continue to sing at numerous upcoming events. In 2019, the group’s choir director Myron Butler told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he liked “the idea of football meeting faith through [the choir’s] performances.” And according to Super Bowl Gospel Celebration founder Melanie Few-Harrison, “We have some accomplished musicians [in the choir] with great voices, who have been with us from the beginning. It seems that the players who can sing know other players who can sing, and it happens from there.”
Producer, Writer, and Commercial Actor Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning was born on March 24, 1976, in New Orleans, Louisiana, and attended the University of Tennessee where he played football and won the Maxwell, Davey O’Brien, and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Awards as he prepared for victory in the 1997 SEC Championship. After college, Manning had an incredible 18-season career as the quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts from 1998-2011 and played for the Denver Broncos from 2012-15. He also won two Super Bowls, beat all of the current 32 NFL franchises, and played in 14 Pro Bowls.
Football triumphs aside, Manning is now an uber successful producer, writer, and commercial actor. In fact, in 2020, Manning was ranked as the Number One commercial actor on a long list of “gridiron greats” by Muse by Cleo, a news site that covers creativity in advertising.
When it comes to being a commercial actor, Manning’s colleagues have called him a “legit chameleon and borderline method actor.” Some of his most famous commercial spots include a classic commercial for Sprint, one that demonstrates “his unmatched dialogue timing with his‘ ”rocket arm” line; and a Mastercard spot titled Cut that meat! It’s been said by many who have worked with Manning that he can “carry a commercial and elevate the entire ethos of a brand without even appearing…he’s Marlon Brando meets Will Ferrell meets [Robert] De Niro meets Meryl Streep meets Morgan Freeman meets (literally) Ron Burgundy.” Beyond this list of endless successes, Manning is also set to co-host the upcoming Country Music Awards (CMAs) with Luke Bryan on November 9, 2022; and his popular NFL broadcast was spoofed in a hilarious Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit during the opening show on October 1, 2022, when SNL host Miles Teller portrayed Peyton Manning and SNL actor Andrew Dismukes portrayed his brother Eli Manning.
Let’s face it, as most of us know, being a pro NFL football player is not an easy job, with executing winning moves on the football field expected of players by their legions of dedicated fans, fellow team members, and coaches. However, as evidenced by those athletes who have a talent for making touchdowns and passes on the field and scoring big creatively off the field, there are scores of NFL players (both past and present) who have been—and who continue to be–successfully pursuing creative careers and sharing their tremendous talents with the world.
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