It’s often said that most professional athletes want to be musicians and most musicians want to be professional athletes. That’s essentially the premise of the annual Celebrity Game at NBA All-Star weekend, for example.
Of course, both vocations share an idea of performance and audience adoration. Though even when you’re at the top of your game, the grass can always seem greener elsewhere. But what about those rare folks who are both professional athlete and musician? Can such a thing even exist?
Soccer player Alexi Lalas has felt the hot lights of the World Cup and the Olympics. The defender, who grew up in Detroit, Michigan and attended Rutgers University in New Jersey, was a breakout star in the 1994 World Cup with his long hair and red beard. Later, Lalas played abroad in a prestigious Italian league before starring in the MLS.
Every step of the way, though, he carried a guitar with him. The instrument, he says, helped with personal and creative expression in times of transition and it acted as a social icebreaker.
“From the moment I left for college, I had a backpack and my guitar over my shoulder,” says Lalas, who said he would take song requests in locker rooms and on team buses, karaoke-style. “At a time when we’re muddling through those awkward moments, that was very important to me.”
Growing up, Lalas says the posters on his wall were of musicians, not soccer players. At the behest of his poet mother and professor father, he’d taken piano lessons as a kid (and disliked them) but as he grew older, music became more and more important.
Lalas, who’s since recorded seven solo records and one with his band, The Gypsies, started playing guitar at 13 years old. He played in garage bands in high school, influenced by bands like Van Halen and Def Leppard. In college, he played parties and toured the New York City-area.
Perhaps surprisingly, though, there weren’t many other musician-athletes in his friend circles. Lalas calls the two endeavors “separate but equal parts” of his life.
Now, a decade or so removed from his playing career, Lalas works as a soccer analyst on the Fox Sports network. But his music career continues. He released his latest solo record, Look at You, in summer 2019.
Lalas recorded the album, a high-energy blend of pop and rock, largely in his home studio with his trusty Gibson Les Paul and Marshall stack amplifiers.
Today, Lalas says he has a large collection of guitars, numbering about 50 and ranging from the Les Paul to his Guild acoustic. And while the collection may not include some '$500,000-once-strummed-by-Elvis' gem, the instruments, Lalas says, represent checkpoints in his life and, on occasion, he finds himself looking upon them, reminiscing about different eras in his life. The songs he wrote on the instruments have the same effect, he explains.
“I love that I can hear a song and it can put me in a place or a time that elicits a memory or a reaction or a feeling or an emotion,” he says. “I don’t think anything else in the world can do that. I associate times in my life with certain songs. They’re like bookmarks.”
One memorable bookmark in Lalas’ music career was opening for Hootie & the Blowfish on a leg of the band’s 1998 European tour. Lalas had just released his second solo record, Ginger, that year and the Grammy-winning jam-rock band invited the soccer star on a handful of gigs to showcase his passionate singing and power-pop ballads. It was a highlight for the former World Cup standout athlete.
“It wasn’t just a good time,” Lalas says, ”I learned a whole lot about what it’s like to be on the road as a musician. I learned a lot about performance, what to do and what not to do. I’d always considered myself a performer, as an athlete and a musician. But when I’m on stage in front of people and it goes great, that reaction is so addictive.”
The world of music is just as competitive as professional sports, Lalas explains. Everyone wants to win - whether that means hitting the game-winning three-point shot in the heat of the moment or hitting a high note in a torrid solo. But in the end, considering it all, which does Lalas prefer: scoring a goal on the pitch or writing a great song?
“Writing a great song,” Lalas says, definitively. “I remain immensely proud of the music I’ve written. I think art comes in a lot of different forms. There’s artistry to score a goal, without a doubt. But the art that come from lyrics and music that impact somebody in a certain way, there’s nothing better.”