COSTA MESA, Calif. — Joe Barksdale considered taking his life midway through last season.
But when his mind meanders to a dark place, playing the guitar pulls him back into the light.
Barksdale, 30, said playing guitar serves as a form of therapy to help him deal with bouts of depression that have haunted him since childhood. Now in his eighth NFL season, Barksdale takes medication and is in therapy for depression.
“It helps from a mental health standpoint,” said Barksdale, the Los Angeles Chargers right tackle. “I’m an introverted person, and it keeps me social because I’m always playing with new people.
“I would say playing guitar is like practicing for a game that you know you’re going to win.”
The Detroit native said he was physically, emotionally and sexually abused as a child. Since acknowledging his condition, Barksdale said he has received a flood of emails and letters from fans also dealing with depression and asking for help.
“I don’t have the easiest time explaining myself to people, communicating how I feel and that kind of thing,” Barksdale said. “And I feel like the guitar helps me communicate with people, first and foremost. But it also helps me process emotions — getting out things that maybe there aren’t words for that you feel.”
Dr. Daniel Levitin, a cognitive neuroscientist, said what Barksdale is going through — and how he’s helping to cope with it — makes sense. For the past three decades, Levitin has studied connections between music and the brain.
Levitin said playing a musical instrument is a great thing for football players to pick up because it gives them a sense of mastery of a different activity — stepping into the shoes of Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters or Prince — and helping to get them out of the doldrums of daily life while doing something that’s physically demanding.
“Music is one of the reliable ways that anybody can get into this daydreaming mode, either by listening or playing,” Levitin said. “It’s a therapeutic mode for the brain that effectively pushes a reset button, and it resets tension and stress — a kind of cycle of negative thoughts.”
Levitin said he interacts regularly with former NFL player Bart Oates, a three-time Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers, on the connections between music and the brain. With the recent revelations of the long-term effects of brain injuries stemming from playing football, more former NFL players are reaching out to Levitin to understand how music therapy can help them deal with those issues.
“The idea is music effects a number of chemical systems in the body, including the immune system,” Levitin said. “The potential for it is still being uncovered, but certainly there’s a lot of evidence that music can help combat depression, and it can help combat feelings of sadness.”
Levitin said the best way out of depression is distraction as an alternative to rumination, offering a limitless opportunity for players to explore another side of themselves.
“The distraction has to be meaningful and engaging enough that you don’t fall back into the rumination,” Levitin said. “And music is one of those things — like football or computer programming or a number of other things humans partake in, chess playing — there are a lot of layers and levels to it. You can start out as an amateur and enjoy playing, but you can go deeper and deeper and spend your whole life doing it.”
Barksdale said he took up the guitar at the end of the 2012 NFL season at the suggestion of Jeff Fisher, his former head coach with the St. Louis Rams. Fisher suggested Barksdale find something to do to help him deal with the loss of a close friend during the offseason.
Barksdale took to the guitar quickly, and now plays at least an hour a day. His favorite guitar players include Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman.
Barksdale released his first album, “Butterflies, Rainbows & Moonbeams” in January of this year, and he has another mini-album due to release early next year. While both recordings are solo projects, Barksdale does sit in with bands on occasion.
“It just kept coming and coming,” Barksdale said about learning the guitar. “Looking back on it, I kind of learned football the same way. Some things just click with you, and I think that’s what it is. It’s one of the reasons, for sure.”
Barksdale fostered a relationship with Fender guitar after touring its facility following his first season with the Chargers, and he has been with the guitar company for four years.
Other athletes who represent Fender include former NBA player Chris Bosh and skateboarders Ray Barbee, Tony Alva and Don Nguyen.
“He’s always struck me as someone who is committed to improving his technique and skills,” said Andy Mooney, CEO of Fender, who added that it’s rare for someone to pick up the guitar so quickly. “When he’s on stage, he’s not playing it behind his head, jumping up and down and being a showman.
“He’s very much kind of concentrating on getting it right on stage, and kind of really applying what he’s learned to contribute to the band that he’s in.”