Mic check

Jake Peavy, straight jamming. Mark J. Rebilas for ESPN The Magazine

This article appears in the June 28 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Jake Peavy sits "backstage" -- more accurately a ventilation room at the Venue in Scottsdale, Ariz. -- tuning his Gibson and half­listening to the muffled bass line that seeps through the wall. Onstage, Aubrey Huff is doing Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" while a Cactus League crowd of 1,200 stomp their flip-flops. On deck are guitarist Scott Linebrink, vocalist Bronson Arroyo and Barry Zito, sitting in on drums. Later, Zito will close his own set with a rendition of "Sweet Child o' Mine," grinning ear to ear as his fellow Giant Brandon Medders plays his ax -- behind his head. "I don't know what came over me," Medders will say, "but I hope this feeling never goes away."

This is Woodjock, Peavy's first annual spring training charity jam. And in case you're about to turn the page, the White Sox pitcher is way ahead of you. "We know people roll their eyes at us," he says, sweat dripping from his sideburns. "But music is the pulse I live by."

Peavy isn't the first jock to plug in, tune up and rock out. Long before the "Super Bowl Shuffle," pros were making music -- and often, fools of themselves. Yes, some double threats have been legit: Jazz guitarist and Yankee Bernie Williams earned critical praise for 2003's The Journey Within. Country music legend Marty Robbins won two Grammys while driving in NASCAR for three decades. But for every Yannick Noah (French pop-soul sensation) or Wayman Tisdale (12 jazz albums), there are a dozen Joe Fraziers (go ahead, Google -- if you dare) and Carl Lewises (ditto).

Call them dilettantes (they've heard that, too), but for many pro athletes the pull of music is real and understandable. Mix huge salaries with a whole lot of downtime (especially in the off-season) and you get a perfect setup for a high-maintenance hobby. To these guys, the thrill of the challenge of excelling in a second sphere must be second only to the self-confidence borne out of already operating at an elite level for years. Add technology that makes playing, recording and distribution easier than ever, and it's obvious why more jocks than ever are bringing the noise: because they can. And who are we to say they shouldn't?

In any case, for most, making music is less a road to crossover superstardom than it is to a little home-cooked therapy. "When you're screaming Staind at the top of your lungs, it's like hitting a punching bag," says Arroyo, the Reds pitcher who had to put down the guitar this spring to let his carpal-tunnel-afflicted throwing hand heal. Explains Peavy, "Some guys, when they have a rough day, will do the bar thing. We do it differently. If Mark Buehrle has a bad start, a bunch of us will grab guitars and play our troubles away. Nothing brings a team closer than music."

The White Sox brass is on board, providing Peavy with a suite for his road jams. Most of us, though, just think athlete-musicians are unfocused. That's why folk-rocker Ben Broussard waited until retirement to release his second CD, Renovated: "If you're hitting, music is a cool hobby," the seven-year MLB vet says. "If you go 0-4, everyone's wondering why you don't stay home and play Xbox."

Zito knows that double-edged sword well. No jock loves making music more -- "It's oxygen," the ace lefty says -- and no one has been more dogged for it. Zito comes by his obsession honestly (his dad worked with Nat "King" Cole), but when the former Cy Young winner buckled under the $126 million deal he signed with San Francisco in 2006, haters claimed the freethinker had lost focus. The criticism peaked last August, when a long­forgotten session with then-teammate Omar Vizquel went viral. "I'm messing around, singing the most half-assed s -- , and this freakin' schmuck technician hits the record button," Zito says. "Two years later, he leaks it on the Internet."

While the tune, "A Man's Gotta Do," was being eviscerated in the blogs, Zito took a deep breath and went to work on getting his musical game right. He bolstered his "weakest link," his pipes, and traded a Rock Band drum kit for a set of skins that by the end of the year he was playing in real-life shows with SoCal troubadour Kelley James. "Now, all I hear are drums," Zito says. "When your ear evolves, your music improves." He has junked an in-the-works neo-soul CD and begun to pen a new one. "I wrote more songs in spring training than ever."

The good news, for the Giants and their fans, is that Zito's music and pitching seem to have what he calls "a reciprocal relationship." The upshot is a hot 2010 start -- 6–2, 3.15 ERA -- and a different approach: "I stopped stressing about results. If you're worried about the batter or how your music is received, you're not going to throw your best ball or write your best song. Once I freed my mind, it clicked." Zito isn't sure when he'll release his album, but one song -- "Butterflies," a collaboration with R&Ber Raheem DeVaughn, will be featured in the upcoming Eddie Murphy flick, A Thousand Words. "I'm searching for fulfillment now," says Zito. "I quench that thirst a little bit every day with music." So long as he's winning, fans and management will groove to the new tune.

Cory Proctor, Marc Colombo and Leonard Davis are in the spotlight. It's April 8, and the Cowboys offensive linemen, members all of Free Reign, stand on stage at LA's Club Nokia for Revolver magazine's Golden Gods awards, the annual tribute to the best in metal. Before an audience of their gods -- one-namers like Ozzie and Zombie -- and their righteous fans, the big men are here to accept an award for "most metal athlete." Unfortunately, their hell-raising rise from postpractice garage rockers to the big time is being met by a chorus of boos. "Hey, shut up!" Proctor growls into the mic in response. "We are Free Reign and the Dallas f -- in' Cowboys! Don't like America's Team? F -- you!"

See, metalheads? Proctor and his boys hate posers too. Look past the day job, and you'll see a pretty decent band whose 2010 EP, Tragedy, went over well with the dudes who do this kind of thing for a living. "These guys shred," says Judas Priest singer Rob Halford. "The fact that they're hulking NFL monsters is a bonus."

Formed in January 2009, Reign clicked immediately. Death metal disciple Colombo is lyricist and front man. Country boy Proctor, drummer and quasimanager. Davis? "I'm the black guy!" (He kids; he's the bassist.) Bolstered by ringer guitarist Justin Chapman, their slick nümetal sound landed them an indie deal and (mostly) positive reviews. Says Disturbed's John Moyer: "They're commercial, but they hit harder and scream louder than anybody."

This spring, Reign toured the South, an ear-splitting, 1,100-pound caravan. With each show, sales increased exponentially. "We had our first mosh pit, with cops and people throwing up everywhere," Colombo recalls. "We were friggin' pumped." Today, Colombo says Reign is on the radio in 12 states with their personal title track. "The 'tragedy' is the chains holding you down -- you know, 'athletes can't play music,' 'black guys can't play metal' -- which are mostly in your head," he explains.

Enough jocks have made the jump to musical respectability that Colombo may be on to something. If you think about it, the same skill set that propels an athlete to the top of his game gives him a head start on his new side project: drive, dedication to craft, hand-eye coordination, focus and more hubris than the Gallagher brothers -- not to mention access to the best advice and technology celebrity can buy. Flipping the script, a number of successful musicians -- from Metallica's Lars Ulrich (tennis) to Jack Johnson (surfing) -- were promising athletes before they chose their current paths. The irony is athletes who are actually blessed with true musical talent face an uphill battle for respect.

Blame Shaq.

The big man made it look easy when his '93 debut, Shaq Diesel, went Top 30 on the Billboard charts, eventually earning him the distinction of being the only jock MC to go platinum. "It's been 17 years," he says. "No one's come close." We're not going to be the ones who tell him that's because it's almost impossible to match the perfect storm of timing, star power and goofy rhymes he rode to the top. In the wake of Diesel's success, albums by the likes of Deion Sanders and Chris Webber quickly erased the novelty and the audience it brought with it. By the end of the '90s fans had stopped buying even Shaq's records and started saying things like: "Oh, no, not another athlete-rapper."

Brandon Lloyd heard essentially that from several industry kingmakers when he shopped his demo in 2007. But B. Lloyd has the goods. His tracks have since been licensed to video games and a movie. His jam "She All Mine," featuring Bobby Valentino, was in heavy club rotation last fall. "Some of us have more talent and sexier lifestyles than the rappers who portray themselves as drug dealers," the Broncos receiver says. "But nobody wants to hear it."

For athletes, hip-hop may be the most perilous of musical genres, full of one-and-dones decried as too cute (Kobe), too street (AI), too French (Tony Parker) or plain whack (J-Kidd, Roy Jones Jr., Troy Hudson et al.). All MCs walk the line between commercial appeal and keeping it real, but jock rhymers have an extra constituency: a predominantly white fan base and image-conscious commissioners. David Stern ostensibly put the prerelease kibosh on Iverson's 2000 effort -- based on its violent single, "40 Bars" -- and set back the dreams of all NBA rappers. "If athletes aren't allowed to stay true to themselves," says crossover king Ice Cube, "they're left with an album of stupid basketball raps." Shaq!

Pro athletes face one more hurdle: their names. You'd think an established handle would be an advantage in a personality-driven business. Not so, claims Cube, who says jocks need to overcome what he calls the Lucille Ball syndrome: "Great actress, but she's Lucy! She ain't getting another job." But he has a solution. "There's one way to get past the perception problem: rap under another name and leak it. If it has legs, come out from behind it."

Say hello to Q6, a.k.a. Marquis Daniels. The Orlando-bred Celtic spits Southern rhymes under a pseudonym to sidestep "the weak-minded who can't separate me from basketball." Oh, and because he occasionally works blue. "I'm not rapping about killing you. But I'm street, and I'm deep."

Exhibit A: "Green Ass N -- ." Daniels explains: "I was in a shop getting my dreads twisted, and someone broke into my car and stole some stuff. I found who did it, got it all back. But I'm like, 'Don't wanna see a brotha shine? You're green, fool.'"

Q6 may be raw, but Daniels has the mind of an MBA. An MC since middle school, his recording career picked up in 2006 when he used his NBA cred -- he was with the Pacers at the time -- to score a powwow with rapper Gucci Mane. "Gucci said, 'Don't spend money just because you have it; build street buzz first,' " Daniels recalls. So instead of taking the Ron Artest route, releasing a full-length with a PR machine behind it, he leaked his beats online, took the feedback to heart as he wrote new songs -- "at hotels, on the plane when everyone plays cards" -- and tracked them.

Today, Q6 headlines four mix tapes with a fifth due after the NBA Finals. Its single, "Nikki" -- a club joint with a catchy, Kid Cudi-esque hook -- is already an Orlando radio staple, as Daniels found when he dropped by a club during the Celtics series with the Magic. "Everybody was singing the words," he says. Daniels' ride kicks into gear this summer, when he plans to intern at Atlantic Records and meet with major labels about a full-length release. And he's already planning "Nikki's" music video. "I can't hide forever," he says.

Fact is, though, most jock-musicians choose to never suit up for the Show. Four years ago, then-Clipper Elton Brand recorded 30 tracks for producer LT Hutton (Snoop, 2Pac) before pulling the plug. "It's a hit album," Hutton says, "but he's shy about it." Jazz forward C.J. Miles sums it up best: "It's hard to find people who will look past the basketball." That's why you may never hear any of Miles' 100 tracks. "Nobody's gonna take us seriously," he says. "Why bother?"

There's also that pesky day job preventing pros from committing to the grind required to push their music beyond the home studio or garage. "We're Cowboys first," Free Reign's Proctor says. "In-season, we have to shut it down." The group would love to land a major label deal, but they know their part-timing works against them. Says Colombo, "Nobody will take a chance on a band that can't do a full tour." Until they quit the game, then, Free Reign is screwed. And they shouldn't expect any sympathy from "real" musicians. "Success requires total dedication," says Alice in Chains' Jerry Cantrell. "Athletes have a hard-core job. The math doesn't add up."

So will a pro jock ever top the charts? "Yeah, when you see me in the NBA," says Maroon 5's Adam Levine. Still, with more and more pros indulging, the odds are getting better. Recently, Carolina Panther Jonathan Stewart, a self-taught pianist, has seen his spiraling synth tracks catch the ears of Drake and Akon. Artest will come out swinging in 2011 with his soph solo album, featuring a Nas cameo and tracks produced by Polow da Don (50 Cent, Usher) and Swizz Beatz (T.I., Eve).

As for Peavy? The Alabaman, who counts Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith among his mentors, plans to start a country music label. His own work may never hit iTunes, though. Despite the crowd-pleasing cover that capped his Woodjock set, "I Love Black People" ("I love black people/I love brown people ... I love gay people/I'm not afraid, people"), music will remain the glue of late-night team building. In fact, he's already turned on one new teammate to the power of the jam.

Before Woodjock, Gordon Beckham was a shower singer. But in his stage debut, he crooned the Eagles' "Take it Easy" to one of the night's loudest ovations. "There was liquid courage involved," admits the Sox second baseman, "but I think I did alright." As Beckham speaks backstage, his eyes dart to the ladies and their winks, the guys with the grins and high fives. He says, with a smile, "I could get used to this music thing."

Sam Alipour is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and occasionally on Page 2. You can reach him at sam.alipour@gmail.com.