Lions’ Larry Warford finds ways to relax, reminisce as talented musician
Detroit right guard finds music to be great way to decompress from football, remember his youth
Their first stop was always the AM-PM gas station and convenience store right off I-5.
Before Larry Warford and his mother, Colene, would make the 2-hour trek from San Diego to Long Beach, they’d fill up on gas — “Gasoline, I love that smell in the morning,” Warford said — and Warford would grab a large coffee with vanilla creamer.
With his parents in the military, Warford moved around a lot as a kid.
The Detroit Lions’ starting right guard was born in San Diego, moved to Washington state when he was young, then spent a few more years in various parts of California before leaving for Kentucky in seventh grade. It was back to San Diego again a year later, then back to Kentucky for his junior and senior years of high school.
Those were special bonding trips Larry and Colene would take up the coast to see friends — mother and son killing time with conversation and music.
Colene, of Samoan descent, always played island music during the car ride, and Larry sang along until whatever CD was playing ended, then hopped on his PlayStation Portable.
“She’d actually pop in her Marina Davis (CD) first. That was her favorite,” Warford said. “She’d pop in her Marina Davis. I think she was in a group called the Five Stars. And it’s just these five, I think they’re all Samoan, singing Samoan songs. It’s just really up-tempo, really upbeat, fun songs. And then we’d just be cruising, singing along with it.
“There’s one song, I think it’s called ‘Pele Ea,’ I used to sing the male parts, she used to sing the lady parts. It used to be real fun, man.”
Those drives helped both nurture Warford’s love for music and drive him to his secret talent.
When the Lions finish their Thanksgiving game against the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday, their starting right guard will head home for a traditional Thanksgiving meal. After the turkey’s done and the mashed potatoes are cold, he’ll pick up his bass guitar, break out his electric drum set and have a jam session with family and friends.
“A lot of my good memories, there’s always some connection to music with it,” Warford said. “When I hear songs from Samoan artists, I’ll think back to like when me and my mom used to drive up to Long Beach from San Diego on weekends and stuff ’cause my mom loved her Samoan songs and just music triggers a lot of memories. I think that’s why I love it, and that’s why it’s my release and my escape, just ’cause I hear a song and it’ll take me back to a time where it was nothing but happiness and good emotions.”
Warford is not unique in his musical talent among offensive linemen — or even among Lions.
Former NFL players like Kyle Turley and ex-Lion Leonard Davis have found a home in retirement in rock bands. Lions offensive line coach Ron Prince said one of his former players at Virginia, Brian Barthelmes, is the lead singer of a group called Tallahassee. And two years ago, Warford and Lions center Travis Swanson put together their own faux band — The Lucky Ringos — complete with songs and a fake album cover to entertain their teammates.
Swanson, in fact, gave Warford his drum set as part of a holiday gift exchange last year.
“He’s got good rhythm,” said Swanson, an avid guitar player in the off-season. “And he can improvise really well. Better than me. I don’t really have a whole lot of improvising skill. But he does. And the thing is, he’s good at multiple instruments.”
Warford started playing his first instrument in second or third grade when he stumbled into the alto saxophone in concert band class.
“It was like, ‘You’re going to be a cool guy if you play saxophone,’ ” Warford said. “And I was like, ‘I want to be a cool guy.’ ”
Through band, Warford learned how to read music. He switched to trumpet for a year or two around fifth grade, then went back to the sax. In high school, Warford went out briefly for marching band, though he quickly realized that wasn’t for him.
Now, Warford’s instrument of choice is the guitar, something he taught himself to play during his sophomore year at Kentucky.
“I moved into this house with, it was me, my cousin Paul, one of our friends, who’s actually going to be the best man in my wedding, Will Begley, and he played guitar,” Warford said. “And so when we were living in the house together, I was always interested. I was like, ‘Oh, man, that looks awesome. I wish I could do that.’ So, when I finally got to move into the house, actually he gave me one of his guitars and just like, ‘Hey man, I know you’ve always wanted to do this. If you learn stuff, we can play together.’ And (we) learned a lot of stuff.”
Warford learned to play the bass guitar by strumming along to the Foo Fighters song “My Hero.” On the electric guitar, he learned the riff to “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None The Richer, and slowly graduated to more difficult music.
As a junior, Warford moved into a new house off-campus with a group of his Kentucky teammates. Begley stopped over frequently, and the two played regularly enough that they talked of forming their own band — House of Giants, or H.O.G. for short.
“I’m in this house with a bunch of giants, all these huge football players,” Warford said. “(We said), ‘Let’s make it that. Sweet.’ ”
Though H.O.G. never took off — “We never found a drummer or anything,” Warford said — Warford still turns to music as his escape from the rigors of the NFL.
Like most of his teammates, Warford spends long hours at the team facility during the season and puts his body through hell every week.
Playing guitar, Warford said, helps him decompress.
“It’s hard to explain,” Warford said. “I don’t want to sound corny and call it, it’s not like a euphoria, but it’s just like an escape. You get really, really worn out with the rigors of football, just the whole NFL business, the studying and all that. It takes a lot out of you and the bodywork, and sometimes I need something that’s not football.
“I love music, and I’ve always played — I was in the band since I was in second grade, I believe. I played saxophone, trumpet until high school, and it was always like my escape then and something that’s stuck around till now. The instruments have changed, but it’s something I loved.”
Prince, who wasn’t aware of Warford’s musical interests before last week, said he always has encouraged his players to pursue other hobbies and diversions for that reason, and coach Jim Caldwell said it’s important for his players to have an escape off the field.
“You should be able to function as if you’re a symphony,” Caldwell said. “Not everything has to drown out the other sounds, it just has to be able to work in harmony, and I think that’s also a good way to explain it. I think some of these guys are drawn to some activities that certainly help them in terms of their focus when it comes to coming to practice, and working and playing a game that’s difficult to play. I think that all kind of works hand in hand.”
Warford said he plays guitar “every day” in season, and twice this year, at the invitation of Lions manager groundskeeping and facility operations Charlie Coffin, he has attended an open mic night at Buck Shots Bar and Grill in Clarkston.
Though he had to be talked into going on stage at first, Warford played nine or 10 songs with Coffin, who plays the cajons, and local artist Johnny Stevenson, who runs the open mic night.
At one point, Warford created his own bass line that Stevenson sang impromptu to for a small crowd of about 15-20 people.
“The guy’s super-talented,” Stevenson said. “I’ve been doing music for 20 years, and he’s a great guitar player, great singer, plays bass.
“At this open mic that I run, we ask guys to get up and just jam, just get up and just play. Some people can do it, and some people can’t. Some people, if they haven’t practiced a song for days or weeks or months or even years on end, they can’t handle just getting up and just trying it.
“We had Larry up, it was just going to be for one song, and he was playing the bass, he’s like, ‘Well, I don’t know that song,’ and I just turned to him, ‘It’s C, B, G and A, and this is how it goes.’ And after one time, it’s almost like photographic memory with him, which is really cool, because I would pay a kind of musician good money to have a guy like that.”
Warford stopped by Buck Shots for a second time this month on the Monday night of the Lions’ bye week.
He played a handful of songs with Stevenson again, and at one point sat at a table with artist Paris Delane singing songs and playing guitar.
“Once he started playing, it was never like, ‘Hey, we want you off stage,’ ’cause that’s not what it was,” Stevenson said. “But even if we did want him, I don’t think even he would have let us because he was just in a zone, man, which was cool. That’s what we’re hoping for. That’s everything we could ever want any musician to have is just a real connection with, I guess I’d call it, just the moment.”
For now, music remains just a hobby for Warford, and his real connection is with football.
Prince said Warford, a four-year starter, has made steady improvement over the past year in pass protection and in certain run-blocking schemes. And though Laken Tomlinson played a few snaps at right guard in last week’s win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Warford is expected to make his 52nd career start at the position Thursday.
Though Warford doesn’t see any correlation between playing guitar and what he does on the field, he said he can see himself following in the footsteps of Turley or Davis and making music more than a hobby after his playing career.
“It’s amazing what music can do,” Warford said. “That’s why I have a complete love for it.”
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