Inspired by Friend Kobe Bryant, Joe Barksdale Quit NFL to Become Musician: 'Decided to Do What I Love'

Kobe Bryant had spoken to Joe Barksdale's NFL team about mentorship and afterward the football player reached out to connect

Former NFL tackle Joe Barksdale came late to football, a teenager who aspired to be an engineer and really only put on the uniform in high school as a way to get a college scholarship.

"I always wanted to be something more than what I was growing up," Barksdale, 32, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.

The evolution of Barksdale took a dramatic turn in 2019. After years of honing his skills as musician while playing in the NFL, Barksdale released his first EP [Electric Soul], left the NFL and moved to Austin, Texas, with his wife Brionna and their two young daughters, 2 and 4 to pursue his passion.

Last month, Barksdale — who played for the St. Louis Rams, Los Angeles Chargers, and Arizona Cardinals — released The Kyber Tapes and started doing stand-up comedy. His quick wit and easy smile hide an arduous journey to get to this place. The turning point, he tells PEOPLE, was in 2018 when he developed a mentor relationship with late NBA player Kobe Bryant.

Bryant had spoken to the football player's NFL team about mentorship and afterward, Barksdale, now 32, reached out to him and they began spending a lot of one-on-one time together. "We talked about the things that led him to retire," he recalls.

"What we talked about was the arts, because he has the music and books and so forth and asked him why he retired when he did," Barksdale also said on a 2020 podcast, Behind the Mind with Kevin Meiselman. "He said 'When I was thinking more about what I was doing off the court than on the court, it was time.' "

Barksdale says he realized music took up more of his thoughts than football. "I decided that it was time for me to retire and start to do what I love to do and that's music," Barksdale tells PEOPLE. Music was something that helped him cope with mental health issues and trauma in his life.

The Detroit native is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, bullying, and emotional and physical abuse.

joe barksdale
Joe Barksdale in 2016. Jim Dedmon/Icon Sportswire/Getty

"It starts at home," Barksdale says of his troubled childhood growing up with his parents and three brothers in a rough urban area. He also struggled with depression, mental illness, and, for most of his life, being undiagnosed as autistic.

An incident at a prestigious engineering camp got him kicked out, opening up an option to play football that summer. "There was a coach at the time who saw, I still don't know how he saw it, but saw some ability in me and thought I could get a college scholarship," Barksdale says. Two years later, Barksdale was a Parade All-American, committed to a full scholarship at Louisiana State University.

"That [high school] coach became my mentor, my big brother, and dad all the way through college and into my NFL career," Barksdale says of Charleston Fobbs. "He died in a 2013 car crash."

Barksdale went into a tailspin. His Rams coach Jeff Fisher suggested he take up the guitar to help process his loss. His music steadily improved. His mental health did not.

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In November 2017, a suicide attempt led him to address his issues. And to consider other options than the NFL. "The more I continued to do football, the more miserable I became," Barksdale admits. Barksdale ultimately says he didn't see a future for himself on the field anymore.

"I realized that I'll never make it to the NFL Hall of Fame, but I can definitely make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," Barksdale says. "I can definitely win the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor one day."

For more on Joe Barksdale, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE.

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