In December, members of the Pittsburgh Steelers dressed for practice and were led to the indoor field as usual. But when the doors opened, there on the turf was a classical ensemble playing the seasonally appropriate "Sleigh Ride." Offensive lineman Max Starks and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played the bells while cornerback Ike Taylor conducted.
No, it was not a hallucination.
Starks, a 6-foot-8, 345-pound tackle, was on the board of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 2006 until last year. He has narrated youth programs for the symphony for years as elementary school children sat wide-eyed in the audience. During one rehearsal early on, he botched a line and made the horn section and everyone else giggle when he declared to the conductor, "I'm sorry, Coach, I won't fumble again."
When you think about the fine arts, the syncopation of getting 80 instruments together in perfect harmony, it's similar to a football team. Getting 61 guys in sequence with each other, the carry over keeps it consistent.” -- Max Starks, Pittsburgh Steelers tackle
To Starks, there is nothing at all inconsistent between his day job, blocking for Roethlisberger against a meaty defensive line, and putting on a jacket and tie at night to attend the opera.
"When you think about the fine arts, the syncopation of getting 80 instruments together in perfect harmony, it's similar to a football team," Starks said. "Getting 61 guys in sequence with each other, the carry-over keeps it consistent."
Starks was exposed to live music growing up in Orlando, Fla. His mother loved musical theater, and the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre was a second home. Starks played the imposing Uncle Drosselmeyer in a fourth-grade production of the Nutcracker ballet and later sang bass in his high school chorus.
"Just being able to experience those shows brought it home for me," Starks said.
Yu-Ling Cheng, the vice president of audience development and sales for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, met Starks through a mutual friend when he first moved to Pittsburgh. They talked about their love of classical music and she invited him to hear a local concert.
"It's just phenomenal," Starks said of the live music experience. "When you listen to something on an iPod or radio, you lose something, no matter how good the system you have is."
He said people aren't used to putting on a suit to listen to music. In a world of Beats By Dre headphones, the process of listening with other people is changing. It takes patience to absorb a full concert and effort to really listen and see.
"There's a certain intensity that goes into it," Starks said. "You see the artists' faces and see the effort that they put into the process."
Having a knowledgeable advocate like Starks allowed the orchestra to reach new audiences, Cheng said. Since Starks became involved, she's seen other Steelers in her audiences, as well as Pirates and Penguins.
"I think he helped us break down barriers we were up against by being in the classical music world," Cheng said.
During one concert, composed of familiar Andrew Lloyd Webber songs, Cheng was sitting in a box with Starks and noticed that in addition to the vocalist on stage, she could hear a softer voice.
"Max had his eyes closed and I don't think he realized he was singing aloud," Cheng said with a laugh.
Starks has always been an iconoclast. He attended a prestigious prep school, Lake Highland Prep. He parked the Cadillac hearse used for the family funeral home business in his assigned space between a brand-new VW Beetle and a 1986 Mercedes 320 SEL.
"You can imagine the look on some kids faces," Starks said.
He might have gotten similar looks from football teammates who found out that he has "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana as part of his pregame warm-up soundtrack. But most are more curious than anything else, and Starks doesn't mind being different.
"I've never done what's traditional in my entire life," Starks said. "It's made me a better person, it defines your character."