ATLANTA (AP) - NFL offensive lineman Justin Blalock spends his time on the field protecting runs and passes. Off the field, he's a strong advocate for music education.
Blalock, the starting left guard for the Atlanta Falcons, grew up in Texas playing the tuba and continues to play the drums and guitar. Music helps young people develop confidence and experience a sense of accomplishment, skills that can help them move into leadership roles later in life, he said.
``It actually shares a lot of qualities that you need for football as well,'' he said, giving discipline and teamwork as examples.
The 29-year-old, who's been with the Falcons for seven years, started playing the tuba in middle school and continued through high school.
``I remember our football team, actually, we won our very first game in middle school, and we didn't win another one until we got to high school,'' he said. ``Our band competitions were my main sense of accomplishment in those years. I got a lot more out of that than I ever did from football.''
So when he was looking for a way to get involved in his community, he went back to his roots.
``Music is something that I've always been passionate about, even though I stopped playing at a pretty young age,'' he said. ``I've had my foundation for a while now, and I wanted to get back into music, so it seemed like the natural place to start looking for a partnership.''
Over the past year, he's been an advocate for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's music education efforts and is a spokesman for the organization's ``When I Play Music'' campaign for music education.
About 55 student musicians from the Atlanta area have spent this week attending an intense four-day orchestral workshop during which they were paired up with a symphony musician for coaching and rehearsals. The workshop culminated Thursday evening in a side-by-side concert, with the student musicians performing alongside the professional orchestra members.
Blalock, who was a guest conductor at last year's side-by-side concert, decided to take his participation a step farther this year, taking a seat in the tuba section to play with the students and professionals.
``It wasn't quite as easy as getting back on a bicycle,'' he said, adding that he hadn't played in about a decade.
But he brushed up his rusty tuba skills with a few lessons from one of the orchestra's tuba players and was feeling more confident after a rehearsal Thursday morning. During the concert, he played along with the orchestra for the ``Superman March'' and guest conducted the encore of ``Stars and Stripes Forever.''
Staff conductor Jere Flint, who's also the musical director for the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, said Blalock's participation in the program helps inspire the teenagers.
``We're so thrilled to have a sports figure, a celebrity who studied music in high school and loved music and has continued his love of music,'' Flint said.
Kathryn Evans, a 16-year-old who participated in the program for the second time this year, said it's invaluable to have hands-on, interactive experience of learning from professionals in her chosen field.
``You get to feed off of them and learn from them, and it's very special,'' she said.
She talked to Blalock during last year's workshop and said he was very nice and seems to genuinely care about the arts.
``We don't usually have football players coming to the symphony,'' she said. ``But it's very cool to see someone who really loves what they do and also has such a big heart for the arts.''