Portrait of the guitarist as a young artist

Before he was a rock icon, Jimi Hendrix's creative drive pushed him toward football

Joe Posnanski

In those years before he became iconic and rich and famous and Jimi, the boy would sign his artwork “James Hendrix.” He thought that sounded more like an artist’s name. He would draw the things that filled his mind with wonder and fury and awe. He liked drawing battle scenes, for instance. He sketched ships floating on Puget Sound. He enjoyed drawing imagined sunset scenes on Mars.

“How are you feeling?” his teacher would ask him.

“Well,” young James Hendrix would say, “that depends on how people on Mars are feeling.”

His mother was gone, mostly – partying and drinking. Her name was Lucille, same as the guitar that BB King played. His father, Al, liked to drink and party too, but he was around more, and he was strict and religious and impatient and sometimes violent. There was never any money, there was always a sense of dread, and a quiet but persistent racism surrounded them. Young James Hendrix was moved from place to place. He ran away from home twice.

He tried to escape into his sketches and drawings. These were windows to the enormous dreams and yearning that boiled inside him. And many of his paintings were of football players. He loved football. Something about the game thrilled him. The NFL was not too big a league in the 1950s, and there wasn’t a professional team anywhere near Seattle, where Hendrix grew up. But they played football in the Pacific Coast Conference, a nine-team college conference back then, which featured both Washington and Washington State. He would look at photographs of the football heroes. He would study the colors.

If you go into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, you will see four of Hendrix’s football drawings. And there is something special and sad about them. The first is on Feb. 18, 1958, and it is of a Cal player wearing No. 11 who is running the football. In the corner, Hendrix wrote “Exact Colors.” On the same day, he drew a UCLA player about to catch a football.

Three days later, Hendrix finished two more drawings. One is of an Oregon player – Oregon being in “Ugene, Ore.” in Hendrix’s misspelled words – and he is about to catch the football. Then there’s the last one, my favorite, of a “S. California Trogens” player doing what would many years later be called the Heisman pose. In those days, college players almost always posed like that for photographs.

(Getty Images)

What makes all this so remarkable and touching? Well, 15-year-old James Hendrix drew these barely two weeks after his mother died. This was where he took his mind in his sadness and pain – into the football heroes of his childhood.

Only a few months later, he got his first guitar. He would spend countless hours playing it. And not long after that, after working with his father on gardening jobs, Al bought him his first electric guitar. He started to listen to Chuck Berry, especially on “Johnny B. Goode.”

“Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode

Who never ever learned to read or write so well

But he could play the guitar just like a ringing a bell.”

That’s when James Hendrix knew: He was Johnny B. Goode. He left everything else behind. He played the guitar. A few years later, he found himself in London and he changed his name to Jimi. He still liked talking about football and art, but his passion for those things were of the past, a different life.

“His mind was always somewhere else when he had his hands on that electric. … For him the rest of the world wasn’t even there,” his brother Leon Hendrix would later write. “From around that time forward, I barely saw my brother pick up a pencil to draw, jog onto a football field, or step onto a baseball diamond. He dropped all his other interests because he’d finally found the thing he had been looking for his entire life. His guitar was going to allow to him to express his deepest emotions and feelings he never talked about. It was going to allow him to release the anger that he kept inside.”