Lawrence Harris, an opera singer, poked the ballroom's faded carpet with the toe of his black alligator boot and said it reminded him of another arena he once performed in.
"It's like the Orange Bowl," he said, "when we played the Miami Dolphins."
Before Harris became a booming baritone, he was a brawny lineman with the N.F.L.'s Houston Oilers. Transitioning from audibles to arias would seem the most disharmonic of bridge passages, with the barbarity of football and the elegance of opera at opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum.
But Harris is not alone in making the switch. Opera singers with a football past include Ta'u Pupu'a, a lineman drafted by the Cleveland Browns; Keith Miller, a former Arena League fullback who appeared in two bowl games with Colorado; the former Harvard players Ray Hornblower and Noah Van Niel; and Morrison Robinson, who played on the offensive line for the Citadel.
Maybe they were not as accomplished as the almost 1,700 professional players in the game today, but they hold one clear advantage over many of them that looms larger by the day: a viable career option outside football. Locked out by owners and with the 2011 season in jeopardy, some N.F.L. players may soon find themselves standing in the unemployment line, with few prospects for satisfying work performed before passionate admirers. Harris and company have found a way to stay in the spotlight.
Harris sang recently at a fund-raiser in New Rochelle, N.Y., headlined by the Italian tenor Marcello Giordani. After the concert, at V.I.P. Country Club, a woman approached Harris, who sang Tosti's "Ridonami la Calma."
"You have a beautiful voice," she said. "No one would have expected that from you. How tall are you?"
Lawrence Harris, once a lineman for the Oilers, is among the football players who have made the transition to opera.
Harris is 6 feet 5 inches and weighs considerably less than the 317 pounds he carried as a player. After the surprise wears off from a giant reed producing a glorious sound, what resonates is the role football played in his development as an artist.
Physical training, breath control, stamina, discipline, focus, teamwork, a sense of the dramatic - all part of the sport - translate well to opera, he said.
"My job is to communicate what the composer and the librettist had in mind," Harris said. "Just like in football, your job is to run the play the way the coach drew it up."
He added: "When the makeup goes on and the costume goes on, it's like putting on your helmet and shoulder pads. You become a character with a role to play, and it's so intense."
Miller, a bass-baritone who was in Washington recently preparing for "Madama Butterfly," said the intensity of football made opera a natural second act.
"When you stand in front of a man, jaw to jaw and toe to toe, and you have to determine how you can break this man's spirit and do it again and again despite physical exhaustion and mental anguish, that requires a spirit that aligns itself to the opera," Miller said by telephone during a break in rehearsals.
Pupu'a was more fatigued last month than during any two-a-days in football. He rushed to an audition for the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland after a full day of classes at Juilliard, where he is finishing an advanced opera-studies program.
Battling a cold and nerves, Pupu'a cleared his throat and made a sound like a threatened animal. Alongside him in the narrow, poorly lighted hall of Nola Studios in Midtown Manhattan, other singers warmed up their voices.
"It's like the scouting combine," he said, referring to the N.F.L.'s predraft player testing. "You have to show what you can do on cue."
In the studio, Pupu'a could hear the voice of Bill Belichick, his coach in Cleveland in 1995, saying that "energy comes from the ground up." He planted his feet and took a few deep breaths, then performed two arias.
"It wasn't my best," Pupu'a said, assessing his performance. "When I am in good voice, the high note, I will hold that and milk it for all it's worth. It's like when you run in and see the quarterback all by himself. The people are on the edge of their seats, and then you make the sack and the roar is deafening. That's what it's like when you finish a high note."
Pupu'a was born in Tonga, the son of a Methodist minister who moved his family to Utah. In church, Pupu'a turned heads with his singing, but he was also encouraged to play football.
He earned an athletic scholarship to Weber State, where he juggled football and musical theater. He spent two years in the N.F.L., with Cleveland and Baltimore, but never played. He turned to his first love, music, after a foot injury ended his football career.
At Juilliard, Pupu'a, a tenor, has fought the feeling that he is trying to make a furious fourth-quarter comeback.
"While I was running around hitting people, the other students were learning to read music," he said. "I remember telling someone, I don't know if I can do this because it's so hard. And the person told me, 'If it was easier, everybody would be doing it.' It's the same thing with football. You're performing in front of people and giving joy to those who can't do it."
Morrison Robinson, a lineman in college, performing at the Metropolitan Museum in 2008.
Like Pupu'a, Harris, who grew up in Texas, developed an early affection for music. He said he would listen to live radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera while sitting in his bedroom closet.
"The stories were so spellbinding," he said, "I didn't want to be interrupted by anyone."
Harris played on the defensive line at Oklahoma State and was drafted in the seventh round by the Oilers in 1976. As part of rookie hazing, he was ordered to sing during a meal. When he responded with an Italian aria, he said, his teammates' mouths dropped.
"I knew right then I'd gone too far," he said.
The coach of the Oilers, Bum Phillips, moved Harris from defense to the offensive line, where he opened holes in practice for Earl Campbell, who led the N.F.L. in rushing. Harris said he got into a game against the Dolphins at the Orange Bowl in 1977 but spent most of his seven-and-a-half-year career on and off injured reserve, depending on what was better for the team.
"It's sad, but it is a cold truth about this league," Harris said. "In the opera industry, things can be even more competitive and heartless, but you don't live every moment of your life in pain because of it."
Harris, who retired in 1982, was able to draw on his football experience when, early in his opera career, he was asked to shift from baritone to heldentenor, suited to Wagnerian roles.
"Truly I was not a tenor," Harris said. "I needed to be in a place vocally where I could intimidate people because I knew I had that talent inside me. I went along with it because that's what football taught me."
As a baritone, Harris sings with a clarity and a carrying power that projects throughout the room. This quality, which the Italians call squillo, evoked yet another football analogy.
"When you're down in your stance and you're waiting for the ball to snap, you have to have all kinds of squillo," Harris said. "It's a matter of focusing your energy so you get it going in one direction, at the guy across from you."
Harris has an adult son from his first marriage and two children, 14 and 10, with his second wife, Renee Guerrero-Harris, a pianist. He once took Guerrero-Harris to a Giants game to give her a glimpse of his previous life.
"Twenty minutes later, I looked over and Larry was snoring," she said.
The New Rochelle audience included a man with snowy hair who nodded off during Harris's performance. The occasional snorer in the audience notwithstanding, Harris said he was mystified by the perception that opera is beyond the comprehension of the average person. His goal, he said, is to broaden opera's audience so people will buy tickets for the Mets, the Jets and the Met.
"Football is a lot more complicated," Harris said, adding, "Opera, I believe, is probably perceived as more difficult to approach because of its deeper emotional content and because for most English-speaking audience members and English-speaking singers, it is, of course, foreign."
But what's not to understand?
"It's like you're playing a football game," Miller said, "and the winner gets the cheerleader. And then she dies. That's opera."
Lawrence Harris is represented by
Public Relations & Artists Management
64 East 94th Street
New York, NY 10128