Connor Barwin: “If You Want to Make a Difference, Now is Your Opportunity.”
Connor Barwin is hard to miss. With his NFL linebacker size, he’s kind of towering over everyone else at the bar at Prohibition Taproom, just a few blocks from Union Transfer. After introducing himself, one of the bar patrons perks up.
“Oh shit, you are Connor Barwin! Yo, I love you dude!”
He gets that a lot. But by now, he’s pretty used to it. The 29-year-old Barwin who lives in Center City is a far cry from the type of NFL player who keeps to himself. Barwin makes his presence known in Philly. Chances are, if you go to enough shows, you might run into him at the Electric Factory, where he’d just seen Courtney Barnett earlier this night. Or at Union Transfer, where he hosts the annual benefit concert for his Make the World Better foundation, which funds playgrounds and parks in Philadelphia.
“It’s kind of weird,” he says. “Some people are surprised when they see me. But then it’s like, ‘Oh, not really. Like, I’m not really surprised.’”
One might be surprised to learn that the fixture of the Eagles’ defensive line and the city’s music scene was born with complete hearing loss.
Clearly, that didn’t sideline him, on any front.
Since signing with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013 from the Houston Texans, Barwin has used some of his free time taking in the city’s music scene. After meeting Sean Agnew of R5 Productions, Barwin got the ball rolling on his benefit concert idea.
“I remember I went to an Animal Collective show at Union Transfer and Grantland wrote an article about it,” Barwin says. “After that article came out, Sean Agnew reached out to me. I think that’s how I met him.”
Not that Agnew had not already been in communication or anything prior.
“I tweeted at [Barwin] in 2014 when he batted down a ball that secured the Eagles’ spot in the playoffs,” Agnew remembers. “I jokingly said, ‘Free shows for life for Connor Barwin,’ right after he did.”
Attending shows didn’t only appeal to Barwin’s musical appetite. It fueled his philanthropic desires too.
“After that first season with the Eagles, I was like, ‘Hey, Sean, maybe we can do this benefit thing,’” Barwin recalls. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it! I’ll donate the whole venue, productions, the bar, everything.’ And now we’re going on our third show.”
This show at the beginning of June included a cast of Philly bands, including Hop Along, Waxahatchee and Amos Lee, and benefitted the Waterloo Playground in Kensington.
“It was something special that we just couldn’t say no to,” says Frances Quinlan of Hop Along. “It was a great cause. Parks in Philadelphia are needed and we were really happy to be a part of it. And we love playing hometown shows. We just have such a great time. Our whole families were present. That was really great to see them there and know that they’re a part of it, too.”
Barwin, who was born completely deaf and underwent numerous surgeries through his adolescence to gain any hearing, still lacks the ability to hear in his left ear. But gaining some hearing didn’t give him a newfound appreciation for auditory experiences.
“I wish it did,” he says. “That would be a cool story. Maybe I’d like music even more if I could hear out of both my ears.”
Music was always a passion but he rarely had time to indulge when he was younger, when he was always either practicing football or studying.
“I was in sports all the time,” he says. “It was really when I got to Houston and started playing in the NFL that I had some free time for the first time in my life. And that’s when I started going to shows.”
Agnew says that having the city’s music and sports worlds so close-knit is rare, and the value isn’t lost on him.
“I think it’s super unique and I’m so proud of it,” he says. “I know a bunch of peers who do shows, and they have no athletes coming to their shows. Love Philly for that.”
“I would say that Connor strikes me as a special kind of person,” Quinlan says. “He doesn’t, by any means, have to do any of the things he’s doing. While I’m sure there are lots of people in all sorts of fields who love music, he uses his love for music in a way to give back to his community, which I think is such a generous thing to do – obviously in a financial way, but agian, just wanting to enjoy music with other people. He really seems to genuinely want to do that and I really respect that. I really respect his particular passion for the arts and community.”
After Barwin took some time to also establish himself as a legitimate star in the NFL and watching the veterans’ examples of how to carry themselves on and off the field, he decided to use his position and do some good. He would use his love of live music to do so.
“When I got to Philadelphia, I said, all right. You’re not 21-years old anymore. It’s time to do this if you’re going to do it,” he says. “You’re going to live in Philadelphia year-round. If you want to make a difference, now is your opportunity.”
Barwin chose playgrounds and parks partially due to his upbringing in Detroit. His father was a city manager and was heavily involved with public spaces.
“There’s a lot of playgrounds in neighborhoods that have fallen on hard times and I think playgrounds had a big effect on my upbringing,” he says, referencing research that shows the importance of safe and fun places for kids to play for their development, as well as a playground’s importance in communities and neighborhoods. “Every kid deserves that. There’s no reason because of where you’re born, you don’t have a safe place to play.”
For each playground the foundation chooses to work with, the team at Make the World Better goes through a year-long process of assessing what the community wants and needs and how they can make it happen.
“We try to implement what they want,” Barwin says, noting the relationships he and the foundation have built in the public and private sectors. “And I think that’s the biggest reason we did it. I felt like we were capable of doing it. We could make the biggest impact by doing it to make Philadelphia a better place.”