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Former Eagle Connor Barwin is ‘making the world better’ with playgrounds and indie rock

“I believe in the power of sports, recreation and public spaces. There’s a huge need for it, and there are Parks & Rec centers that haven’t been invested in for a really long time. I thought since I played football, that’s where I could make a difference.”

Connor Barwin sacked his fair share of quarterbacks during his nine-year career as an NFL linebacker/defensive end: Tom Brady, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Eli Manning, and even Camden County native Joe Flacco.

But the most impressive person he’s sacked over the years? Kurt Vile. While Tom Brady might have seven Super Bowl rings, he could never have written Walkin on a Pretty Daze. The sack didn’t occur on the football field, but in front of the Fillmore in Fishtown; Barwin was helping to promote Vile’s New Year’s Eve show at the venue. 

An indie-rocker and an NFL player being friends might look strange on paper, but then again Barwin wasn’t a typical NFL player. Now the Eagles Director of Player Development, Barwin often rode SEPTA to practices, took up bicycling issues and championed LGBT rights as a player. 

What stands out the most about Barwin is his love for music. During Barwin’s time with the Eagles (he also spent time with the Texans, Rams and Giants), he went to see Animal Collective, Courtney Barnett, Alex G and others at different venues in Philly. His love of live music eventually resulted in him having a benefit concert in Philly every year for his charity, Make the World Better. But before Barwin would become a mainstay in the Philly music scene, his introduction to music began 1,500 miles away in Houston. 

The one thing that Barwin never had in his life was time for music. He tried, but Barwin’s time was consumed with basketball and football from childhood all the way to at the University of Cincinnati, where he played both. Ironically, he finally had time to discover music once he made the NFL, getting drafted by the Houston Texans.

“When I got drafted to the NFL, I had all this free time. I would go to this music venue called Fitzgerald’s in Houston, which is this small, old school type of room. Going to shows there got me into music,” says Barwin. “I would take five or six defensive linemen and we would go see M83. Those players have never been to indie rock shows or have never been to a concert that wasn’t a stadium concert. Those players would later come back and say, ‘Holy shit, this was so much fun!'”

Courtesy Philadelphia Eagles

In fact, the most common response when Barwin invited teammates to see an artist or band was, “Who is that?”

”I would be like, ‘This is a band that’s pretty good,'” Barwin remembers. “I’ve built up some trust amongst the players, and I had a friend that would go to any show with me. Then he would tell the other guys, and later on people realized that if you go to the show, it would be a good time. I would never take anyone to a bad show. Also, we would go out and get drinks as well at the show, and it’s hard to mess up drinking with your buddies.”

After spending four years in Houston, Barwin signed with the Eagles in 2013 during the Chip Kelly era. Barwin fell in love not only with playing in Philly, but also with the city’s vibrant music scene; he particularly enjoyed going to shows at Union Transfer, a concert venue in the Spring Garden area of Philly.

“I liked the people that worked there,” says Barwin about Union Transfer. “Whether it was the security they had there or the bartenders, there’s a good vibe about the people that work there. There’s a good bar, and a good set up at Union Transfer. I also like how the stage moves and it always feels like the right size room. 

In his career with the Birds, Barwin not only expanded his presence in music, he also started Make the World Better, which provides children in Philadelphia with playgrounds.

“I believe in the power of sports, recreation and public spaces,” explains Barwin. “There’s a huge need for it, and there are Parks & Rec centers that haven’t been invested in for a really long time. I thought since I played football, that’s where I could make a difference.”

As a kid growing up in suburban Detroit, Barwin also learned about the harsh inequalities of life as a child on the playground.

“At a young age I realized there were differences between the way I grew up and how other kids grew up,” remembers Barwin. “I knew I would have a meal every night, and some of the kids I played basketball with didn’t know if they would.”

Barwin talked about these things at the dinner table with his politically active parents; his dad was a city manager in Detroit, and his mother was involved with local politics.

Another part of Barwin’s childhood that stood out was the fact that he was born deaf, and taught himself how to talk by reading lips. He had a boatload of surgeries that helped him gain hearing in his right ear and part of his left ear. Going through those experiences inspired Barwin to pay it forward when given the opportunity.

“In some ways I was self-conscious about that,” says Barwin about his hearing problems. “But in other ways I felt bad that I regained almost all of my hearing and some people didn’t. I didn’t really know how to approach it until I got older. Whenever I got asked to speak at schools for the deaf, I would always try to do it to pay it back.” 

Barwin continues to support the community through Make the World Better. Before our conversation, Barwin was at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new rec center in Southwest Philly. A lot of planning goes into making a playground and/or rec center. 

“First, we have to build a huge team of designers, architects and building professionals,” says Barwin. “Then we have to work with the city and the neighborhood to see what they want. We learn about the history of the neighborhoods as well. It’s a lot of planning and communicating  about the people that will be using the site. More than that, it’s about earning trust, and you have to earn the trust of the people that use those parks. It takes time, and it doesn’t happen overnight.”

But all projects need capital, and that’s where the Make the World Better concert comes into play. Barwin puts together a concert to raise money for the playgrounds, and in the past bands and artists like Mac DeMarco, Waxahatchee, Hop Along, Kurt Vile, The Suffers and The Districts have played. This year’s edition brings Japanese Breakfast, Yo La Tengo and Cate Le Bon to the Dell Music Center in Philly. But, over the years, Barwin’s learned that booking shows isn’t as easy as it appears. 

“It’s complicated with scheduling,” Barwin says. “It’s a benefit and we’re trying to raise money, but also artists make their money by touring now. For artists, coming to Philly is a big payday, and we try to take all of that into account. But also I realized that musicians are mostly normal people just like athletes. Because of the concert, I got to know many great musicians.”

Barwin has been to shows at mostly every music venue you can think of in Philly, but he’s a big fan of the Dell Music Center, which as of late has become the go-to venue for the Make the World Better concert.

“The Dell Music Center is one of the best venues in the city that people don’t know about,” says Barwin. “I remember taking the manager for The War on Drugs there because she had never seen it and we broke in at night, and she was blown away by the place. On July 23, we have Japanese Breakfast playing there, and she’s amazing. The last time she played in Philly she did five sold-out shows at Union Transfer, and I’m excited for her to play. We’re also encouraging people to get there early to tailgate, and check out the Dell.”

Even though New Jersey is home to two NFL teams, a good part of the Garden State from Phillipsburg down to Cape May is for the Birds. Barwin finished his career playing with the Giants and still holds a lot of respect for the Eagles’ biggest rival. 

“I have a lot of respect and appreciation for what the Giants have done for the NFL,” says Barwin. “I liked the people there, and was lucky to play there for a year. But we were bad, and football is never fun when you are on a losing team. I can’t say it was the most fun year, but that comes down to wins and losses for me.”

Barwin is looking to expand the Make the World Better concert to a couple shows a summer, and possibly build rec centers and playgrounds in Jersey.

“We would love to do stuff in Camden or Trenton or other cities,” says Barwin. “That’s something that we are talking about and thinking about. We would love to expand to other cities, and possibly expand out of the Philadelphia region. But right now our focus is on Philly.”

Japanese Breakfast, with Yo La Tengo and Cate Le Bon, will be playing at the Dell Music Center on July 23 for the Make the World Better benefit concert. Find ticket information here . For more information about Make the World Better, go here.