BY MATT NESTOR, Daily News Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org, 215-854-5906
POSTED: June 18, 2014
EAGLES LINEBACKER Connor Barwin bikes from his Rittenhouse Square apartment to work most days. Riding through Point Breeze in March, he passed a dilapidated basketball court and decided it needed a facelift.
He wasn’t the first to think so. In fact, Barwin was late to the party.
Efforts to revitalize Ralph Brooks Park, at 20th and Tasker streets, had been underway for nearly a year. With support from local nonprofit Urban Roots, the ACE Mentor Program and the Philadelphia Water Department, the goal was to transform the aging park into a local hoops hub on par with New York City’s legendary Rucker Park.
Articles were written. The @RuckerPhilly Twitter account was created. It seemed the violence-plagued neighborhood was going to have freshly paved grounds to celebrate.
Then the agencies and organizations involved realized there was potential for much more than a basketball court. As more helping hands joined the effort, new ideas were shared and the project had potential to make a bigger impact on the community, said Urban Roots founder Jeffrey Tubbs.
Barwin and his Make The World Better Foundation arrived at the perfect time to “put us over the top,” Tubbs said. MTWB aims to give children safe access to athletics and the arts – two disciplines that shaped Barwin as he grew up in Detroit.
For the 6-foot-3 football standout, who has been seen at rock shows in the basement of the First Unitarian Church and at hip Fishtown venues like Johnny Brenda’s, a benefit concert seemed the logical choice for a Brooks Park fundraiser.
So he picked up the phone.
‘Sports are obtuse, man’
On a humid day in early June, Barwin, 27, strolled into the media room at the Eagles’ Novacare Complex shivering from a post-practice ice bath. The words “Great Lakes Great Times” stretched unnaturally across his gray T-shirt as he tucked his burly arms inside the sleeves to keep warm.
He looked every bit like the 260-pound menace who recorded career bests in tackles and passes defended for Billy Davis’ Eagles defense in 2013 – frazzled pompadour and all.
But he spoke of a world outside that plush practice facility, one where rhythm regulates movement and the cracks and whistles are perfectly in tune.
“Football players that I’ve known, sometimes they live in a small shell,” Barwin said. “But as soon as you take them out of it, they realize how much fun some of the stuff is.”
In May, Barwin took teammates Jason Kelce, Riley Cooper, Will Murphy and Bryan Braman to see the Districts, a young foursome from Lancaster County whose impassioned performances have been stirring up a buzz in Philly.
Barwin’s buddies “weren’t exactly thrilled to go,” he said. But, by the end of the show, “everybody was like blown away in the basement of First Unitarian.”
The youngest of four brothers, Barwin was exposed to the arts when his parents all but forced him to play an instrument: first the piano, and then, in high school, the drums. Success on the gridiron came more naturally, he said. But that musical seed had been planted.
Like many teenagers in Motown at the turn of the century, Barwin was a “hip-hop guy.” His love for live music – indie rock to be specific – came later, in 2009, as a rookie in Houston. Liberated from classwork and exams, he had time to experience Houston’s live circuit and started making friends in the music industry.
In Houston, there was a strong trickle-down effect from Austin’s exploding music scene. Barwin saw Houston funk-soul outfit the Tontons four times in one month before the band’s manager finally recognized and approached him. Barwin is still friends with the band four years later.
He also met Father John Misty in Houston, where the far-out folk rocker told him, “Sports are so obtuse to me, man.”
Since coming to Philadelphia last year, Barwin has gravitated to Union Transfer, where he befriended co-owner Sean Agnew, who also owns R5 Productions. Although Barwin said he prefers medium-sized venues, he likes the intimate room at Johnny Brenda’s too, where he’s seen memorable shows by Wild Cub and San Fermin, among others.
Barwin will listen to anything in the right setting. He liked George Strait when he was playing in Texas and tweeted from Childish Gambino’s set at Governor’s Ball in New York City on June 7.
Even electronic dance music, Barwin reluctantly admitted, can be “stimulating.” He smiled, adding, “I think Chip Kelly plays too much EDM at practice.”
That Philly spirit
Agnew got a call from Barwin in March, shortly after Eagle No. 98 biked past Ralph Brooks Park. Barwin shared his vision of a charity concert for a local cause. Planning began immediately for Friday night’s fund-raiser at Union Transfer, featuring Kurt Vile, Barwin’s Houston buds the Tontons, and local band the Districts.
Charity shows are inherently tricky, Agnew told the Daily News in a phone interview. Too much money typically ends up going “overhead” to the artist or promoter, leaving little for the charity, he said.
This one will be different. Agnew said Barwin “recognized the sacrifice” involved in a zero-profit gig, and the man with a $4.9 million cap hit in 2014 “put his money where his mouth is.”
Every dollar will go where it’s supposed to. The artists will play for free. Agnew agreed R5 Productions would make no money, nor will Union Transfer. Even the profits from the bar on Friday night will go toward revitalizing Ralph Brooks Park, Agnew said.
And when the total is calculated, Barwin will match the net donation out of his own pocket.
The powerfully mellow Vile (and his backing band the Violators) were the first choice as headliner, and the Philly guitarist was immediately on board to give back to his hometown.
It isn’t the first time Vile has played for free, but he said Friday’s concert will be his first “sports-related gig.”
Enamored with the Districts after the foot-stomping show he saw in May, Barwin recruited the young rockers, too. The two Philly favorites and one old friend all agreed to play without much hesitation. Scheduling was the greatest challenge.
Barwin hopes a Make The World Better concert will become a yearly event, or perhaps more than yearly. But “we kind of struck gold with that lineup,” he said with a laugh.
Vile said the show “definitely has that spirit of ’76 ring to it,” thanks to its local roots.
Inside Union Transfer, two worlds will mash together: one of brawn, pain, grass and mud – the other of electricity, sound and melancholy brooding.
“It’s all relative,” Vile observed.
“When we play live, it tends to be more of a loud rock ‘n’ roll show,” he said. “It can’t be much different than bashing a couple heads on the field.”
The Detroit skyline has been tattooed on Barwin’s right bicep since 2010, a reminder that he’s a product of his home.
Connor’s father, Tom, was the city manager in Ferndale, Mich., north of Detroit. His service left an indelible mark on his youngest son.
Connor Barwin said his dad taught him the “power of community and doing things locally.” That idea has followed him from University of Detroit Jesuit High School to the University of Cincinnati, then to Houston and now to the City of Brotherly Love.
Wherever Barwin goes, he said, he makes the city a part of him. He keeps his eyes and ears open and he isn’t afraid of what they may find.
The name of his Make The World Better Foundation sounds lofty, but Barwin isn’t trying to save the whole planet. He’s focused on our city, our streets and our people.
“It’s called Make The World Better,” he said. “But you could almost call it Make Philly Better.”
Maybe that isn’t so lofty, after all.
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