When Connor Barwin began his career in the NFL in 2009, the Eagles defensive end, indie-rock geek, and civic activist - whose third annual benefit concert for his Make the World Better Foundation takes place at Union Transfer on Friday, with Philadelphia bands Waxahatchee and Hop Along headlining - came to a surprise realization.
"I got drafted and I went to Houston," says the 29-year-old Pro Bowler, who played for the Texans before signing a six-year, $36 million contract with the Eagles in 2013. "And, suddenly, I had a lot of time on my hands."
At the University of Cincinnati, and growing up in Hazel Park, Mich., where his father was city manager just across the Detroit border made famous in Eminem's 2002 movie 8 Mile, the 6-foot-4 Barwin was busy with both football and basketball. But in the NFL offseason, he found "you have downtime. You can lift weights and run, but you can only do that for so long."
On this particular offseason day, Barwin is at the Eagles training facility in South Philadelphia during the first day of OTAs - Organized Team Activities - open to the media. While quarterback Sam Bradford met the press, Barwin sat for a post-practice interview.
He wore a JAWN hoodie and shorts, ready to hop on his three-speed cruiser and bike home to Center City, where he lives with his physician's assistant girlfriend, Laura Buscher, whom he grew up with in Michigan. He talked about how playing basketball in the inner city shaped his perspective, how he came to be the Eagle most likely to show up backstage at an Alex G concert, and about his goal of bringing the Philadelphia sports and music communities together.
"People love, and are passionate about, sports," Barwin says. He's stoked to be playing for aggressive new Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz - Barwin calls him "the man" - who has shifted Barwin from outside linebacker to defensive end in his 4-3 defensive scheme.
"And people love, and are passionate about, music. And that's me. That's who I am. And it's a lot of people. The more I get immersed in the Philadelphia music scene, the more people I meet who are die-hard Eagles fans. To me, this is a way to unite music and sports and allow them to work together to make a difference."
In elementary school, Barwin participated in inner-city hoops programs. "I never would have become the athlete I became if it wasn't for playing basketball in the 'hood, being the only white kid playing with all black kids. It really elevated my game. And it made you appreciate what people are going through."
Barwin was born deaf. He had four major operations up to age 12, after a benign tumor was found in his ear. He hears very little in his left ear, which doesn't bother him at concerts. "It's always loud enough."
Barwin graduated from Detroit Jesuit High. "I'm not a huge religious person," he says, "but I do think there was something I learned when I was there, in terms of service and doing things, if you're capable of doing them."
In high school and college, he mostly listened to hip-hop, such as hometown hero Eminem, and the jam bands his three older brothers favored. But in Houston, he discovered a Texas club called Fitzgerald's where he saw hipster-approved bands like Toro Y Moi and M83.
"I started going to music festivals and getting involved in the community. I was figuring everything out. . . . I was seeing how this whole NFL thing worked and what I could do with it.
"And then when I got to Philly, I was ready. I was 27 years old. I signed a good contract, so I had a little bit of security. And I decided to live in the city full-time and take a leadership role and start this foundation."
Barwin made connections quickly with Philly music scenesters such as Union Transfer booker Sean Agnew, because he's always going out to shows. His tastes are wide-ranging. He still gets his hip-hop while working out to DMX or enjoying his teammates playing Future in the locker room. He's a retro-soul fan, booking Houston big band the Suffers at the MTWB show in 2015, and seeing James Brown-esque belter Charles Bradley multiple times.
Barwin is buddies with Fishtown rocker Kurt Vile and the members of the War on Drugs, and he was seen over the winter at an Ethical Society gig featuring the Silver Ages, the all-male indie-rock chorale whose rare shows are known about only among hipster insiders.
He's a big fan of Aussie singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett and is proud that female artists have been featured at all the MTWB shows.
"It's funny how you become bigger fans of people's music after you get to know them," Barwin says. At the NON-COMMvention this month at World Cafe Live, he was rapt for Vile and Brooklyn art-rock band Yeasayer's sets.
He's tried to pick up guitar a number of times. His buddy Jason Kelce, the Eagles center who also went to Cincinnati and is an accomplished player (and who often accompanies him to shows), keeps nudging him to stick with it. "I'm just a jock," Barwin demurs. "My hands are too big. I'm happy to watch other people do it."
Most offseasons, he heads to the SXSW music festival and Coachella, where last year he hung out with indie songsmith Mac DeMarco and rock quartet Parquet Courts. Later, he booked them to play his benefit.
Through MTWB, Barwin has focused on rebuilding city playgrounds, starting with the Ralph Brooks Park at 20th and Tasker in South Philadelphia. He had noticed its dilapidated state riding by on his way to work.
The first MTWB benefit in 2014 at Union Transfer starred Vile, a Barwin favorite. It raised $170,000 - $85,000 from the show, and another $85 grand out of Barwin's pocket - for the park, which reopened in September.
Agnew says the benefits are his favorite events.
"It's not a party in his honor," he says. "[Usually celebrity benefits] end up being a costly party for a select group of people where almost all of the money goes to pay for their event. . . . Connor wanted to do these shows where 100 percent went to the cause. It's open to the public. It involves Philadelphia bands and artists."
Agnew's favorite Barwin story involves the Eagle riding around Philadelphia on his bike, putting up fliers to advertise the show. "It was almost surreal to watch an Eagle do the work that our interns could moan and groan about."
The MTWB aims to redo one park every year. The Smith Playground at 24th and Snyder is the current focus, and a new one will be announced at Friday's show, whose lineup will include a high-profile Philadelphia singer-songwriter opener whose name cannot be announced due to contractual complications.
Barwin "doesn't just talk the talk," says Philadelphia Parks and Recreation commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. "I'm cynical to the core, and I think nobody can be that nice and that good. But he really is. He's so committed. He could just sit down and write a check and cut a ribbon. But he shows up to meetings with a Moleskine notebook and takes notes.
"Other celebrities will use their name to raise money, but Connor [who hopes to raises $100,000 on Friday] does that, and then he matches the money with his own. That doesn't happen. The guy is the real deal. He bleeds green on and off the field."
Ott Lovell, like most people who talk about Barwin, wonders whether he wants a political career after football is over. "He could have one if he wants it," she says.
Agnew agrees: "Connor Barwin for mayor," he suggests.
Barwin isn't thinking that far ahead.
"A surprising number of people have suggested it," he says. "But I plan on playing a while longer, and who knows if that's what I'll want to do when I'm done playing."
Had he decided to play somewhere other than Philadelphia in 2012, he says, he would have likely gotten involved in the community wherever he was.
"I was ready to do it. But I don't think I would be able to do it as effectively in another city. I feel like I'm in the right place at the right time.
"Philadelphia is a gnarly city, there are a lot of good things happening here, especially in the music scene. I feel like I'm getting lucky. Now we just have to win the Super Bowl."
Connor Barwin's third annual MTWB Foundation benefit concert with Hop Along and Waxahatchee, plus a special guest TBA, 7:30 p.m. Friday at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. Tickets: $20-$300. Info: 215-232-2100 or www.utphilly.com.