Connor Barwin lives in the shadows of Philadelphia's skyline with a silhouette of Detroit's skyline etched on his right biceps. His Twitter profile lists two locations: "Detroit, Philadelphia."
The Detroit area is his hometown. Philadelphia is now his home.
Barwin is not one who just passes through wherever he's living. The son of a city manager, Barwin yearns to be engaged with a sense of civic pride that is sometimes rare in such a transient industry. He played sports on both sides of 8 Mile Road while growing up around Detroit. He lives in Rittenhouse Square and frequently uses SEPTA to get around the city.
"I think that's just something that naturally happened with my dad being a city manager," Barwin said. "He always emphasized really appreciating and taking care of where you live."
Barwin's day job is outside linebacker for the Eagles, and he is perhaps the team's most valuable defensive player. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said that Barwin "wears more hats" than anyone on the defense and that it's Barwin who "makes the scheme go." His value will be evident when the Detroit Lions, Barwin's favorite team as a child, visit Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday.
Barwin has moved from the Motor City, and so has much of his family. But Detroit is where Barwin honed the athleticism and personality that have fueled his emergence into a key player on the defense and a popular figure among the fans.
"Who you are," Barwin said, "has a lot to do with where you come from."
Raised in Detroit
As a child, Barwin saw his father return from jogs around their Hazel Park, Mich., neighborhood with trash in his hands that he picked up along the way. The message was clear: Take pride in where you live. (It might have also instilled an environmentalist's ethos - Barwin enjoys mass transit and drives an electric car.)
All of his father's five siblings worked in the auto industry at some point, which helped Barwin understand the region's economy. But his most transformative experiences came in youth athletic leagues. The basketball competition in suburban Hazel Park paled compared to what Barwin experienced on the other side of 8 Mile Road, which divided the racially segregated Detroit metropolitan area at the time.
Eagles linebacker Brandon Graham, who is from inner-city Detroit, remembered the joy of playing sports on Barwin's side of 8 Mile Road because the fields were nicer and there were bleachers. Barwin enjoyed crossing the road for the competition and the relationships formed on the R.E.A.C.H. youth basketball team at St. Rita Catholic Church in Detroit.
Barwin even put cornrows in his hair at one point to fit in. He welcomed teammates into his family's home, where they swam in his backyard pool. His first exposure to a gun was at a sleepover at a teammate's home.
"My experience was unique because I saw all parts of Detroit, and I experienced outside of Detroit," Barwin said. "I got to experience all parts of Detroit. I wasn't in the bad parts of Detroit all the time. I was at times. I wasn't in the nice parts of Detroit all the time, but I was at times."
Barwin grow up on 10 Mile Road. He went to high school at University of Detroit Jesuit, which was on 7 Mile Road. So Barwin crossed 8 Mile each day on his way to school.
Barwin, 27, played college ball at Cincinnati and started his NFL career in Houston. He decided on the Detroit skyline tattoo on his right arm four years ago to signify his Detroit pride. And he sees a day when his hometown isn't burdened with the reputation of a depressed region dealing with bankruptcy.
"Obviously, they have a lot of problems to fix, but hopefully they learn their lesson moving forward," Barwin said. "Because I know there's a lot of people who take pride in being from Detroit. There's a lot of hardworking people living there. That's why there's still promise there."
Moving to Philadelphia
Barwin spent his first four seasons in Houston, starting his final 38 games. He was a valuable part of one of the league's top defenses and was among an exodus of core players that included Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans, Lions safety Glover Quin, and Bills defensive end Mario Williams.
The Texans had only so much money to spend, and the Eagles offered a six-year, $36.6 million deal with $8 million guaranteed. The Eagles needed an outside linebacker with experience in the 3-4 defense, although Barwin's role has grown beyond what he did in Texas.
Barwin plays the "Jack" spot in Davis' defense. The nickname means "Jack of all trades." Davis uses Barwin at different places throughout the alignment, with responsibilities that include setting the edge and rerouting or chipping receivers, in addition to typical pass rush and coverage roles. Barwin could even be used on Sunday to try to play physical with Lions star wide receiver Calvin Johnson on the outside before a cornerback picks Johnson up in coverage.
Davis admitted Barwin would like to rush more to accumulate sacks - he has four this season - but he's needed in so many areas. Davis called Barwin "unselfish," adding he "never says a word about it."
Ryans, a teammate of Barwin's in Houston, said that versatility is key because opposing teams don't know where Barwin will line up on a given play. Davis said the role has evolved from what the Eagles envisioned when they signed Barwin.
But besides the football and the compensation, Barwin knew that where he signed was also going to be where he lived. And his personality is built for a big city.
"It's definitely something you factor," Barwin said. "I was excited to have the offer that I did from Philadelphia."
He has family in New York City and wanted to live on the East Coast. But Barwin had never previously been to Philadelphia. His first trip consisted of the ride from the airport to the team's South Philadelphia training facility - not exactly a sparkling tour of what the city offers.
But when he saw the skyline as his flight landed, there was visceral excitement. During the summer, he had more of an opportunity to explore the area. He settled on Center City to live, while many other players live near the NovaCare Complex or in New Jersey.
"There's people outside all the time, walking around," Barwin said. "I can walk to everything I need."
His most-frequented places to eat are Audrey Claire and Fitler Dining Room. The demands of football season limit how much he's able to go out and explore, although he enjoys restaurants and concerts when he can. Barwin has already taken to Philadelphia's music scene. He spends time in Northern Liberties, Fairmount, and in the Spring Garden section.
"People feel strongly about their opinions - people in Philadelphia aren't very shy," Barwin said. "I think it's fun. People are honest in Philadelphia. They say how they feel, which is good."
Barwin also dived into the Houston community during his four years with the Texans. He developed friends outside of football who allowed him to see a life that most NFL players don't experience.
Barwin has taken a similar approach to Philadelphia. He said you can find fun in any city, as long as you find a niche. But Philadelphia is now his home. And it reminds him of his hometown.
"There's definitely a big difference between Philly and Detroit, but there are similarities," Barwin said. "I definitely felt a comfort as soon as I got here. I think that comes from my comfort from growing up in Detroit."