TOM BARWIN wasn't all that surprised when his son Connor, a freshman football player at Cincinnati, called home in January 2006 to impart the news that he was joining the Bearcats basketball team.
For one thing, Connor had grown up more of a youth basketball star than a football player, working tirelessly on a court built in the Barwin backyard for him and his three older brothers. For another, this was Connor responding to a need - Cincinnati had fired basketball coach Bob Huggins, players had left the team, the Bearcats needed help. In the Barwin family, you tried to help where you could, you didn't mind putting yourself out there.
Tom Barwin is a city manager - now in Sarasota, Fla. - who started out as a Michigan cop, changing directions when he found police superiors viewed his desire to help the community as somehow contradictory to traditional policing. Just because you started out approaching something one way didn't mean you couldn't forge a different path.
Connor ended up playing two seasons of college basketball, along with four of football, and, for that, he retains an enduring place in the memories of Bearcats fans. This point was reinforced in a recent trip to his alma mater, when he went to a basketball game and received a heartfelt ovation.
"It's funny - I am much, much more remembered for those 2 years on the basketball team than I am for my 4 years on the football team," Barwin said recently. "It was an incredible experience. My freshman year was awesome, because we were really good. It was a senior-dominated team. It was the first year we were in the Big East. We were on TV, like, once a week."
Back then, thanks mainly to Huggins, basketball was king at Cincinnati, so, really, Barwin was stepping into the limelight, even with his initial 10 minutes a game as an undersized forward under interim coach Andy Kennedy.
"Basketball was way bigger - the football program was not very good at that point," Barwin said. "It was still very much a basketball school."
Barwin, now listed at 6-4, 264, says he weighed 225 to 230 back then - he was Brent Celek's backup at tight end and didn't play defense until his senior year.
In hoops, Barwin said, he was a "hustling, scrapping, energy guy off the bench."
Celek, now Barwin's Eagles teammate, said Barwin's second sport was a source of excitement and pride to his football friends.
"I don't think many of us expected him to get much, if any, time playing in games, but they put him in a lot," Celek said recently. "He always played good defense and got rebounds."
Connor played again the next season, under Mick Cronin, who still coaches the Bearcats, "one of the most intense coaches I've ever played for," Barwin said.
Tom Barwin remembers when Connor was sent into a game against Ohio State to guard 7-foot star center Greg Oden, who went on to be the first overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft. "Connor was on him for 7 or 8 minutes, and the score was still close when he came out," Tom said.
But playing both sports and getting his classwork done was a struggle, so when Cincinnati's basketball personnel crisis passed, he went back to playing only football.
To Eagles fans, Barwin is the outside linebacker with the hipster haircut who notched an NFC-high 14 1/2 sacks last season and made his first Pro Bowl. (Asked whether fans recognize him around town, Barwin said, "Not if I'm wearing a hat.") In terms of results so far, he probably ranks as the top acquisition of the Chip Kelly era, having arrived in 2013 as a free-agent signee from the Houston Texans, who drafted him in the second round in 2009.
"He's the ultimate team player, and he has been since the day I met him," Celek said. "I could tell the day he came in [to Cincinnati] that he would be playing in the NFL. I never thought it would be as a DE or OLB, but I knew he would make it. His athleticism was unreal. I think we all see that now.
"The crazy thing about Connor is, I firmly believe that if he wanted to switch positions today, that he could, and he'd be a great NFL TE. I don't think there are many guys in the NFL that have the ability to be versatile like he does."
Barwin has endeared himself to the fan base here not only by playing well, but also by embracing his new home. He lives in the Graduate Hospital area, rides his bike, does commercials for SEPTA. He put together a project to rebuild Ralph Brooks Park in Southwest Philly through his Make the World Better Foundation, raising $170,000. (As foundation names go, why go small? "At the end of the day, we're all just trying to make the world better," Barwin said.)
Barwin recently returned from Haiti, where he helped install solar paneling on behalf of NRG Energy on "schools, orphanages and hospitals." He makes the trip every spring.
"It might not sound that exciting or sexy, but it's hugely important," Barwin said as he prepared to go. "Nobody thinks about electricity here, because they've always had it. Over there, they don't really have a reliable grid, like we do. These schools, hospitals, orphanages run on generators that cost a lot of money and are also bad for the environment. And Haiti has a lot of sun. So if you can put up solar panels, and give 'em batteries to hold the power, you can really help the environment, and more so, cut a huge cost for them. They can use that money to improve their facilities, their operation."
Connor said his interest in these issues is related to his father, who was working in St. Charles, Mich., when Connor was very young.
"He was talking about solar, and public transit and oil prices, all that stuff growing up at the dinner table as I was growing up, just a 10-year-old kid, not having any idea what he was talking about," Connor recalled. "All that stuff obviously has a big influence on you when you're younger.
"I think it comes a lot from my parents. I was always engaged in where we lived, because of the nature of my father's job. I think it's almost instinctual for me. I've always lived year-round in the city where I've played. When you're out and about, you start to get engaged and learn about the opportunities and exciting things that are happening in cities. That's what happened in Houston; I met a lot of really nice people. The same thing has happened and is happening in Philadelphia."
Connor said he thinks his dad expected all four boys to internalize those values.
"I think he would be disappointed if I felt any other way, or confused," he said.
Tom Barwin said another factor in Connor's development was just how life was organized in St. Charles, a rural town that held 2,054 people as of the 2010 Census.
"In a small-town setting, a whole lot that gets done is done through volunteers, community efforts - almost like the old barn-raisings," he said. "We had cleanup days, flower-planting days."
Tom took a job in suburban Detroit, just as his youngest son was starting to develop as a basketball player. Connor had invitations to play in inner-city leagues.
"I asked him if he wanted to do it," Tom said. "He said, 'I'd love to do it.' He was basically the only Caucasian kid down there."
This was not much like rural Michigan, or even like the Detroit suburbs.
"There were days when practice was canceled because coaches were attending funerals of kids," Tom said. "I think what jumped out was how bad things can get if people don't work to keep their community and their neighborhood strong and viable, and when things get to that tipping point, and the neighborhood gets overwhelmed . . . I think that's part of what he carries around in the back of his character, firsthand experience.
"He got to know these kids. They came to our house and slept over. He went to their houses."
Connor attended the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, and now has a tattoo of the Detroit skyline on the inside of his right biceps.
Tom said he can't take credit for what he feels is a big motivator behind Connor's activism: "He's always gotta be on the move, he's always gotta be engaged. He's got a pretty high energy level."
Tom said this was also true, to a less extreme degree, of Connor's three older brothers - Sean is now a financial adviser/broker in New York, Patrick is a banker in Chicago, Joe has a business in San Francisco called "Bitters and Bottles," which is, among other things, a sort of liquor-of-the-month club. Each of them is a success story, on his own terms. But Connor, maybe because he was the youngest, always had to do more.
"We went out to a friend's farm one hot summer day," Tom said. He said Connor was either 8 or 9. "They had about an acre of [lawn]. It was kind of rough terrain. They had a gas lawn mower - it wasn't self-propelled. [The friend] said, 'Hey, why don't you boys take a whack at this lawn for us?' . . . Each of the other kids took one or two swipes. It came to be Connor's turn, and he mowed the whole acre without stopping.
"He comes in, soaking wet with sweat, and I said, 'Geez, Connor, that was pretty impressive. I'm surprised you were able to do all of that. Are you OK?'
"He said, 'Yeah, Dad, I just figure it's going to make me stronger for sports.' That was typical of him."
During this time, young Connor was enduring a series of ear operations, a journey that began when he was about 18 months old and didn't end until he was 12.
Sean had to go to the doctor for an ear infection. While examining Sean, the doctor saw some things that concerned him about Connor, the way he looked at people's mouths as they spoke, sometimes grabbing the speaker's face to turn it toward him. Testing confirmed the doctor's suspicions - Connor was deaf.
Doctors were able to restore normal hearing in his right ear and partial hearing in his left - but they had to keep going back in.
"I had a rare kind of tumor that was growing all around the hearing bones. It would just keep growing back," Connor said. The final operation was particularly aggressive. "That's why I have this huge hole in my ear," a much wider than normal ear canal on the left side.
"It was scary," Tom Barwin recalled. "There were about a half-dozen [operations]; he was just drained at the end of the recovery period of each one of them. It was so odd to see him just immobilized - this was somebody who was so active and energetic, and all of a sudden he's pale, lying there."
"I was very lucky, very fortunate," Connor said. "That's why I never really talked about it, because I never had any real memory of not being able to hear, I just had the scars of it . . . To this day, I look people in the mouth. They say that's from when I was a kid, when I used to read lips. But I don't remember any of that."
Connor played football only his freshman and senior years in high school and didn't set off a recruiting frenzy, as a 215-pound tight end or as a 6-4 power forward. The decision to go to Cincinnati was an easy one.
"They were the only BCS school to give me a scholarship," Connor said.
Mark D'Antonio, now the Michigan State coach, was building Cincinnati's football program then, and he was impressed with Barwin's athleticism after watching him play high school basketball. This came into play the next year, when Kennedy asked D'Antonio whether he had anyone in his football program who might be able to lend a hand.
After switching from tight end to defense as a senior, Connor recalls getting mixed reviews in the draft process. Some teams saw top-shelf athleticism and work ethic and were sold. Others thought he might be a 1-year-wonder, with a lot to learn as a pass rusher, not unlike 2014 Eagles first-round pick Marcus Smith, who switched positions a couple of times at Louisville. Some teams envisioned moving Barwin back to tight end.
The Texans drafted him 46th overall, and he was a standout on special teams as a rookie. After missing 2010 after suffering an ankle injury in the opener, Barwin recorded 11 1/2 sacks in 2011 - when his role most resembled what he now does with the Eagles. Houston wasn't eager to see him move on in 2013, but didn't match the Eagles' 6-year, $36 million offer, which could have been worth $40 million with escalators.
A few weeks ago, the Eagles moved to fully guarantee the $6.4 million Barwin is due to make in 2015, and guaranteed $3 million of the $6.75 million he is to make in 2016, while adding $750,000 over the final 3 years of the deal.
It was an unusual move in the salary-cap-conscious NFL, and it underscored how big a part Barwin is of what Eagles coach Chip Kelly is trying to build. For a fan base that might be a little leery of buying current players' jerseys, with DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, Trent Cole, Jeremy Maclin and Nick Foles all consigned to history, Barwin's No. 98 would seem to represent a sound investment.
"I'm not going anywhere!" Barwin tweeted, before thanking the organization, when Barwin announced the restructured deal.
"I believe you earn what you do. I think we all believed what Connor did for us exceeded what his contract was," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said last week at the NFL meetings in Arizona. "We felt he deserved it."
"I think he's still getting better," said Tom Barwin, who isn't exactly impartial, but knows Connor pretty well. Pro Football Focus ranked Connor tied for second in the NFL last season with Kansas City's Justin Houston in batted passes, with five, one behind Green Bay's Clay Matthews. "Every team he's been with, he's kind of started, and accelerated, has been a part of leading his teams to a championship level. I know that's been his dream."