Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin is a fan favorite – a down-to-earth guy who rides the subway to practice and isn’t afraid of really hard work. On the field, he’s a dependable strong man on an evolving team. Off the field, he’s the good guy the NFL really needs right now. Connor Barwin isn’t one to stand out in a crowd (unless, of course, people are noticing his funky hair), he’s the guy in the back, knowing what he has to do, and ready to do it.

Unknown-4 (1)It’s the middle of the week in the middle of the offseason, and Connor Barwin is already deep into his routine. He’s the last man off the field after an Organized Team Activity training session. Then he hits the weight room to loosen up, stretch out his muscles and breathe deeply. After that, Barwin heads to the athletic training room for a cold tub.

A shower and a change of clothes later, he finally sits down for lunch in the NovaCare Complex, the training facility of the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s nearly 2:30 in the afternoon, and Barwin brings to the table a cup of turkey chili and some vegetables.

“It’s all part of my recovery, getting ready for the next day,” says Barwin, a linebacker in his third season with the Eagles. He’s at the very top of his game after earning his first Pro Bowl nod and All-Pro recognition in the 2014 campaign when he led the NFC with 14 ½ sacks. “I like the routine. It’s my pace, and it’s working for me.”

Everything is working for Barwin, who was a second-round draft pick by the Houston Texans in 2009 and then signed with the Eagles as an unrestricted free agent prior to the 2013 season, Chip Kelly’s first as the head coach here. The Eagles were changing from a 4-3 defense – four down linemen and three linebackers – to a 3-4, and they needed a versatile linebacker who could play tough against the running game – setting the edge, is the football term – and who could drop back and cover receivers in the passing game and in the process rush the quarterback when called upon.

Barwin, at 6-foot-4, 264 pounds, has satisfied every requirement, and then some.

“He does everything well. He sets the edge for us. He rushes the passer, and he drops back into coverage. He’s an unselfish player, completely,” says Eagles outside linebackers coach Bill McGovern. “Connor has such great football intelligence and when you combine that IQ with his length, it just makes us a better football team. Sometimes we can get him on matchups that we think will benefit us. He studies so hard and he’s so prepared, so when it gets to game day Connor plays within the scheme and he’s very productive.”

Armed with the financial security of a long-term contract and an esteemed perch of leadership in the Eagles’ locker room – “I look up to him for the way he works and just gets it done,” says fellow outside linebacker Brandon Graham – Barwin is making sure to extend his reach far beyond the limits of the football field.

Born in Detroit, Barwin has a deep appreciation for American cities. He isn’t out to save the world, necessarily, but he wants to make it a better place. Barwin’s foundation, Make The World Better, raised $185,000 with a benefit concert in 2014 to rebuild a park in Southwest Philadelphia. Proceeds from the organization’s second concert, slated for this month, will fund a revitalization project at South Philadelphia’s Smith Playground.

Barwin, called the “NFL’s Modern Man” by the ESPN blog Grantland, is a spokesman for SEPTA and often rides his bicycle to the office or takes public transportation. If he must drive a car, Barwin takes his electric-powered Tesla.

“You get out of a city what you put into a city,” he says. “It’s that simple. Why not take advantage of everything a city has to offer? It just makes sense to me… My dad was a city manager [in Detroit], so I gained an appreciation for cities from him. He took me around different cities and pointed out all the differences and great places to go. I really got that from him, so I try to embrace wherever I am.

“I think Philadelphia is kind of having a moment right now, particularly on the national scene. I think there’s an urban movement happening all over the country, but it’s definitely happening here. I see Philadelphia as being a leader among these cities having this movement. That’s why it’s fun for me to be here and to be in the center of this movement.”

Barwin was born completely deaf. He underwent multiple surgeries until the age of 12 before he could hear. He is used to overcoming challenges and thriving. He searches for ways to make lives better, he says, and it’s no false pretense.

“You couldn’t find a better person who cares about others,” McGovern says. “He truly cares about those around him, whether it’s a teammate he is trying to make a better player or a cause in the world that means something to him.”

Barwin relaxed after his 2014 welcome-to-the-upper-echelon-in-the-NFL season by taking a trip to Haiti. What he observed had a profound impact on his view of the world. He knows how fortunate he is to live in a country with all the benefits the United States provides.

Barwin was startled by Haiti’s lack of basic necessities, so he parlayed his relationship with NRG Energy – a Fortune 500 power generation and retail electricity business for whom he is a spokesman – into an agreement to install solar panels on schools, orphanages and hospitals.

“It is a totally different world,” Barwin says.

Connor_2156-1838“We all have electricity here, so nobody gives it a second thought. That’s not the case there. Not at all. They don’t have a reliable grid like we do. They run their electricity on generators, which cost a lot of money and are bad for the environment. Haiti has a lot of sun, so it makes sense to install solar panels and give them a chance to harness the energy. It works for everybody. That’s what we did. It was a great experience.”

At a time when the NFL has been challenged to explain its culture, especially in the last year, Barwin has stepped up. While the NFL navigated its way through players’ criminal activity and domestic violence, and Michael Sam’s public declaration as a homosexual, Barwin, whose oldest brother is gay, wrote a letter published online by Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarterback describing the culture of the locker rooms he has experienced.

“With so much testosterone and so much ego in one room, the possibility of things going off the rails is very high,” Barwin wrote. “Like any workplace, however, the most important stabilizing force is good leadership from an organizational level, a coaching level and most importantly a player level. From my experience, the best teams are the ones that have strong leadership at each position.”

But Barwin doesn’t just write it or talk about it; he lives it. He’s a leader and role model both on and off the field.

Just last month, Barwin and teammate Mark Sanchez went to Temple University Hospital to speak with families of the victims of the Amtrak train derailment – with no press in sight. He wants the world to be a better place, and he’s got the opportunity, through the NFL’s massive platform, to make his voice heard.

“I don’t necessarily think about it in those terms. I just use the opportunities that I have to, in my small way, incrementally make the world a better place,” Barwin says. “It’s not only about me doing it. It’s also about inspiring other people to let them know they can make the world a better place.

“I grew up with parents and a family that valued the neighborhood they lived in and the community they lived in. I think other people should value where they live and the people they live with. When you do that, you create a healthier, more vibrant, safer environment and community.”

June 2015
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