Connor Barwin making a difference

Connor Barwin As Green As It Gets (5:00)

Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin's passion for his city has led him to spearhead a park revitalization project. Rick Reilly has the story. (5:00)

PHILADELPHIA -- Connor Barwin knew right away that Ralph Brooks Park desperately needed help.

The small, blacktop basketball court was cracked and pocked. One rim was busted. The other was bolted on a graffiti-laced, wooden backboard. The jungle gym was rusty, horribly outdated and unsafe. The lights didn't work. A mural painted on the side of a nearby building told the story of the blighted Point Breeze neighborhood in South Philadelphia:

"STOP THE VIOLENCE" it says in large, red letters above a list of the names of dozens of people who were killed on neighborhood streets.

Barwin came across the park -- named for a 6-year-old boy who was paralyzed after getting caught in gun crossfire -- on the corner of 20th and Tasker Streets earlier this year while doing what he did for four years while playing linebacker for the Houston Texans: riding his bike to work. After the 2013 season, his first with the Philadelphia Eagles, Barwin bought a century-old brownstone in the swanky Rittenhouse Square section of Center City, about four miles from the Eagles' practice facility.

Barwin would dodge traffic riding down 19th Street while traveling from his relatively safe neighborhood through Point Breeze to practice. He'd ride home up 20th Street. On every ride, he passed the park.

In early spring, Barwin took his father, Tom, the city manager of Sarasota, Florida, on a bike ride to the park.

"I want to fix this," Barwin told his father. "What's it going to cost, a hundred grand?"

"It's going to cost you more than that," Tom said.

Barwin and his father went to the local police precinct and asked about the park. Was anyone trying to do something about it? Then they went to a community center.

"You're who?" someone there asked Connor. "You want to do what? Talk to us."

Philadelphia is a blue-collar city with more than 1.5 million residents who celebrate the same religion on Sunday: the Eagles. Yes, the fans can be tough, but outside the region, they are mostly misunderstood. They want to bring their hoagies into the stadium and see their team play to its potential -- whatever that potential is. They yearn for what Andy Reid and Dick Vermeil and every other coach failed to produce -- an elusive Lombardi trophy. And they cherish authenticity.

Donovan McNabb, who quarterbacked the Eagles to five NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl in 11 seasons with the team, will never be beloved here in part because he came across as fake, standoffish and not of the people.

Barwin is just the opposite.

After signing a six-year deal with the Eagles as a free agent in 2013, Barwin opted against living in South Jersey, where most of his teammates reside. Barwin is a city guy. He has a car, but he prefers to bike, walk or take public transit. He's so committed to riding the bus or taking the subway that he is a spokesman for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority.

When he's not working as a starting outside linebacker for the Eagles, Barwin can be found all around the city, trying new restaurants and listening to live music. He's such a foodie that his Eagles bio includes his top 10 places to eat. La Calaca Feliz, a spot in Fairmount Park, came in at No. 4, but Barwin admitted he misses the Mexican fare he enjoyed during his four seasons in Houston.

After showing his father the park, Barwin got in touch with Philadelphia's deputy mayor for environmental and community resources, Michael DiBerardinis, who put him in touch with the neighborhood's councilman, Kenyatta Johnson. Johnson told Barwin there were two men he needed to meet: Jeffrey Tubbs, a 37-year-old real estate developer, and Jahmall Crandall, a 39-year-old school district police officer who grew up in Point Breeze and still lives there.

For two years, Tubbs and Crandall had been working on plans to refurbish and expand the 25-year-old park. Crandall remembers when the park first opened in 1989, the year after Brooks was injured. He played there as a kid and watched it decay.

Tubbs and Crandall had big dreams for the park but not a big budget. In the beginning, they were thinking it would be a $50,000 project: Resurface the blacktop and put in new basketball goals.

What Tubbs, a self-professed dreamer who admits he often runs before he walks, really wanted to do was something bigger. He found out there were seven city-owned lots contiguous to the park and applied to buy them. He helped put together a conceptual study by researching basketball courts around the world, including famed Rucker Park in New York.

What started as a modest project blossomed into one that, hopefully, would include a playground, a senior terrace and an urban farm to grow fresh produce for the neighborhood.

Despite their hard work, often to the financial detriment of Tubbs, the project stalled. Then they received word in late April that an unnamed Eagles player wanted to meet them at the park. Tubbs and Crandall were skeptical, but they arrived to find, as Tubbs said, "this hipster texting at the basketball court on his bike by himself."

"I thought he was a really cool guy," Crandall said. "For someone of his stature to be able to freely roam around in a neighborhood like South Philly with the plague of violence broadcast on the media, for him to do so freely without a care in the world is really cool. He comes on his bike with no security, and he's got no problem interacting with the people of the community."

Barwin met with Tubbs and Crandall for an hour. He peppered them with questions. How were they fundraising? How were they going to engage the community? Who were their partners? How real is this? Why was it taking so long?

A few days later, Barwin met with Tubbs for a few more hours.

"I think he thought we just didn't have our s--- together," Tubbs said.

Barwin asked Tubbs if he had renderings of the finished product, which Tubbs did. Then about a week went by, in which Barwin looked into another potential project in North Philadelphia.

"I'm going to make you sweat it out," Barwin texted Tubbs.

Then, one night over beers, Barwin told Tubbs: "I'm going to go for it."

Tubbs replied: "Cheers to that."

Not many guys have the Detroit skyline tattooed on their biceps. Barwin does. Born in Southfield, Michigan, Barwin spent the early part of his childhood in rural St. Charles, Michigan, until his family moved to Detroit for his father's job as the city manager of Ferndale, a suburb just north of 8 Mile Road.

The youngest of Tom and Margaret's four sons born in a five-year span, Barwin always had to fight to "even up the size, strength and speed disadvantage he was born into," Tom said.

He discovered football by watching local youth games on a public-access television channel and then begged his parents to sign him up, which they did.

When Connor was in fourth grade, he started playing basketball in inner-city Detroit. The level of competition was higher than in the suburbs, and it motivated Connor. He excelled in basketball and football. Next month, his high school, University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, will induct him into its hall of fame alongside broadcaster Gus Johnson.

Playing basketball in Detroit gave Barwin a firsthand look at the problems many cities, including Philadelphia, endure. Crime. Poverty. Violence. Poor education. Sometimes basketball practice was cancelled because his coach had to attend a kid's funeral.

Tom and Margaret had their sons attend community beautification and civic events.

"I think it's influenced him," Tom said.

"My dad used to send me into a church in one of the roughest areas of Detroit," Connor said. "Playing [basketball] with those kids for eight years, I think, had a big impact on who I am today and had a big impact on what I'm capable of doing athletically because of the competition down there. I don't know necessarily what exactly made me get involved with this park in South Philly, but more than anything, it seemed like the natural, right thing to do."

Barwin accepted a football scholarship to the University of Cincinnati and played tight end before shifting to the defensive line as a senior. He also walked on to the Bearcats basketball team and played in 41 games over two seasons. His love for basketball influenced his decision to help rebuild the park; one of his main stipulations was that the new basketball goals have glass backboards, which is the plan.

In June, Barwin held a fundraising concert featuring Philadelphia's Kurt Vile and the Violators for his recently formed foundation, Make the World Better. The goal was to raise $40,000 for the park, which Barwin agreed to match. The concert sold out and, with a few large, unexpected donations, raised $85,000. True to his word, Barwin matched it and gave Tubbs a check for $170,000 to help fund the park.

The groundbreaking for the project is scheduled for Dec. 9, and the plan is to have the first phase -- which includes the basketball court, a water garden and a playground -- completed by spring.

"It's not a great neighborhood, but it is getting better," Barwin said. "You can see the gentrification happening. It's happening everywhere across the country, but that area still needs help, and the park will make a big difference, I think, for the people that have lived there a long time."

Now in his second season in Philadelphia, Barwin occupies the first stall on the left side of the Eagles' locker room, a spot once reserved for McNabb. With linebacker DeMeco Ryans on injured reserve after tearing his Achilles, Barwin has become the unquestioned leader of the Eagles' defense.

Barwin is having one of the best seasons of his six-year career. He is tied for second in the NFL with 12½ sacks, the most ever by a Philadelphia linebacker and more than double his total from last season.

"I think I'm playing how I should be playing and how I'm capable of playing, minus [a 53-20 loss to Green Bay], which I think most guys would say they didn't play up to their own standard and our standard," Barwin said. "I thought I played pretty well last year, too. My sacks are obviously up from last year, but I thought last year was one of my better seasons. I had a s--- ton of tackles, which I think is important."

Barwin is biking to work less frequently now, as the wear and tear of the season has taken a toll on his legs. He texts with Tubbs and Crandall frequently about the park, and since Barwin became involved, so have other influential constituencies in Philadelphia, including the Mural Arts Program and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

"Connor put it on such a different level, where people want to be involved now," Tubbs said. "You gain a certain amount of momentum, and then it's like, 'Wow, this is real. This is legit.' We're really trying to knock this one out of the park and really look to pivot off this and really do some extraordinary things. That's what I'm thinking, and I know Connor thinks the same thing.

"It's refreshing to see somebody who's so successful kind of be humble enough and grounded enough to want to make that kind of an impact. It's not like, 'I just want to help.' He was like, 'I want to do some good stuff.' That's cool. That's exciting."

That's why the Eagles have nominated Barwin for the prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year.

As for the park, the plan is to keep the mural memorializing the lives lost to violence in the neighborhood. For some, as Crandall said, it is the only gravestone they have for a loved one.

But they want to give it "a fresh new look," Crandall said, "not so much speak on violence, but promote peace and tranquility, maybe something more inspirational."

Not unlike the man who rode his bike past a problem and decided to help fix it.