30 for 30 Shorts: ‘The Great Imposter’

Death of a Screenwriting Guru

Courtesy of Timothy McAuliffe Connor Barwin illustration

The NFL’s Modern Man

How Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin — a bike-riding, socially conscious, Animal Collective–loving hipster — is redefining what it means to be a football player

Are you guys the Dirty Projectors?”

The question comes from one of the few stragglers still hanging at a nearly cleared-out Union Transfer. Animal Collective has just finished a show in Philadelphia, and although the venue is just about empty, the man asking the question is in no hurry to leave. He’s standing here, but he’s clearly somewhere far, far away.

But even in his scrambled state, it isn’t hard to trace this stranger’s line of thought. At 6-foot-4, 264 pounds with three-day stubble, the man seated on the bleacher behind him does look like someone.

Connor Barwin smiles. “Nope,” he says. “We’re just people here watching the show like you.”

“OK,” the stranger says. “Sorry. I’m tripping balls.”

He wasn’t the only one. An hour earlier, a girl in the bleachers sits hunched over with her face in her hands, the aural onslaught disagreeing with whatever else was in her system. Animal Collective’s music tends to produce this effect; their set is an immersion into complete sensory stimulation. The smell of weed hangs in the air, and the unceasing wall of sound is coupled with an overwhelming series of visuals. A large white screen hangs on the wall behind the band, and canvas pads line the area above and below the stage. Projected onto each blank surface is an identical combination of spinning colors and shapes.

“This is so weird,” Barwin says. He’s not complaining. The Eagles linebacker is perched in his usual spot at Union Transfer, in the half-dozen rows of bleachers at the back of the balcony. Tucked up here, he’s less conspicuous, but he still stands out from the crowd of thin, plaid-draped bodies. He’s wearing slim, dark jeans folded once at the bottom to reveal black leather oxfords (no socks), and a blue T-shirt featuring Keith Haring’s See No Evil.

This is life for Barwin — 12 hours earlier, he was arriving at Lincoln Financial Field to play the Giants, and now he’s casually taking in some Sunday-night experimental psychedelia. The 15-7 loss earlier that afternoon dropped the Eagles to 3-5, but for the third straight week, a once-struggling defense had played well.1 Barwin has found a new home in his first season with Philadelphia, where he signed as part of the Eagles’ transition to a 3-4 defense after four years as a pass-rushing outside linebacker for the Texans.

In a league where single-minded football obsession and the purposeful snuffing out of personality seems to be encouraged among players, Barwin has established himself as a unique character. From his promotion of green living and energy conservation to his public endorsement of marriage equality, he’s an individual in a profession where individualism is often demonized.

Not long before Animal Collective launches into “My Girls,” their entrancing, impossibly catchy hit from 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, Barwin leans over. “You know those ‘Overheard in the Crowd’ sections of concert reviews?” he asks. “That girl just said, ‘I thought they were going to play, like, songs.” He has some experience with rock criticism. During his time with the Texans, Barwin became a fixture in Houston’s arts community. He became so entrenched, he even reviewed a Fitz and the Tantrums concert for the Houston Press.

Animal Collective barrel through their set without a break of more than a few seconds — across two hours, there isn’t a single instance of stage banter. After it ends, everyone still inside is gathered at the tables in the large, high-ceilinged bar just beyond the doors. Standing at one of the tables, Barwin starts a conversation with a shaggy blond-haired twentysomething swimming in red-and-black buffalo plaid. He mentions something about working at the venue.

“Oh, you work here?” Barwin asks. “What do you do?”

There’s a mumbled response, followed by shouts of “Yo!” The man waves his hands and yells in the direction of the security guard. He has the look of someone chemically bent toward paranoia. And although it’s unclear what has set him off, the inquisitive hulk seems to have made him nervous. Barwin starts to move toward the door. He doesn’t know what’s happening, but he can sense it’s not good. There are the moments when stepping between worlds means being an intruder in both.

The night before the show, Barwin is asleep at the team hotel while a group of family and friends gathers for dinner at Prime Stache, a restaurant in Old City owned by Eagles tight end Brent Celek. Barwin’s parents are up from Sarasota, where his father is the city manager, and this weekend two of his three brothers have also made it to town.

Connor is the youngest of the four Barwin boys, all raised in Hazel Park, Michigan, just north of Detroit. He has one tattoo, of the Detroit skyline on the inside of his right biceps.

Their father was the city manager in Hazel Park for years, and that meant the Barwins called the working-class town of about 16,000 home. Their house, just south of 10 Mile Road, was in an area colloquially called Tool Town, and many of their neighbors made a living at the job shops nearby. In the summer the walls would shake from the morning rumblings of the stamping plant, and on clear afternoons the galloping from the racetrack down the street would carry to their front porch.

Tom Barwin describes his city manager duties as those of a school administrator, but for an entire town. He’d met Connor’s mother, Margaret Bailey, while they were both working on a campaign — small-town politics were an ever-present topic at the dinner table. Tom espoused the importance of smart city growth, decrying Detroit’s problems since tearing out the “backbone” of its local transit system. “My dad was talking about how we were going to run out of gas when we were kids,” Connor says.

Those dinners informed the unofficial Barwin family mantra: balance. Each son was required to learn an instrument and take piano lessons. Sports were just a part of the pursuit for well-rounded men, and Connor’s first love was basketball. By the start of middle school, he was already tall, slender, and talented. When he was in eighth grade, a girl named Laura from a nearby town was coaxed into a double date when she heard he could dunk. Twelve years later, they’re moving into a house together.

Basketball was yet another way for Connor’s parents to widen his view of the world. When he was 11, the basketball team coached by his father traveled to urban Detroit to play a squad made up of students from a local outreach program. The game was a blowout, and afterward, the coach who ran the center asked Tom if his best player had any interest in coming down and joining their team. Soon, Connor was spending his afternoons at St. Rita’s Church, just south of 7 Mile Road. Connor says his mother was the one who encouraged him to start playing at St. Rita’s. The trips across 8 Mile Road were a chance for Connor to learn the realities of life in a different part of Detroit. Every now and then, he and his father would show up and find the gym closed. Tom would ask someone hanging around if they knew why. “Another funeral,” someone would tell Tom.

Around that time, the Barwins were growing concerned about Connor?s older brother Joe. He was 16 and spending much of his time locked in his room. Both Joe’s parents and brothers suspected they knew what was wrong — that Joe may be gay and was struggling with his decision to come out. The Barwins got some help in March 1998, when Tom was hired as the city manager of nearby Ferndale. “It was kind of the gay mecca of metro Detroit,” Tom says. “That was just damn good luck. Through my contacts there, they just said, ‘If your son is gay, you have to let him come out, and you just have to be supportive.'” Eventually, it was the Barwins’ oldest son Sean who asked his brother the question. After coming out to his family and friends, Joe’s mood improved. He stopped locking himself in his room. The depression dissipated.

For Connor, it was another experience that deepened his worldview. “He was able to see all those dynamics, and really, some of the deep, personal implications for the individual,” Tom says.

Barwin was mostly quiet about his stance on marriage equality and gay rights early in his career. Young players are faced with enough challenges; ostracism for being vocal about a potentially divisive political issue didn’t need to be another, he thought. But over time, as Barwin gained a foothold in the league, he became comfortable telling teammates — and especially teammates who were friends — that his brother was gay, and that he objected to the use of gay slurs. “I would just explain how ignorant it made them look,” Barwin says.

When President Obama announced his support for marriage equality, Barwin tweeted his reaction:

It’s the type of choice Barwin likely wouldn’t have made early in his career, but his standing as a respected NFL veteran was only part of the decision. Barwin says that like in much of the country, ideas about homosexuality have progressed in NFL locker rooms. And despite debates about bullying behind closed doors, he says slurs have become more rare.

He also says that he was never asked by the Texans to be less vocal about his views. Most of the criticism about his willingness to share his off-the-field life came from fans during last season.

“I got some shit in Houston last year,” he says. “I did the exact same thing. I got three sacks last year in Houston, and I had people tweeting at me, ‘Stop worrying about being a hipster.’ You get that kind of feedback. But I’ve never heard anything from people that know what’s going on.”

Connor Barwin During his hurried exit out of Union Transfer, Barwin grabs a flyer advertising the venue’s calendar of events. As the taxi pulls away, he’s already telling Laura which bands they need to catch next month. “Polica, and then Sleigh Bells,” he says.

Barwin’s love affair with indie has been a relatively recent development. His mandatory time playing an instrument was spent on the drums — “I was never very good” — but in high school, his music collection consisted mostly of hip-hop. “I had every Bone Thugs-n-Harmony CD,” Barwin says.

“Really, it was in Houston that I dove into live music and bands,” he says. “And that was just because of the music scene.”

In the first game of his second season, Barwin suffered a devastating ankle injury. Placed on IR shortly after, he spent most of his days in the training room. That’s where he met Pat McGinn.

McGinn, now 28, arrived in Houston as an intern trainer the same year Barwin arrived as a second-round pick. As Barwin received his daily treatment, McGinn would talk about his nights in Houston, scraping by thanks to a familiarity with the city’s best drink deals. Eventually, Barwin asked if he could tag along. “Hanging out with a bunch of schmucks trying to get by on dollar-beer night probably made him feel like he did while he was growing up,” McGinn says.

Barwin embraced McGinn’s preferred mode of travel: bike. McGinn now lives in Seattle, where he worked on his uncle’s recent mayoral reelection campaign. He says people in the Pacific Northwest don’t grasp how he could have possibly enjoyed his time in Houston, with its conservative politics and sprawling intertwinement of highways. “All that shit in between [those highways], that’s just a 15-minute drive to most people,” McGinn says. “When you start riding your bike and living on the gritty here and there, you see all that space that most of the city doesn’t see. We knew artists, bar owners, chefs, graffiti artists, musicians, newspaper and magazine writers. That’s where life happens, in that in-between part that most people drive by on the highway at 80 miles an hour and don’t get to see.”

One of their favorite haunts was Fitzgerald’s, a small music venue just north of downtown. The first show McGinn can remember attending with Barwin was Toro y Moi. It was a summer night, and like so many others in the audience, Barwin was wearing a tank top and jean shorts. “But he’s 6-foot-5, 260,” McGinn says. “We’re leaving, and someone throws a bottle down and it whizzes by both of our heads, for no reason at all. Someone was just pissed he was there. [It was] a ‘How dare you step on our turf’ sort of thing.”

But Barwin wasn’t an outsider in that world for long. In a way, his four years in Houston were like college all over again — plus some cash, minus classes. He became a fixture at live music events in Houston. The best show he has seen in Philadelphia so far is Father John Misty, but he’s not exactly objective on the issue. He has known Father John for a couple of years now. It was Barwin’s birthday in 2011, and he visited a small performance room in the House of Blues with some friends. The two started talking, and by the end of the night, they were at one of Houston’s famed strip clubs. “He was so weird,” Barwin says, “and he knows he’s doing it all on purpose. But at the end of the day, he still wanted to go to a strip club in Houston. I mean, it might have all been a joke to him: ‘I’m going to meet a football player at my show, and we’re going to a strip club.'”

Debauched nights with rock stars make for good stories, but most of Barwin’s time in Houston was spent quietly immersing himself in every part of the city’s culture. He and Texans nose tackle Shaun Cody frequented local restaurants, getting to know chefs as they ate their way through the city. When Barwin was looking for an original piece of art for his apartment, he took to Twitter and found a local Houston artist to paint a mural. “He had to make an effort to delve into the underbelly of a city,” McGinn says, “and when he left, there were people who were devastated.” Soon after Barwin signed with the Eagles, McGinn saw the lead singer of local band the Tontons at a party. She’d heard the news, and when the conversation turned to Barwin, her eyes welled up.

When Barwin took out a full-page good-bye ad in the Houston Press, the largest font was devoted to the city, to his teammates, and to the fans. But nearly everyone he encountered got a mention. “He thanked everyone from the pizza delivery guy to the band leaders to the restaurant owners,” McGinn says. “Those were his people.”

Those friendships were a way to avoid professional football’s one-track life. “You can get in this tunnel of what life is like, and the way you spend your money and what you do, because that’s what everyone around you is doing,” Barwin says. “It was really good in finding who I wanted to be, because they were polar opposites.”

Connor Barwin On Monday morning, Barwin heads to a popular coffee shop near Rittenhouse Square in central Philadelphia. This is his routine the day after a game: a cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant.

He’s still finding his niche in Philadelphia. He isn’t intimate with the city yet, but his life here has mostly been a continuation of his time in Houston. He bought a car — the all-electric Tesla Model S, of course — but his social-media presence is still littered with photos of him chaining up his bike and riding the bus.

Barwin says there’s nothing staged about the way he presents himself to the world, but he’s self-aware about his choices. “[It’s all] what I enjoy doing, but I’d say, ‘Yes, I know what I’m doing,'” he says. “When I post a picture of me riding a public bus, I know what I’m doing.” He pauses. “But I do enjoy riding the bus!”

“All the ‘green’ stuff, it’s not [me] pounding my chest, trying to save the world. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

The presentation of his persona, inside and outside the locker room, has changed over the course of Barwin’s career. As his role within the Texans’ defense grew, his willingness to expose teammates to his outside interests did too. Jesse Nading was a Texans linebacker for five seasons, and he says that although Barwin’s standing within the team was important, ultimately, his ability to broaden his teammates’ views comes from his willingness to broaden his own. “A lot of it stems from it being reciprocated,” says Nading. “If you have something that’s of interest to you and means a lot to you, and you invite Connor, it’s very unlikely that he’s going to turn down a unique experience where he can push himself. Guys respond to that.”

In Houston, that meant a half-dozen Texans at an M83 show. This season, it’s a handful of millionaires buying bicycles. “You have to expose people to different things,” Barwin says. “Those guys have never even been on the subway. Once you get them on the subway, they’re like, ‘Wow, this is really easy.’ All those guys are normal human beings. It’s not going that far to make a connection.” Barwin points to the complexity of an NFL locker room. “In football, you have Todd Herremans and DeSean Jackson on the same team,” he says. “Physically, there are so many differences. And then you have where everyone comes from, what point they’re at in life. There are so many differences that make it so interesting.”

Understanding the composition of personalities in professional football has become more complicated in recent weeks. The Jonathan Martin–Richie Incognito controversy in Miami has reignited conversations about notions of masculinity and identity in the NFL. But Barwin says that while his interests and passions away from the field might create a distinction between him and some of his teammates, football always wins out. “How you think I’m different, that is different,” he says, “but in the locker room, I have so many similarities with all those guys.”

“I’ve done the private jet to Las Vegas with Mario Williams, but I’ve also done dive bars all over the place. It’s all about a balance. I want to be balanced.”

By the time his coffee is finished, it’s after eleven. “You hungry?” Barwin says. “We were going to go get pizza.” Lunch is waiting in Love Park, named for the iconic sculpture at its center. It’s a food truck called Pitruco that serves wood-fired pizza, and on the walk, Barwin reels off the backstory. “It was started by these two guys who went to Harvard,” he says. Before opening the truck, one worked in finance, the other as a developmental psychologist, and they claim to have figured out the perfect recipe for crust. Barwin’s informational tour extends to the city’s architecture. He points out the statue of William Penn atop City Hall, and that Philadelphia’s lack of skyscrapers stems from an old agreement stating that no structure would be built above Penn’s height.

The crust may not be perfect, but it’s close. The food doesn’t last long. Soon, Laura arrives on her bike, and after another pizza disappears, the conversation turns to the afternoon’s plans. Hanging above the table is a collection of banners for local attractions, and she mentions that they’ve been wanting to visit the Barnes Foundation, an art museum consisting entirely of one Pennsylvanian’s personal collection.

Once inside, the tour starts with a short biography of founder Dr. Albert C. Barnes. Born in Philadelphia to a working-class family, the self-made millionaire spent a portion of his fortune on a handful of modern paintings. But when they eventually arrived, there was a problem. Barnes failed to grasp what distinguished these Renoirs and Picassos from anything else. He obsessed over the idea — purchasing more paintings, soliciting the help of experts. Over time, his appreciation for the form — and his collection — grew as he developed the notion that art was the ideal way to enlighten the common man.

What sets the Barnes collection apart is not the quality of the pieces. There are Cézannes, Van Goghs, and Seurats, but the defining characteristic of the museum is its layout. The paintings are organized and stacked on the wall in a manner that might otherwise seem gauche. But somehow, it works.

In one room, Renoir’s Mother and Child sits at the center of a perfectly symmetrical grouping. Forest landscapes flank it on both sides, and images of fruit and subjects in hats mirror each other. Folded onto a bench in the middle of the room, an audio guide playing through his headphones, Barwin raises his arm and moves his hand in a straight line along the arrangement.

The focus of the next room is Modigliani’s Girl With a Polka-Dot Blouse. The subject’s eyes are a pale, chillingly calm blue. On either side is a painting by Chaim Soutine. There is something dark, violent, twisted about these paintings.

Seated before the painting are three elderly women, each barely more than 5 feet tall. Towering behind them is Barwin — the muscles in his back bulging through a Dri-FIT pullover — looking into the eyes of Modigliani’s girl. Through his headphones, the narrator describes the painting. The calm is offset by the violence, she says. Only because the parts are dissimilar does the whole become something more.

Filed Under: NFL, Philadelphia Eagles, Sports, Teams

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays