MALIBU, Calif. — Connor Barwin sat alone in a booth overlooking the Pacific Ocean with a plate of nachos. The Malibu Farm Café is a popular spot along this 21-mile coastal town, and while the lunch crowd was relatively light on a recent Tuesday afternoon, a stream of diners popped in and out of the restaurant during the next two-plus hours.
Barwin could be anyone. A movie star. A Hollywood mogul. A surfer. Maybe even an athlete, considering his 6-foot-4, 255-pound frame. But a professional football player? And a Los Angeles Ram? Didn’t the Rams leave 20 years ago?
No one approaches Barwin as they consistently did in Center City Philadelphia. When he lived near Rittenhouse Square, or participated in civic endeavors, or simply stopped at a Wawa during his four years with the Eagles, Barwin was among the most recognizable and approachable of players.
He was an Eagle, and that is about as big as celebrities get in Philly.
In Los Angeles, and especially affluent Malibu, where he is renting a home, Barwin is anonymous.
“At this point in my career,” Barwin said, “I think I do like it.”
Barwin hasn’t explored the rest of Southern California since he arrived after signing a one-year contract in the spring, but he has gotten out a fair amount and treks 30 minutes to and from the Rams’ practice facility in Thousand Oaks.
Recently, Barwin and his wife, Laura, were out to dinner with a friend, who asked whether he had been spotted since the start of the season.
“And I was, like, ‘No, not once.’ And my wife was, like, ‘Yeah, you have multiple times,’” Barwin said. “And I was, like, ‘Yeah, as an Eagles player.’ ”
The Rams are in only their second year back in L.A., and while they are among the hottest teams in the NFL, they’re low on the list of most popular sports teams here and far down among local diversions.
“I don’t even know what the sports radio station is here,” Barwin said. “Compared to Philly, where I lived in the city, you just always feel the Eagles. It’s a great part of living in Philly. You know when it’s football season. Win or lose people are going to tell you how they feel every single week.”
Barwin was hoping to hear Philly fans at the Coliseum on Sunday, when the 9-3 Rams host the 10-2 Eagles. He’ll be there, so there will be some acknowledgments, but he won’t be playing and he won’t hear any boos after sacking former teammate Carson Wentz.
Two weeks ago, Barwin fractured a bone in his forearm when he tried to tackle Saints running back Alvin Kamara. He needed surgery to insert pins, but the break was clean and he is expected to miss only two games.
“I was bummed. The Eagles game I obviously looked at right away when I signed with the Rams,” Barwin said. “But there’s no question of whether I could tough through it. That makes it a little bit easier to deal with.”
Barwin had been rooting for the Eagles whenever he caught their games earlier in the season, but the goodwill ends this Sunday and for the rest of the season. Playoff spots and seeds are on the line, after all.
But the ties to his adopted hometown run deep and will never sever. He still owns a condo in Fishtown and plans to spend part of the offseason there. His wife still commutes back for occasional shifts as a physician’s assistant at Penn Medicine.
And Barwin’s most lasting connection to the city is the playgrounds his Make the World Better Foundation have helped rebuild. Smith Playground in South Philadelphia is close to completion and a project at Waterloo Playground in West Kensington is underway.
Barwin likes to say that Philly is where he grew up. Houston – where he spent his first four NFL seasons – was where he got to be “young and dumb.” And being on the West Coast is ideal for this stage in the 31-year-old linebacker’s career and life.
“I’m a married guy now with a baby on the way,” said Barwin, who found out only hours later that he and his wife were having a boy. “I’m happy that nobody knows who I am out here in Malibu.”
Well, almost nobody. One day while walking on the beach near his place, Barwin heard someone calling his name. It was comedian, actor, and noted sports fan Jay Mohr.
“He was yelling at me from his deck,” Barwin said.
L.A. peace of mind
Malibu isn’t a city with a grid or a downtown. It’s a long strip west of L.A. where the Santa Monica Mountains meet scenic beaches. If there’s a hub, it’s at the pier where the Malibu Farm Café serves meals from breakfast to dinner, from the beginning of the pier to the end.
Barwin’s place is about a five-minute drive away. It cradles the beach as do most Malibu homes. Barwin said he tried to surf once.
“I didn’t get up,” he said. “I just kind of pedaled around. It’s nice being on a board in the middle of the ocean.”
Surfrider Beach is about 200 yards south of the pier and, true to its name, is one of the more popular spots for riding waves. But on this day – a windy 70 degrees – only a few diehards are out. There was a haze of smoke on the horizon from the nearby wildfires that were terrorizing parts of the valley.
“I woke up this morning and we thought something was burning at our house,” said Barwin, clad in shorts, sneakers, and a black Adidas sweatshirt. “It smelled like fire. There was a little ash on our pillows on our deck and we’re not really that close. It’s about 30 miles from here.”
The air quality near the Rams facility in Ventura County forced the team to move practice indoors Wednesday. The Eagles, about 80 miles south in Orange Country, weren’t affected by the wildfires.
Barwin didn’t practice all week as he rehabbed. He had played in 107 consecutive regular-season games — all them starts and the most among active edge rushers. And he had been playing well for the Rams in a familiar 4-3 “under” defense for familiar coordinator Wade Phillips, who had Barwin with the Texans.
The Eagles released him partly because his contract had gotten so expensive, but also because Barwin wasn’t an ideal fit for Jim Schwartz’s aggressive scheme. He’s a good pass rusher, as his 14.5 sacks in 2014 attested, but his greatest value is his versatility.
“I feel a little more valuable now, I guess, to the defense,” Barwin said. “I’m doing the stuff that I’m good at doing. And we’re winning and playing well on defense. It’s been a good change for me.”
Barwin isn’t rushing as much as he did with the Eagles, but he has four sacks. Numbers have never defined his worth.
“He’s the epitome of a pro’s pro,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “He brings people with him and kind of demonstrates what it looks like to do things the right way and how it translates to good performances. And I think it says a whole lot about Connor as a first-year guy [to] get voted on as a captain by his teammates.”
The Rams’ success has some similarities to that of the Eagles. Both teams have first-time, offensive-minded coaches, although 31-year-old McVay is 18 years younger than Doug Pederson. And both teams have highly drafted quarterbacks blossoming in their second seasons.
Jared Goff is from California and seemingly tailor-made for Los Angeles, just as Wentz is for Philadelphia. But he and the Rams have yet to resonate in Southern California. There are myriad reasons. Los Angeles is a transient city with a melting pot of NFL fans. There are many other ways to occupy one’s time here.
And the Rams, who relocated from St. Louis, have been back for only two years after leaving in 1994. They still don’t have a stadium. Like the Los Angeles Chargers, who moved from San Diego, the Rams must wait until 2020 for a $2.6 billion venue to be finished in Inglewood.
And like the Chargers, who saw the 27,000-seat StubHub Center turn into South Philly West in October, the Rams must sometimes endure road-like conditions at home.
“I knew it would be an absolute home game for the Eagles,” Barwin said of the 26-24 win over the Chargers. “Sunday won’t be as bad at the Coliseum, but it will 50-50 at least, maybe more Eagles fans.”
Barwin got 55 tickets for Sunday’s game — not for Rams fans, but for friends making the cross-country trek from Philly.
Philly state of mind
Barwin might not have been the most popular player during his tenure with the Eagles, but he was the most visible in his adopted hometown, and that is in part why he remains beloved by many Philadelphians.
He couldn’t attend his foundation’s fund-raising concert at the Dell Music Center in September, but his Eagles jersey dotted the crowd and was even worn on stage by The War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel.
Barwin said he planned to hold the fifth annual concert back at the Dell and is working on booking a headliner. The shows have raised nearly $1 million for the playgrounds. The first project at Ralph Brooks Park at 20th and Tasker was completed in 2015.
Smith Playground at 25th and Snyder has been a huge undertaking with funding from various partners. The $3.5 million project is in its final stage after nearly three years and three phases of construction. First there was the rec center, then the basketball courts and playground, and finally a new turf football field was laid just last month.
“People are stoked after seeing the turf football field go in,” Barwin said. “It used to be like the Dust Bowl.”
Barwin said that he will be back for the grand opening in the spring. He doesn’t know if he’ll still be a Ram – he becomes a free agent after the season – but he said that he wants to play three more seasons, and hopefully with McVay and Goff and when the new stadium opens.
He doesn’t mind being bicoastal, although he might want to be with his wife around her early June due date. Barwin said that she has doctors in Philly and L.A. just in case. He isn’t ruling out a return to the Eagles, but some reunions aren’t meant to be.
“I would love to be in Philly and play for the Eagles during a Super Bowl or some playoff run,” Barwin said. “But it didn’t happen. I’m not upset about it because I feel like in my four years I did everything to help that happen.”
Eagles fans will always recognize that.