Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk is blessed with the work ethic of a Steelworker and the intellect of an Ivy Leaguer. He is a devout Christian and a devoted family man with four kids, and a fifth one on the way. He boasts the unique distinction of having his own Morton's recipe called the "Two-Fisted Burger," which carries his endorsement in the new "Morton's The Cookbook." The Minnesota native has a strong reputation for being a hard-nosed football player, as well as a stand up guy and stellar citizen that has dedicated himself to fighting for worthy causes.
With an industrialist mentality, Birk blocks tirelessly in the trenches and has the battle scars to prove it, as the bridge of his nose is often bleeding under his helmet in between plays. It is easy to characterize the 6-4, 309 lb lineman's responsibilities as a yeoman's work – after all, he is charged with neutralizing the nose tackle and keeping a blitzing middle linebacker from rushing in for a sack on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. But the job is much more complex than that...
While the quarterback is labeled as the team leader, the offense flows from the center. In corporate speak, the center is the quarterback's Chief Operating Officer. As the de facto leader of the squad, Birk must be intimately aware of the rest of the offensive line's assignments, make the first line calls by quickly reading the defensive formation before the play begins, and then snap the ball and initiate the Ravens' offense. The position is highly cerebral and demands a player who is capable of thinking quickly and directing the offense. Birk is well suited for the job and comes armed with a degree in economics from Harvard, which has helped pave the way for him to master his position and enjoy a successful 12-year NFL career.
The six-time Pro Bowl center made a name for himself in the NFL anchoring the offensive line for the Minnesota Vikings before he joined the Ravens this season. As a stalwart on the Ravens offensive line, his gutsy play has helped his team grab an AFC wild-card spot and a 9-7 record heading into next week's first round playoff matchup against the New England Patriots. Behind Birk, this year's squad also tied the franchise's regular-season scoring record of 391 total points set in 2003 and may be regarded as the most prolific offense in team history.
While his stellar play on the field and academic pedigree has raised eyebrows, it's his contributions to the community and fellow professional athletes that are most deserving of recognition and admiration.
Birk is one of three current NFL players who has already agreed to donate his brain and spinal tissue after death to research studies being conducted by Boston University on head injuries and degenerative brain disease. The Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy found links between repeated head trauma and brain damage in football players, boxers, and most recently, a former NHL player. Birk is no stranger to repeated head trauma and has suffered three concussions over the course of his career – one in high school, one in college, and one in the NFL. He is also providing researchers access to track any head injuries he sustains while he is playing. This season, he is testing a specialized helmet invented by his friend, who is a fellow Harvard alum and doctor. Birk is on a personal crusade to make things better and safer for the players that come after him, and his donation is a huge contribution to the advancement of both science and his sport.
Birk is also deeply committed to another humanitarian effort, which encapsulates the deleterious long-term impact concussions can have on NFL players – The Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund. Gridiron Greats is an organization with a much-needed mission to help ex-NFL players with health and/or financial issues.
On November 25, Birk announced that he was launching an initiative among active NFL players to raise money and provide support for retired NFL players in crisis and address the catastrophic conditions many are currently experiencing since their NFL careers ended. Birk, along with Mike Ditka and his Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, are spearheading the third annual Gridiron Guardian Program to distribute the funds through the organization's player assistance program.
Birk and the Gridiron Greats have provided every active NFL player in the league with a donation letter explaining the program and encouraging them to support this initiative by making any donation possible to help their brethren who are in crisis. The donations will help provide financial aid and medical and social services to retired NFL players in dire need. Players can elect to keep their donations and participation confidential or release their names publicly. To date, the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund has provided more than $1,750,000 in direct and indirect aid to retired players. Despite this staggering accomplishment, there is still much more work to be done and Birk knows it.
Last season, when Birk sent a letter to all 1,700 players in the league asking them to donate a portion of their December 21 game check to the Gridiron Guardian Program, only about 20 players made a donation, eight of which were his former Viking teammates. Birk didn't let the underwhelming response discourage him, and instead, decided to put $50,000 of his own money in the pot that totaled around $175,000. "I'm going to fight for this cause," said Birk in an interview with the Star Tribune. It's in the best interests of everybody involved in this league. We're going to pick it apart and figure out how we can do better." Birk would end up being a finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, one of the NFL's most coveted awards.
When I read about Birk's actions, it really struck a chord with me, as this has been an issue that I have been deeply passionate about and researched intensely, dating back to when I worked in the Benefits Department at the NFL Players Association. Birk's actions made me realize that there are a few current players willing to take it upon themselves to take care of those who came before them and have been, in some cases, left by the wayside.
In wake of the controversy surrounding the effects of concussions and the desperate predicaments of some NFL retirees, Birk is selflessly dedicating his time and resources to finding solutions. He isn't just sitting around, waiting for other players to step up to the plate. That to me, is true character. He is the model professional athlete who is committed to reaching the apex of his career on the field, just as much as he is off it.
We were privileged to chat with the NFL star to ask some questions about his NFL career and off-field activities, as well as to get some solid advice for the younger players out there.
AA: In your path, going from a 6th round draft pick in 1998 to being considered one of the greatest players in Vikings history and a top offensive lineman in the league at 33, what factors do you believe have led to your success and ability to rise to the top as an underdog?
Matt Birk: I don't consider myself as being on 'the top'. I think you just work as hard as you can, don't be afraid to fail, and at the end of the day you can live with the results. I enjoy the grind of the football season, not just Sundays. Overall, it has been a great experience and an interesting journey, to say the least. And it's not over. That's what I focus on. I don't worry about where someone rates me as a player because it really doesn't matter to me. Contributing to the team is where I get my thrill.
AA: Given your experience of not starting a game until your 3rd year in the league, what advice would you give to younger players who may be frustrated by the lack of playing time they are receiving early on in their careers?
Matt Birk: Everything happens for a reason. I am so grateful that I came into a situation where I could be a reserve and learn from some great guys in front of me. Very few guys are ready to step in and play as rookies, no matter how good they think they are. More important than learning the game, it's important to watch the veteran guys and learn what it means to "be a pro." That's what will keep you in the league for a long time. If you play football, you have to realize it's a team game, and whatever role the team wants you to fill, that's what you do. It's not tennis or golf where it's all about you.
AA: When you missed some time in 2004 with a sports hernia and then sat out the entire 2005 season because of hip surgery, how did you deal with not playing and what was your approach to the rehabilitation process?
Matt Birk: Having to sit out because of injury was tough, mentally and physically. I think the initial reaction is to feel sorry for yourself, but that's not productive. Again, everything happens for a reason. I just focused on my rehab one day at a time, and didn't try to think too far down the road. Unfortunately, injuries are part of the game, no matter how tough you think you are. You just have to deal with them.
AA: How has your off-season strength and conditioning program and nutrition regimen impacted your ability to stay healthy at 33 and keep your consecutive start-streak alive since the 2006 season?
Matt Birk: I look at football more as a way of life than just a job. It's 365 days a year. Taking care of your body all year round will give you the best chance for success on the field. Nobody is going to mistake me for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I am always looking for an edge – whether it be through training or nutrition. Also, I think as you get older, it's a must in order to keep up with the always rising level of talent in the NFL.
AA: What factors led you to select Joe Linta and JL Sports? Have you been represented by Linta throughout your entire career?
Matt Birk: I have been with Joe since the beginning. I think we are both pretty low key, so our personalities fit well together. Bottom line is I felt I could trust Joe and I liked the idea of him 'representing' me. He had proven himself to be more than competent. What else is there when picking an agent?
AA: What advice would you give to college players looking to select an agent for their pro careers?
Matt Birk: Trust. An agent can't get you drafted any higher or get you to play any better. That's on you. Be cautious of a guy that promises you a lot of things. In the end, choose someone whom you want to share this journey with and someone who cares about you, even when your career is over.
AA: When you made the decision to sign with the Ravens this season, did JL Sports assist you with your relocation plans or did you make your own arrangements (e.g. purchasing a new place to live)?
Matt Birk: The Ravens themselves had a packet already assembled with all the names and numbers of people and companies I would need to contact in order to make the move as easy as possible.
AA: How have you been preparing yourself for life after football? What do you see yourself doing for your second career?
Matt Birk: I have dabbled in a few business ventures here and there, learning things about business along the way. I don't know what I want to do after football. I don't like to think about the next step too much because I am pretty focused on the present. One thing football has done for me is introduced me to a lot of people in the business community. I do know first and foremost I want to be a husband and father, so when football is over I will look for something that fits into that kind of life.
AA: Have you ever participated in the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program?
Matt Birk: No, not yet. But I would like to someday.
AA: With all the media attention you have received in wake of signing with the Ravens and then playing Minnesota this season, you said “If I spent all day returning calls, I wouldn’t have time for anything else.” How have you learned to accommodate the media, while still maintaining a reasonable balance with your personal life and focus on the field?
Matt Birk: Priorities. I have obligations at home, obligations at work. There is time set aside during an average NFL workday to chat with the media, so that's when you do it. Sometimes reporters want to cross those boundaries, so you just have to learn to say no. What little free time I have belongs to my family. I owe that to them. They are the ones that make the real sacrifices during the season.
AA: What advice would you give to young players in how to deal with the media?
Matt Birk: The media is always looking for something. Learn to answer questions succinctly and don't feel like you have to explain everything in great detail.
AA: The NFLPA recently announced the formation of a Concussions and Traumatic Brain Injury Committee to address the studies about CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma) and the onset of early dementia in NFL players. Do you plan to be involved with this committee given your personal interest in this issue? Also, what have your teammates and friends around the league been saying about this topic?
Matt Birk: Every player is concerned about concussions to a certain degree, whether they admit it or not. There are risks inherent to the game of football. I think the league owes it to the players, and the players to the league, to make the game as safe as possible, today and for future players. It is our duty to leave the game better than we found it. I would get involved in any capacity in which they feel like I could be useful.
AA: As an outspoken advocate of the NFL’s retired players, how would you assess newly-elected NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith’s efforts to improve this issue?
Matt Birk: DeMaurice Smith has a lot on his plate right now, especially with a pending lockout in 2011. I am sure the issue is important to him, but it's probably not at the top of his priority list. That's ok. This issue isn't going anywhere as long as there are retired players out there.
AA: As a father of 4 children, and with a fifth one on the way, how have you been able to maintain the family-work life balance?
Matt Birk: Denny Green used to always say, "Faith, Family, and Football." Simplistic but true. Football is what I do, it's not who I am. God and family will be with me until the day I die. I love playing football, but the day it interferes with being a Christian, husband or father is the day I quit. And having an amazing wife also helps.
On behalf of Access Athletes, we would like to thank Matt Birk for taking time out of his busy schedule to do an interview with The Real Athlete Blog. You can also learn more about Birk's own charity – The HIKE Foundation – by visiting www.hikefoundation.org. If you have any questions for Matt, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll pass them along.