Matt Birk is going back to Boston, where his football career began, and where, in a gift of humanity, part of him will remain.
|The Ravens found a perfect fit for their young O-line -- Matt Birk. (Getty Images)|
"It was the year of Peyton Manning and Randy Moss," said Birk, who grew up in St. Paul and spent most of his career with the Vikings. "I didn't know if anything would happen. Then, in the sixth round, Denny Green called me, and suddenly I was going to my hometown team."
Birk hadn't grown up in a football family. In fact, he'd never even been to a Vikings game. He did go to one Patriots game while majoring in economics and planning a career on Wall Street.
"It was the whole 'Greed is Good' era, and everyone was making money in the market," said Birk, whose Ravens (3-0) play the Patriots (2-1) on Sunday in Foxborough. "Then I saw Drew Bledsoe and Ben Coates and I thought, 'Wow, I'd love a chance to do this.'"
Birk became a perennial All-Pro, a pro's pro who got along with teammates and management and was popular with the fans. In 2009, he did two significant things. As a free agent, he answered the call when Ozzie Newsome asked him, at 33, to become a mentor for the Ravens' young offensive line. And he decided, along with Lofa Tatupu of the Seattle Seahawks and Sean Morey of the Cardinals, to become the first active players to donate their brains after death to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.
"I heard the stories about Mike Webster and Andre Waters and the others who experienced brain trauma from repeated blows to the head," said Birk, whose friend and former Harvard teammate, Chris Nowinski, is a co-director of the Center. "I consider this an investment in the future of my friends and teammates and anyone who's played or will play football."
Birk knows that he's probably experienced some trauma himself.
"All of life is a risk," he said, "and I'm sure I have some microscopic damage. But this type of research will raise awareness for all contact-sports and help us to understand the effects."
Birk will not get to Boston University on this trip, but he plans to spend quite a bit of time there in the offseason. This weekend, he will try to handle the likes of Vince Wilfork, who, although hobbled by an ankle injury, is still among the best.
"Oh, he's a challenge," said Birk of the Patriots' respected nose tackle. "A lot of guys at his position will play the run, but not work as hard against the pass. He's in there fighting on every play."
Birk said it's been interesting to take a trip around the AFC, after so many years in Minnesota.
"Some guys I'm running into are just in a different uniform -- like last week against the Browns, on the first snap, I said to Shaun Rogers, 'Hey, how you doin'?" said Birk of the defensive tackle he faced for years when Rogers was with Detroit.
Birk doesn't get back to New England that often, but he has great memories of his years in Cambridge, taking fun courses like "Financial Econometrics" and "International Economic Policy." Actually, most of his favorite recollections were of Tommy's House of Pizza, where Birk was memorialized with a legendary sandwich consisting of four chicken breasts and a pound of cheese. As an athlete, Birk was always light for his 6-4 frame.
"No one wants to hear it, but I had to eat all the time," said Birk, who was pulling up to a pizza parlor yesterday when we spoke on the phone. "I started college at 225 pounds and I still fight to maintain 310."
The six-time All-Pro, who wears No. 77 in memory of Korey Stringer, his former Viking teammate who died unexpectedly of heat stroke in 2001, has never taken the easy road. He played soccer as a child and was planning to go to Marquette, but was accepted in a rigorous program at Harvard. His parents figured out the finances and Birk went to work both on and off the field. He said he learned his investment and football philosophies from the simple words of Warren Buffet.
"It's not timing that makes you money," he quotes Buffet. "It's time."
Birk is hoping that it's finally his time to get to a Super Bowl, blocking for Ray Rice and Willis McGahee while protecting Joe Flacco.
But he still keeps his eye on ex-teammate Adrian Peterson.
"Of course I do," Birk said. "Have you seen the highlights? It's hard to miss him."