After a 15-year professional career that was punctuated by winning Super Bowl XLVII with the Baltimore Ravens, six-time Pro Bowl C Matt Birk announced his retirement from the NFL Friday morning.
In a ceremony that took place at Baltimore’s Battle Grove Elementary, Birk addressed approximately 40 fifth-grade students in the school’s library, while also announcing that he will help establish a community reading center for the children and their families.
Named the 2011 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year for his off-the-field service as well as his playing excellence, Birk has been a pillar of consistency since being selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the sixth round of the 1998 draft.
Appearing in 210 career regular season games – including 112-consecutive contests to close out his career (the longest such streak among active centers) – Birk spent 11 seasons with Minnesota and four more in Baltimore. He also appeared in 18 career playoff games, making 15 starts.
In 2012, the 6-4, 310-pounder helped the Ravens establish a franchise record for points scored (398) and gain 5,640 total yards of offense, the second-highest mark in franchise history. In his initial Baltimore campaign of 2009, he was part of a team that recorded the most touchdowns (47) in club history, including a team-record 22 rushing scores. While with the Vikings in 2003, Minnesota boasted the NFL’s No. 1 offensive attack, averaging 393.4 yards per game.
A family man and father of six with a passion for emphasizing the importance of education, Birk has focused a great deal of his energy on promoting literacy among the youth around him. The Harvard graduate’s “Ready, Set, Read!” program, an initiative developed by his H.I.K.E. Foundation (Hope, Inspiration, Knowledge and Education), reaches close to 100,000 children in the Baltimore area and motivates students to read at home through an incentive-based system.
Below are quotes from Ravens general manager/executive vice president Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh, who each shared sentiments about their experiences with Birk. Additionally, the opening statement from Birk’s announcement at Battle Grove Elementary appears below:
Ozzie Newsome on Birk:
“Matt’s influence in his four years with the Ravens is evident to all. First, he played well and gave us stability on the offensive line. You can’t underestimate the line calls he made to help a relatively young offense get set to run plays the right way. Second, his leadership on and off the field was outstanding. We could go to young players and say, ‘Do what Matt does, and you’ll succeed. Watch him and follow him.’ His work ethic was as good as any player we had. And then, what he did for all of us in our community is amazing; he won the [Walter Payton] NFL Man of the Year Award. Matt was a great Raven, and we all thank him for what he did for us. He is a professional in every way.”
John Harbaugh on Birk:
“We were all so fortunate to have Matt Birk as a Raven – the team, everyone in our building, the community. It was a privilege to coach him and an honor to have him as a friend. We are better people for being around Matt, blessed in fact. Young players could watch Matt and know that was how to be an NFL professional. He took notes like a rookie, he owned the weight room, and we would have to push him to take some plays off in practice. There are reasons he played at such a high level for 15 years. We will miss having him here every day, but we look forward to always calling him a friend and a Raven.”
Matt Birk Opening Statement:
“Sometimes the greatest ideas happen spontaneously. So, this idea happened at about 4 o’clock yesterday. First of all, I am glad everybody is here. I am especially glad you guys [the students] are here. Do you guys remember me? (Students: “Yes!”) My name is Matt. I play for the Ravens. Did you hear that the Ravens won the Super Bowl? It was good stuff, right? You guys remember when I was here last time? What was I here for, do you remember? We had a book fair because reading is very important. Reading is the foundation of your education. When I was sitting up there on the stage at the assembly, I said, ‘Wow, these kids are really well-behaved.’ You guys were really on top of it. I have been to a lot of schools, and I mentioned to [the principal] how impressed [I was] by this school because of you guys, all you guys. But, one guy here really touched me extra specially, and that’s Larry [Bryant]. Larry, you’re not embarrassed, are you? Come up here for a second, Larry. You guys all know how special Larry is, right? Actually, Larry got a chance to meet some of my family, too, didn’t you? My family was super impressed with Larry, and they still talk about him. So, the reason that I came back here today was that the H.I.K.E. [Hope, Inspiration, Knowledge, Education] Foundation, which is my foundation that works with you guys that helped put on your book fair, and Scholastic, which is the organization that we work with … What we are going to do is we are going to build a reading oasis at this school. It’s going to have furniture, books that students – you guys – and your families can access. It’s really neat. It’s just a really comfortable, safe place where you guys can access books. We are going to stock it with a bunch of books, and we are going to donate that to your school. What we are going to do – because you are in fifth grade, right Larry? (Larry: “Yes.”) And, next year you are going into a different school, right? I know that nobody here is going to forget you, because you have touched their hearts. What we are going to do is we are going to put your name on it. We are going to call it the “Larry Bryant Reading Oasis,” so kids that come through here after you will know about you, too, and how special you are. Is that all right? You’re good with that? (Larry: “Thank you.”) You’re welcome. I’ll talk to you later.
“The other reason why you [media members] in the back are here is that today I am announcing my retirement from the NFL. I guess when I look back, I am not eloquent enough to put it all into words. Like I said, this idea was hatched yesterday in an airport. I guess when I think back on how fortunate that I’ve been in my career … I got to play my first 11 years with the Minnesota Vikings, which was the team – I grew up in Minnesota – that I grew up rooting for. That would be like you guys growing up and playing for the Ravens. That would be pretty cool, right? Yeah, that’d be pretty cool, right Larry? (Larry: Yeah!”) So, just to play in the NFL is obviously a dream come true. To do it for your hometown team is even better. What makes it better is you get to share the experience intimately with your family and friends, and with those people who helped you immensely along the way to get to that level. I’ll never forget after Vikings games, being out in the parking lot, my parents and our neighbors had the greatest tailgate party every single Sunday. We would have hundreds of people come. It was like everybody was welcome. Those were special times.
“Then, you never know how things are going to go, but after 11 years there, to leave home – my wife and I and our kids – our home, leave everything we knew to come to Baltimore … I can remember sitting across the table in [head coach] John Harbaugh’s office after we had toured the facility and met with some of the coaches. I was talking to ‘Harbs,’ and everything that he was saying, I was on board with. You kind of have to make a decision like that when you’re a free agent, and I thought, ‘Well, it almost sounds too good to be true.’ Coach was talking about how we were going to work hard, we were going to be tough. His vision for the team, I was in total agreement with. I didn’t know at the time, but I just said, ‘All right, with the limited information I have about the Ravens, I am going to bet on this guy, and I am going to come here.’ I am sure glad I did.
“From the beginning, the organization, and we really felt like the city, just welcomed us with open arms. I don’t need to tell anybody here what this team means to the city. It’s definitely a special connection. To have the honor of playing here for four years and playing under coach Harbaugh and his staff, it was truly an honor. To cap it with a Super Bowl win, that’s a great thing. But, regardless of that, had that not happened, it would have still been a fantastic experience and one that I would have been very thankful and grateful for. I guess what I am saying is God has been very good to me, and I am just filled with a lot of gratitude to a lot of people – my parents, my brothers, my wife, her unwavering support. She was like, ‘You can keep playing. It’s fine.’ (laughter) She drives the kids all over the county in the van we have. She drives from Florida to New Orleans, 13 hours with six kids. She does whatever. She left her home, too, and moved out here. She’s been unbelievable. My kids, everything. I have absolutely nothing to complain about, and a lot to be grateful for. I just want to say a big ‘thank you’ to everybody that made everything possible.
“The reason that I wanted to do it here today was because I have enjoyed playing football, but as much as playing, I have enjoyed doing this [giving back to the community] as an NFL player. When I was a rookie … There are 53 guys on a team. I was like the 53rd guy. I was the worst player on the team, but I was on the team. That’s all that mattered. I went out and did a visit my first week with the Vikings. I went to a school, and all the kids were going crazy. They didn’t really know who I was. They just knew that I played for the Vikings, and I thought, ‘Wow. This is unbelievable.’ Like I said, this has been a big part of my career, and what I’ve enjoyed doing is coming to schools over the years and really being with young people like you guys. I get a lot of energy – get a lot of positive energy – from you guys and really enjoy it. I just thought that this would be a fitting place to do it.”