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Harvard's Matt Birk: Vikings' straight talker
Outspoken and sometimes rebellious, Matt Birk doesn’t mind upsetting the apple cart.
Matt Birk isn’t about to let pass the opportunity for self-depreciation.
At the outset of an interview designed to go beyond the basics (yes, Birk is from St. Paul and attended Harvard), the Vikings center is asked how he views himself.
Birk pounces: “Holding it together with duct tape and chewed bubble gum.”
Then he turns serious.
“The first way I see myself is as a Christian,” he says. “A husband, father, son, brother. All those things. I guess a football player is way down the list for me. I don’t say that with arrogance. I didn’t play football growing up. I was kind of a late-comer to the game, didn’t play until I was a sophomore in high school. I never thought I’d be here. That’s why my self-identity isn’t really wrapped up in just being a player.”
The answer, in its entirety, provides a CliffsNotes version of Birk.
On the one hand is the person that so many have come to know since he joined the Vikings in 1998 – the fun-loving, flip-flop-wearing everyman from Cretin-Derham Hall – and on the other is a lesser-known side – the independent thinking, introspective person who isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
This Birk has a definite sense of fair play and won’t hesitate to go to bat for something in which he believes, repercussions be damned.
That’s why he decided to speak up about the embarrassment of the infamous Love Boat incident that involved several of his teammates on Lake Minnetonka in 2005. That’s why he criticized Gene Upshaw, the head of the NFL Players Association, as the league’s labor peace hung in the balance in 2006. And that’s why Birk has become involved in the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, which was established to provide the type of help to retired players that the NFLPA does not.
“I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse, but I think sometimes you need to stand up and say what you think,” Birk said. “The boat incident, that’s in the past, but at the time I didn’t think anybody was standing up and saying what I thought needed to be said, so that’s why I did it. That’s how I felt. At the end of the day, I said what I felt, said what I believed. So I could sleep good at night. Some people agree with it, some people disagree with it. That’s OK.”
Birk, who will turn 32 Wednesday, the same day he is due to report for his 11th training camp with the team he grew up cheering for, also isn’t afraid to take a stand on his own behalf.
In 2005, he had season-ending surgery on his left hip after the Vikings refused his request to guarantee his salary for the year. Most recently, Birk decided to skip the non-mandatory portion of the Vikings’ offseason program for a variety of reasons, including the fact he is entering the last year of his contract and the team has shown no interest in giving him a new deal at this point.
“You will never not know where Matt Birk is coming from when he talks to you,” said agent Joe Linta, who has represented Birk since he entered the NFL. “If every client that I had was like him I wouldn’t have high blood pressure. He’s just such a good person. He’s so matter of fact and logical to deal with.”
The Birk household is a flurry of activity on this Wednesday morning.
It’s two weeks before training camp and Birk is answering a reporter’s questions at his large Mendota Heights home. The room in which he sits contains no evidence he has spent the past 10 years in the NFL and seems more suited for a successful businessman.
Birk’s wife, Adrianna, runs errands and tends to various issues. His mother is in another room, helping take care of Matt and Adrianna’s four children: daughters Madison (6), Sydney (3) and Ava (1 1/2) and son Grant, who was born in June.
Birk might live in a palatial estate, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Bob and Pam Birk wouldn’t allow that. The couple, married for 36 years, raised Matt and his two brothers, Ben (30) and Nick (28), in the working-class Macalester-Groveland neighborhood.
Nonetheless, they made sure their sons attended private school and that an emphasis was put on education. Matt’s six Pro Bowl selections aren’t nearly as important to them as is his economics degree from Harvard.
“I think that’s one of the great things about my folks,” Matt said. “They’ve always kept things in perspective. … They don’t treat me any different than they would if I was doing something else that wasn’t so public. They really, genuinely, they’re not impressed by it, which is a good thing.”
Said Bob Birk: “I was big on education, sports was the privilege. School was the job. I only expect the best effort. If you put as much effort as you can into a subject at school and get an F but say, ‘I tried as hard as I can,’ I can live with it.”
Bob Birk grew up on the East Side of St. Paul and served in Vietnam. His son may have a multi-million dollar contract in the NFL, but Bob still works at Eagan-based Honsa Lighting and has no plans to retire.
Asked about his time in the military, Bob laughed. “My military career was a wonderful thing,” he said, noting that he got into trouble on more than one occasion with his superiors. “Like my son, I always said what I thought.”
This included telling his kids exactly what he thought. Such was the case when Matt returned home for Christmas break during his freshman year at Harvard. Birk was homesick and walked in the door with his few belongings and no plans to return to Cambridge, Mass.
“Luckily my dad said, ‘No, you’re going back,’” Birk said.
The next chapter
Birk caused a minor stir this offseason staying away from Winter Park for all activities, except the mandatory three-day minicamp in June. He is set to make $5.7 million in 2008 – the last season of a seven-year, $31 million extension he signed in September 2001.
There was speculation about Birk’s level of displeasure over not having received an extension when he arrived for the minicamp. In typical Birk fashion, he addressed the issue almost immediately, admitting the contract played a role in his thinking but also saying there were other more important issues, namely Adrianna’s pregnancy.
It wasn’t as if Birk were letting himself go physically. He has spent the offseason training with former Vikings long snapper and workout fanatic Mike Morris, who frequently has Birk on his morning show on KFAN Radio.
“It was kind of silly,” Birk said of the attention his absence received. “One, I’m a center. I’m not the cornerstone of the franchise for crying out loud. I said, ‘OK, I’m not getting any extension, I’ve got three little kids at home driving my wife nuts and I’ve got a fourth one coming. Mike Morris is a really good friend of mine, and I really like working out with him.
“And you know, too, I’ve been working for 10 years at Winter Park. I think there’s, what is it, one window in the whole place? Everything was just saying: You know what? Just get out of the building, get out of the whole culture just for a little bit and just kind of relax, recharge, doing things a little different. Honestly, when I went back to minicamp it was great. Just being out there with the guys, being in the locker room, being on the field. It was great. That’s what I needed.”
Birk doesn’t know how much longer he wants to play in the NFL, and he has no idea if the Vikings will want him back in 2009. The team drafted Notre Dame center John Sullivan in the sixth round in April. There is always a chance Birk could land with another team.
Birk doesn’t come across as overly religious, but the product of a Catholic high school clearly has faith in God and says, “Things are going to work out how they are supposed to.”
One thing Birk has no interest in doing after his playing career is going into the financial world – he was planning to work on Wall Street before realizing his football skills could take him to the NFL – but other than that his potential interests include broadcasting, being a teacher and maybe coaching at the Division III level in college. Birk already has been involved in his share of business endeavors, including the two Matty B’s restaurants in which he and three partners are invested.
Birk admits the question of life after football is somewhat “scary” but knows eventually he will need to face it.
“After this year I’ll see what my options are and make a choice based on what’s best for my family,” he said. “I sit here today, I feel great. I feel like I’ve got a lot of football left in me but who knows? Tomorrow I might wake up and feel different. I don’t know. Everyone says, ‘I’m going to play forever,’ and I’d like to play forever.
“I do think there is something romantic and tragic about playing until your body gives out or until they peel the jersey off you. … But life changes quick and you don’t know. I’m not just thinking about myself. There’s other people I need to think about.”
And when Birk does make the decision to step away he will reflect on his career with proper perspective.
“I guess I would be disappointed or a little bit sad if I look back one day and football was the pinnacle of my life,” he said. “I would feel like that would be tragic. Disappointing.”
Video of Matt Birk Interview: Courtesy of the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Matt Birk: Vikings’ straight talker
By Judd Zulgad, The Minneapolis Star Tribune
Photo Credit: David Joles, The Minneapolis Star Tribune