God at the Center
When Matt Birk was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 1998, he could hardly believe it. A graduate of Harvard University with a degree in economics, he knew it was rare for an Ivy League player to get a chance to play in the NFL. And unlike many of his teammates, he had only been playing football since his sophomore year of high school. If he wanted to make it past training camp, he would have to work and play harder than everyone else.
Two years later, Birk took over as starting center for the Vikings and played 227 games during his 15 years in professional football. He received the Walter Peyton NFL Man of the Year Award in 2011 and, in the final game of his career, helped the Baltimore Ravens win Super Bowl XLVII in February 2013.
Birk, though, isn’t just a champion when it comes to football. He’s also a champion of the Catholic faith and has given dozens of talks at Catholic events across the country. He has been a fearless defender of the sanctity of marriage, and he and his wife have been steadfast supporters of the pro-life movement for more than a decade.
In February 2014, a year after his retirement, Birk published a book titled All-Pro Wisdom: The 7 Choices That Lead to Greatness. In March, he filled out a Form 100 and became a member of Father Lucien Galtier Council 4184 in West St. Paul, Minn. After moving to Connecticut with his wife and six children, Birk now works in New York City as director of football development for the NFL.
Last fall, Birk spoke with Columbia correspondent Sam Patet about his time in the NFL, the relationship between sports and character development, and the role of the Knights of Columbus today.
Columbia: Was the Catholic faith an important part of your life growing up?
Matt Birk: My parents are devout Catholics, and they did a lot of things maybe did everything they could to make sure that I grew up to love the faith. But I didn’t love it right away. It was a gift, and like a lot of gifts, I didn’t appreciate it.
When I was in college, the world was telling me I was doing really, really well. And then I got to the NFL, where I continued to put God and my faith on hold. I started having crazy success in football, but I wasn’t satisfied. Maybe I was happy, but I didn’t have joy.
So, I went on a bit of a journey. People don’t realize football is a very spiritual game for a lot of guys. It’s so intense, and the stakes are high by worldly standards. The highs are really high, but the lows are really low. So a lot of guys are forced to go inside to try to figure it out.
I think every Catholic probably goes through a time in their life where they have to claim their faith as their own. I’m not a finished product yet, but it took me until my mid- to late-20s to do that.
Columbia: Was there a person or event that inspired you to practice your faith with greater conviction?
Matt Birk: First and foremost my wife. When you’re playing football, it’s all about you everybody is telling you it’s all about you. When I got married and started having kids, that’s when I realized, “It’s not about me.” My wife has a great way about her, a great spirit about her. She’s very kind and generous and charitable. It makes you start thinking about what kind of man, what kind of husband, what kind of father you want to be. In order to fulfill those responsibilities, I had to cling to the faith and immerse myself in it. And it’s the best thing I ever did. I don’t know how I went so long without it, without being intentional about growing in my faith.
I also had four guys in my life who helped get me back into my faith. I would call them hall of fame Catholics. Each one made me say to myself, “Whoa. I want to be like him. Everything about him, I want to be like that guy. What’s he about?” For them, it started with being Catholic.
Columbia: Did you see a difference in your NFL career before and after you had your conversion experience?
Matt Birk: I was just a lot more content and more at ease. When I say it’s intense, I never slept through the night. You’re always on edge. You’re always thinking, “How am I getting better today?” You can never do enough, because you’re defining yourself by your performance, and your performance isn’t always going to be there. You’re going to have good days and bad days.
But as I started to reclaim my faith, there was such a calming influence because my perspective was correct. Whether we won or lost wasn’t the most important thing in the world. It was all about putting forth a great, high-quality effort, using the gifts that God gave me, using my talents. I saw that my identity started with my faith. That’s who I was, and it all flowed from there.
Did I work just as hard? Absolutely. But my perspective was 180 degrees different.
Columbia: Some Americans don’t have a very positive view about professional athletes, but for your book, you interviewed NFL players and coaches who take God seriously. Are these God- and family-centered players more common than we realize?
Matt Birk: The NFL has men that put God first and men that put their families first. It also has men that make mistakes. Those guys are no different than anybody else. But we build these guys up to be like superheroes, and we hold them to the expectation of almost perfection professionally and personally. And when they do slip up, we love to point fingers.
There are a lot of great, great men in the NFL. I think that’s the case because football is a very hard game to play. The same is true for other professional sports; you put so much into it, and there’s so much at stake. You push yourself beyond what you think your limits are, and in order to do that, you’re looking for strength beyond yourself. Where do you find this? It’s how a lot of guys end up turning to God.
One of the greatest phrases I ever heard was an old coach talking about football. He said, “This game and the NFL, it’s a brutal business. It will bring you to your knees, so why not start there every day?”
Columbia: Sports sometimes seem to be a new god in our society. Are sports and the faith opposed to one another?
Matt Birk: Are they mutually exclusive? No, they don’t have to be. I look at football as being a lot more than about football; it’s about life. It’s a very effective tool for developing character. When you’re talking about integrity, hard work and discipline, we can use sports to teach those things.
I’ve never heard anybody say, “We have too many people with character going around.” We need more of that we need people of character in our communities, in our businesses and certainly in our politics.
Columbia: What’s it like for you and your wife to raise six children, who are all under the age of 12?
Matt Birk: It’s very humbling, but very rewarding. As any parent will tell you, it’s the hardest job there is, but it’s the job with the most at stake.
When you retire, people really don’t care about you as a football player anymore. No matter how good you were, it doesn’t matter. And you know what? That’s great; that’s how it should be. Football isn’t who I am or who I was. But being a father, that’s the part of my legacy that I actually care about. Being entrusted with six kids to raise them in the faith and be the shepherd of their hearts that’s a major responsibility; that’s a job that’s too important to fail.
Our faith and our culture are at odds. I don’t want to shelter my kids, because I don’t think that’s healthy, but at the same time, I’m not going to take the governor cap off. A lot of it’s really about scheduling time, doing things like going to confession, saying the rosary, reading the Bible at home. If you’re not intentional about it, you fall off the track. Every day, I pray for wisdom and endurance and try to raise them the right way.
Columbia: You became a Knight of Columbus in March 2014. What got you to take the plunge?
Matt Birk: I spoke at a Catholic men’s conference in Phoenix in March. At one point during the day, a guy who worked for the diocese asked the 1,200 men attending, “If you’re not a Knight of Columbus, why not?” And I thought, “Yeah, he’s right: Why not?” And it kind of stuck with me.
So, when an acquaintance from my work in the pro-life movement later called me up and asked me to join the Knights, I said, “Yeah. Come over.”
To me, the Knights are men of action. It’s nice if people hear me talk about Jesus, but it’s more important that they see God in me and in how I live my life and in the things that I do. The Knights were founded to take care of widows and children, people who couldn’t take care of themselves. That’s our faith brought to life.
Columbia: As members of the Knights of Columbus face the challenges of living God- and family-centered lives in an increasingly secular society, what advice would you give them?
Matt Birk: Always keep the fundamentals close. I’m talking about the fundamentals of our faith: Sunday Mass, confession, prayer, study. That’s our best chance to become the men that God wants us to be, to be the fathers and the husbands that we’re supposed to be.
And as Knights, we can draw a lot of strength from being part of a community. We’re almost 2 million strong worldwide. We can draw a lot of strength from that. As Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” As Catholic men, we need to spend time with other Catholic men who will help us grow.
SAM PATET is a reporter with The Prairie Catholic newspaper for the Diocese of New Ulm. He is a member of St. Patrick’s Council 1076 in New Ulm, Minn.