Sometimes, the only way to respond to the chance of a lifetime is to respect life and say no.
Former NFL lineman Matt Birk has played for two teams — the Minnesota Vikings and the Baltimore Ravens — been six times to the Pro Bowl; was named All-Pro twice; won an AFC Championship; a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award; an Ed Block Courage Award; and Minnesota Vikings Man of the Year (six times).
But only once did he get the most coveted prize in pro football, in the greatest sports spectacle in the world, when the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3, 2013.
The team was then invited to visit the White House and meet President Obama. Birk, a devout Catholic, didn’t go.
“At the time,” he told The Tidings, “I was heavily involved in pro-life. It was just the timing. It was a little bit of an emotional decision, because when the invitation came to RSVP, it was shortly after President Obama was the first standing president to address Planned Parenthood. At the end of it, he said, ‘God bless Planned Parenthood.’
“It was so ridiculous. I thought, ‘I just don’t want to.’ I wasn’t looking to make a statement; I don’t want to be too self-righteous. Part of it was just, for me, I just didn’t want to go. I didn’t make a big deal of it until after the fact. There were some reporters there, and they noticed I wasn’t there. They called and asked, ‘Is everything all right?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ They said, ‘Why didn’t you go?’
“I’m just a big believer in telling the truth. It’s hard to run and hide in today’s media world, so I just told them why I didn’t go. That was it.”
Asked what he thinks about the ongoing hidden-camera sting videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the traffic in the body parts of aborted infants, Birk said, “Obviously, pictures are more important than words. With the tapes, now you’re getting the official reaction from people.
“If that’s what it takes, then that’s what it takes. This isn’t new. They say it’s been going on for a long, long time there. I don’t necessarily mean the harvesting of fetal tissue; I just mean the death, the murder, the brutality.
“If this is what it takes to get people to fully understand what goes on at Planned Parenthood, then I guess it’s a good thing that these things have come out.”
People have long wondered if Tim Tebow’s public expressions of his Christian faith hampered his NFL career. That may be the case with members of the media, but according to Birk — a revert to the faith, with a wife and six children — that wasn’t the reality he experienced in the locker room.
“The NFL team,” he said, “it’s probably the most spiritual workplace in America. Every team I was on had a team chaplain who was available almost all the time, had an office there; the door was open. We had player Bible studies Monday; had a couple Bible studies during the week; had fellowship service and Catholic Mass Saturday night or Sunday morning. Where else are you encouraged to grow like that in your faith?
“If you’re feeling a calling, you have an outlet there to nurture that. The culture of football is very spiritual; I don’t think most people realize that.”
According to Birk, this spirituality — whether or not all players share it, or express it in the same way — is baked into the football cake.
“I’ve always said football’s a very spiritual game,” he said. “The game will bring you to your knees, so you might as well start there. It’s just because football’s so difficult, and the highs are high, and the lows are very low, and it’s so much work and grinding and dedication.
“You have to have a spiritual experience or awakening while you’re doing it. You just have to, otherwise it’s like you’re not even alive. Football brought me back to my faith.”
But it wasn’t an immediate thing.
“It was definitely an accumulation,” said Birk, “gradual, probably started when I met my wife and then started having kids. I always joke that when I got married, I had a drug problem — my wife drug me to church. With football, getting married, having kids, all of that, just the process really led me back.
“I fell away from the faith hard all through college and then the first couple years in the NFL — what a waste.
“I try to communicate to young people, ‘Don’t waste time in your life. You’re never going to regret going to confession or saying the rosary, but you’re going to regret not doing it.’ Better late than never. I look at it as God’s trying to use me, use my story, so hopefully other people won’t make the mistakes I did.”
For Birk, core values matter more than stats or fantasy ratings.
“Football’s a character game,” he said. “[Those who] last in the NFL, and to be on the best teams, they have character. … There’s so much more than just bashing yourself into the 300-pound guy. If you haven’t played, it’s hard to understand, but there are so many things — a brotherhood, delayed gratification, discipline.
“I don’t want to say if you haven’t played, you don’t get those, but it’s just that football uniquely teaches you what no other sport does. It’s a lot more than the action you see going on out on the field.”
Shortly after I talked to Birk, the Philadelphia Eagles cut Tebow, just before the start of the regular season — making the fourth team that’s dismissed him. This may permanently torpedo his NFL career, but if it does, Birk’s not worried about him.
He said, “The legacy of Tim Tebow won’t be defined by how long he plays in the NFL. Nobody’s legacy will be, ultimately.”