After 15 years in the NFL, Birk retired Friday in front of a room full of students at Battle Grove Elementary School in Dundalk, while announcing the addition of a Reading Oasis to the school.
Birk gets to go out the same way as Ray Lewis, John Elway and Michael Strahan - with his final game being a Super Bowl victory. Birk acknowledged it’s the perfect way to close his career.
“Yeah, it is. You can’t ask for anything more,” he said. “It is a great way to end it. No one’s entitled to a Super Bowl, certainly not me. But I’m so grateful and fortunate to be a part of this team. It is a special team and the run that we made ... was something that I’ll never forget.”
Before facing questions from assembled media, Birk took a number from the kids, who had a good idea of what to ask. Many inquired about the Super Bowl and the blackout, while one asked why Birk is retiring.
“Well, I’m old,” the 36-year-old replied. “I have six kids and it’s just time. I got to play football and got to play for a long time. I’ve been very fortunate, but I just feel like it’s time to do something else.”
Update: Birk ended his career with 112 consecutive starts, which was the longest streak among active centers. On top of winning his first Super Bowl this season, he helped the team set a franchise record for points (398) and post the second-most total yards in Ravens history (5,640).
In 2009, he helped the Ravens set franchise marks with 47 total touchdowns and 22 rushing scores.
Before playing the final four seasons of his career in Baltimore, the St. Paul, Minn., native spent his first 11 years in the NFL with his hometown Minnesota Vikings, during which time he was selected to all six of his Pro Bowls.
Update II: Wearing a shirt that fittingly said, “Finish everything,” Birk teared up on multiple occasions as he spoke about his career, why he wanted to make the announcement at an elementary school, and his emotions now that he has finally decided to leave football after flirting with retirement for several years.
“A little bit sad and a little bit happy, but I’m definitely real sad,” he said.
Birk said he felt fortunate to spend the majority of his career playing for his hometown team and being able to share that experience with friends and family, especially postgame tailgates with people he knew his whole life.
But he also didn’t regret leaving Minnesota for the Ravens.
“You never know how things are going to go, but after 11 years there, (we left) home, my wife and I, our home, and our kids, leave everything we knew and come to Baltimore,” Birk said. “I can remember sitting across the table in John Harbaugh’s office after we toured the facility and met with some of the coaches, and my wife, Sally, they had my wife out looking at neighborhoods trying to get her to feel good about it.
“I was talking to Harbs and everything 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 it almost sounds too good to be true. Coach was talking about how we were going to work hard, we’re going to be tough and his vision for the team I was in total agreement with. ... I just said, ‘All right, with the limited information I have about the Ravens, I’m going to bet on this guy and I’m going to come here.’ And I’m 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 this city, and it’s definitely a special connection. And to have the honor of playing here for four years and playing under Coach Harbaugh and his staff, it was truly an honor. And to cap it with a Super Bowl win, that’s a great thing. But regardless of that, had that not happened, it would still have been a fantastic experience and one that I’ve been very thankful for and grateful for. ... I have absolutely nothing to complain about and a lot to be grateful for.”
For a player with the length of Birk’s tenure and his credentials - 2011 Walter Payton Man of the Year, USA Today Sports Weekly’s All-2000s Team, second-team All-Pro in 2003 - a celebratory press conference at the Under Armour Performance Center would have been fitting.
Instead, Birk wanted it at a school, an idea he said was hatched Thursday in an airport, and he explained why.
“I’ve enjoyed playing football, but as much as playing, I’ve enjoyed doing this as an NFL player,” Birk said. “When I was a rookie and a guy - there’s 53 guys on the 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. My first week, the Vikings went to a school and all the kids were like going crazy and they didn’t really know who I was. They just knew that I played for the Vikings, so I thought, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable.’
“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,” he continued, addressing the students. “You get a lot of energy, you get a lot of positive energy from you guys and I really enjoy it, so I just thought this would be a fitting place to do it.”
So when did Birk decide it was time to call it quits?
“It’s hard to say exactly,” he said. “You wrestle with it, you go back and forth. I talked to coach Harbaugh, I think on Saturday, and I said, ‘I don’t know why I’m calling you.’ I said, ‘I’m just calling you just to talk,’ and we talked for an hour about a lot of stuff. That’s why I love Harbs. He’s a friend above all else. We talked and I said, ‘I don’t know. I just don’t know. I don’t know when I’ll make a decision or what it’ll be.’
“And yesterday afternoon, I called him and got a hold of him, and talked to him and talked to Ozzie (Newsome), and they were great. They’re great people and said, ‘Don’t say anything publicly until next week and come to Baltimore, we’ll do a big ceremony.’ ... I said, ‘No, we’re going to get this out of the way and move on with it.’ I told them yesterday afternoon.”
Considering that, Birk said it was still conceivable that he’d come back.
“Oh yeah. I mean, I started talking about retirement six years ago,” he said, drawing laughter. “During the season, it’s hard. It’s hard. Physically, you’re beat up. Mentally, you’re kind of fried. It’s hard. You always wait until after the season to see how you feel. So you go through in your mind, pros and cons. I just followed my heart. I kind of waited a couple weeks for it to settle and I just kept coming back to, ‘This is the right decision for me and my family.’ “
And finally, what will Birk miss now that it’s all over?
“All of it. Certainly the guys, competition. But mostly the guys,” he said. “That locker room is a very unique work environment. The bond you have with your teammates is very unique, very strong. I can’t complain because I got to do it for a long, long time. For a guy like me, it’s pretty unbelievable.”
Update III: The Ravens have passed on lengthy statements from Harbaugh and Newsome on Birk.
“Matt’s influence in his four years with the Ravens is evident to all,” Newsome said in the statement. “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 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.”
Said Harbaugh in a statement: “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.”