Harvard Man

Ravens Preseason

New Center Birk Brings Experience, Talent And Ivy League Pedigree To Offensive Line

August 27, 2009|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

Ravens center Matt Birk is a Harvard man. There is a decent chance you already knew this.

In fact, if you know anything about him beyond his abilities as a football player, it's probably that he graduated from Harvard. This is, at least in part, because people tend to bring it up when they talk about Birk, a six-time Pro Bowl selection entering his 12th NFL season, his first with the Ravens after leaving the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent.

Birk's Ivy League education - he graduated in 1998 with a degree in economics - is usually mentioned with playful disbelief or mock surprise, as if it had not occurred to anyone that it was possible for NFL players to come from Harvard. Just about every feature that has been written about him, or story edited together by a television producer, makes mention of his degree right away, the subtle implication being that one never has to worry about Birk's missing an assignment or forgetting a snap count because he's probably the smartest guy in the huddle.

Harvard, Harvard, Harvard. It's a steady drumbeat that has followed the 6-foot-4, 310-pound St. Paul, Minn., native everywhere since he was a sixth-round draft pick in 1998.

So with his Ravens career about to begin, it seemed appropriate to ask him: Does it ever get old listening to people gush over the fact that he is the only NFL starter with a Harvard degree? Does he ever get tired of talking about it?

"I guess I don't," Birk said recently, grinning and still sweating hard after an intense morning practice. "For me, that was a heck of an accomplishment. You talk about working hard, battling your way through, that's what I had to do. It's something I'm proud of just because of the work that went in. ... Every group of kids that I ever talk to, I tell them my degree is what I'm most proud of and it's what's going to serve me for a longer period of time. I wouldn't be playing pro football if I didn't have good grades, because there weren't any other schools trying to recruit me. My football career would have been over."

A big part of Birk's competitive focus didn't actually emerge until he showed up at Harvard, where he learned there were no entitlements for Ivy League athletes.

"It was tough. You spent 20 hours a week practicing football, and then you have to compete in class against kids who have those 20 hours to study," Birk said. "But you just do it. You make it happen and do whatever you have to do because it's important to get the grades and graduate. It's probably one of the few places in life where athletes are not placed on a pedestal. In the culture of Harvard, you're probably knocked down a notch or two."

People often make the assumption that real-life smarts should translate into football smarts, but most coaches will tell you it doesn't usually work like that. There are plenty of aspiring astronauts and nuclear physicists playing football in the Ivy League or enrolled in the U.S. military academies who find themselves baffled every Saturday by weak-side linebacker blitzes, and there are other players barely capable of scraping together a respectable SAT score on a fourth try who look like Mensa candidates when asked to sniff out a reverse in front of 90,000 screaming fans.

Part of what makes Birk special - and part of what made the Ravens pursue him after Jason Brown left for the St. Louis Rams as a free agent, signing him to a three-year, $12 million deal - is that he's intelligent on and off the field.

"I've known some guys who have coached at Harvard, and they've got this thing called 'football-lexia,' " Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They have these real smart guys who can't figure out football. Matt's not one of those guys. He knows football, and he's very smart. He gives us a guy in the middle who can direct our line, and it's a young line, so we really needed that."

The fact that Birk, 32, ended up swapping a purple Vikings jersey for a purple Ravens jersey in the offseason was a bit of a surprise to just about everyone, and you can include the Ravens in that group. It seemed like conventional wisdom that Birk was using Baltimore as leverage to get a better deal from the Vikings, considering he was born and raised in Minnesota and wouldn't want to uproot his family or leave behind the lakes where he loved to fish.

But Birk was serious about pursuing a Super Bowl ring, and it didn't look like that was going to happen in Minnesota. The Vikings' quarterback situation had become equal parts comedy and tragedy with daily, never-ending drama surrounding Brett Favre's potential signing. Birk had always liked what he had heard about the Ravens' organization, and when he and his wife, Adrianna, took a tour of Baltimore, it felt right.

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