He may plug the middle of the Ravens' offensive line, but Matt Birk's life has always been more off-center.
In high school, Birk went out for the golf team before trying football. The road to the pros took him through Harvard. And, after signing his first contract, he moved in with ... his parents.
The only conventional thing about Birk is his unconventionality. During team breakfasts at the Ravens' complex, he eats granola brought from home. He is donating his brain to science, to help shed light on sports concussions. And, as many families are scaling back, in tough economic times, Birk and his wife last month welcomed their sixth child.
"We're like the Partridge Family," he said. "We're going to get a big bus, paint it a bunch of colors, drive it around and sing happy songs."
But for now, Birk, 35, will focus on his role as center on a Ravens' team seeking its second Super Bowl victory. A 14–year veteran and six-time Pro Bowl selection with the Minnesota Vikings, he has anchored the offensive line this season after signing in 2009 as a free agent in a swap of purple shirts.
He's the old man, and the C, of a unit that, to a man, rallies around their red-haired leader.
"We love him to death," tackle Michael Oher said. "I've learned so much from him — and I'd miss him a ton, if he retired."
Guard Ben Grubbs called the 310-pound Birk "the quarterback of the offensive line. Everything starts with him. He makes me better, for sure. He's giving his brain to science? They're going to need time to do research. There's an awful lot going on up there, in that [size 7 3/4] head."
Birk grew up in St. Paul, Minn., in a blue-collar enclave. Those who know him say that, even early on, he was strong-willed and stubborn, with a mind of his own.
"He was a good kid, I guess, and very adventurous. He always seemed to go against the grain, and he wanted to push the boundaries a little bit," said Pam Birk, his mother. "If we said, be home by 9, he'd get here at 9:05. There was nothing that he didn't want to try."
At 9, Birk went out for his Catholic grade-school football team. He quickly gave it up.
"I didn't care for the 'tough guy' mentality of the game," he said. "I thought, 'This isn't fun. I don't want to come out here and get yelled at.' "
Not until 10th grade did he try football again, and only then as a way to meet new friends.
The coach saw the tall, gangly kid at practice and smiled. Rich Kallok had labeled Birk a prospect in sixth grade, after seeing him as an altar boy in church.
"Matt was tallest, so he would carry the crucifix in the procession to start Mass," Kallok said. "I remember thinking, I hope he comes to Cretin-Derham Hall.
"He had no clue as to what to do — we had to teach him the three-point stance — but he learned quickly and was competitive."
Birk never thought he'd stick.
"I figured I'd play one year on the 'B' squad, period," he said. "I thought, I'll never make varsity because those guys are, like, men. But I made the team.
"That was 20 years ago. I've been trying to quit football ever since."
Same old Matt
Celebrity hasn't changed Birk, friends say. His roots run deep.
"He's still the same Matt I knew in high school," said Jim Runyon, who is godfather to one of Birk's children. "Some years ago, he called me and said, 'Want to go to a [Minnesota] Wild hockey game?'
"I said, 'Sure, who's going?'
" 'You, me and Randy Moss.' "
Nor does football run Birk's life. In Minnesota, a radio station asked him to host a weekly talk show, assuming it would deal with sports. Instead, Birk — an economics major — offered stock tips to listeners who phoned in to "Matt's Money."
"He has always done his own thing," said Colby Skelton, his roommate at Harvard. "Matt's not part of the herd. He's a grounded, salt-of-the-earth guy who works hard, speaks his mind, doesn't waver and doesn't give a [crap] what other people think."
For instance, Birk is one of a handful of current players to advocate larger pensions for NFL alumni because, he says, "giving back is the right thing to do."
It's a mantra he has embraced since high school. There, Birk worked in a soup kitchen on weekends, as did his parents. At 17, he spent Christmas break in Guatemala, working in an orphanage. For nine days, he lived in a converted torture chamber, with bullets lodged in the walls and blood stains on the floors.
The experience affected him deeply and led Birk, as a pro, to create his HIKE Foundation to help educate at-risk kids in both the Twin Cities and Baltimore.
Not that Birk himself was a model student. Once, on a dare, he got his ears pierced. In school. During math class. Another student used a stud earring to do it. Blood went everywhere. Worse, Birk's ears got infected.
"The teacher called my home to apologize," he said. "She was mortified that it had happened on her watch."