Early in his professional football career, Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens let distractions get the best of him, not in a professional sense, but in a spiritual one. The 36-year-old St. Paul, Minn., native was dedicated to football, but it was to the exclusion of what matters most in life: his relationship with Jesus Christ.
Birk’s future wife, Adrianna, set a loving example that helped to bring about a change in his heart. Now, the father of six is focused on Christ before all else. Public defense of the right to life and the institution of marriage radiate from Birk’s renewed relationship with his Savior.
In the days leading up to the Ravens’ 34-31 Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers, Birk, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, spoke to Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
The Ravens were not favored against the Denver Broncos or the New England Patriots (or San Francisco 49ers), but defeated them in the playoffs. Are you surprised at making the Super Bowl?
I’m actually not surprised. Every team in the league would like to play in the Super Bowl, and that includes us. It’s a lofty goal, and it’s a tough journey to get here, but we’ve worked hard to achieve just that. I can’t say we were certain we’d be here, but we certainly wanted to be here, so it didn’t take me by surprise.
Now, we have to stay focused on the game and not let all the distractions get to us. My motto is: "Be in the moment." In other words, concentrate on the task at hand. Don’t waste time thinking about things that are irrelevant to getting the job done. That’s a real challenge in a Super Bowl because there are plenty of distractions.
Are people often surprised to learn that someone who plays in the NFL attended Harvard University?
Yes, it catches them off guard. Harvard isn’t exactly a school that produces a lot of players for the NFL, so people have to adjust their thinking when they encounter me. They’re used to believing that Ivy League schools are incompatible with professional football.
I’ve always had a lot of interests outside of football. One of my coaches from years ago even called me "The Renaissance Man" because of my varied activities. I’ve enjoyed other sports like baseball and basketball, along with academics (especially economics, my major), student government, volunteering and even drama. You’ll find varied interests with other NFL players, too. We don’t fixate on football 24/7.
Did you come from a devout family?
Yes, my parents both took the faith seriously. My father even considered becoming a priest before deciding to marry my mother. Being Catholic meant a lot to them, and they passed that along to their children. In my 18 years at home, I never missed Sunday Mass.
Once I left for Harvard, however, that changed. I got caught up in worldly things. There was a false independence that took hold of me, and I thought of myself as too sophisticated for religion. Because I believed there were more important things for me to do, my participation in the Church declined sharply.
My mindset got even worse when I started playing in the NFL. I bought into all the hype, thinking I was doing the most important thing in the world as a professional athlete. That attitude changed when I met the woman I would later marry. She was a devout Catholic, and she helped me to see what I was missing out on by separating myself from the Church. Thanks to my wife and then others who followed, I now realize the importance of practicing the faith. That’s what life is all about.
You’ve been active in the pro-life movement. What would you say to someone discouraged about the more than 50 million boys and girls killed in abortions during 40 years under Roe v. Wade?
The big picture is really ugly, but instead of letting that dominate your thinking, I would say to keep the faith and concentrate on the one or two things you can do. You may not be able to save thousands of lives on your own, but the one life you can save today does mean a lot.
Whether it’s teaching our own children to be pro-life, contacting our elected representatives or working at crisis-pregnancy centers, we can all do something. These examples are in addition to prayer, which everyone can do and which everyone should do. Prayer is the basis of any good action. Each little effort helps to bring about a culture of life, a culture in which children are appreciated rather than disposed of.
I spoke at a pro-life rally in Maryland a couple years ago, and it was a life-changing experience. I heard other speakers, including women who deeply regretted their own abortions.
Their work, carried out through the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, was very persuasive. It wasn’t just a theoretical discussion; it was real women who had experienced the trauma of losing a child through abortion. They wanted to prevent other women from going through that same thing.
If people were told the truth about abortion, no one would ever seek out the procedure. We hear about "choice" and "reproductive rights," but no one is ever told by an abortionist, "I will kill your baby by ripping off its arms and legs." The women from Silent No More let people know the facts so that better decisions will be made. It’s very admirable work.
You’re the father of six. With each new child, do you find you appreciate the gift of life more?
No question about it. When I held my first child for the first time, I had such a love and concern for her that I just can’t put into words. Parents know what I’m talking about. You just can’t express how awesome it is to be entrusted with a tiny child who has been created in the image and likeness of God. It really changes your perspective on life. It makes you think about what really matters.
With each new child, your ability to love grows. It’s not a matter of dividing your love among more children, so that each one gets less of it, but you actually have more to give with each new delivery. Children help you to stop thinking of yourself and expand your horizons. This is a joyful challenge. It’s more difficult than football or any other job, but also more rewarding.
I also enjoy helping at-risk children through my HIKE Foundation. "HIKE" stands for "Hope, Inspiration, Knowledge and Education." The foundation’s purpose is to provide educational opportunities for children who wouldn’t otherwise have them. Our two signature programs encourage children to read, especially at home. We want them to know that reading is not just a task for school, but something that can expand their outlook on life and lead to great opportunities for them.
You’ve also been publicly supporting the institution of marriage. What are some misconceptions that people have regarding marriage?
The major misconception is that marriage is anything you want it to be, rather than the lifelong union of a man and a woman for the purpose of raising children. That’s what it has been for all of recorded history and what it continues to be today, regardless of what some people think.
There has been an intense attack on marriage for decades. It has become easier to get divorced, which means the breakup of the closest relationships: those involving spouses and children. This is devastating for the family, especially children, who need a father and a mother. When the marriage is torn apart, each child can feel like he or she is being torn apart.
After all these years of easy divorce, many people have given up on marriage completely. They just live together without any commitment. Needless to say, this isn’t the best of situations for them or for the children who might be involved. What’s needed is not a flight from responsibility, but a firmer commitment to it.
One of the things I’ve learned from the Catholic faith that applies to marriage, football and any other aspect of life is to appreciate discipline. On the surface, self-indulgence appears best for us, but that route only weakens us and leaves us unhappy. Self-denial appears to be worst for us, but that route strengthens us and makes us truly content.
Jesus said if anyone would be his follower he or she must deny his or herself, take up his or her cross and follow him. The way of the cross is the only way to be a true Christian, and it’s really the only way to get anything worthwhile done. It helps you to become the best version of yourself, to use a term from Catholic author and speaker Matthew Kelly.
In order for us to be the best versions of ourselves, we do not need to reinvent marriage, but to recommit ourselves to it. We need to look at it, not with our own agendas in mind, but with God’s plan in mind. He created us, so he knows what is best for us.
Do you have a favorite Catholic book?
One of my favorites is Made for More by Curtis Martin, the founder of Focus (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). A friend gave me a copy of the book, and I liked it so much that I bought dozens more copies to give out to others. It’s a simple and eloquent work that is especially helpful for convincing young people that happiness is found not in material things, but in God.
I also read In Conversation With God by Father Francis Fernandez every day. It’s a yearlong series of meditations based on the daily readings at Mass. Great saints are quoted, and wonderful insights are provided.
Do you have a favorite saint?
St. Thomas More was the patron I chose for confirmation over two decades ago. He was a great choice then, but even more so now. We need to be reminded of courageous people like him. [Regarding such people]: They wouldn’t allow others to force their immoral beliefs on them. They had their priorities straight and were willing to give up everything for the sake of the truth.
He remained faithful to the truth that marriage is indissoluble. He knew that truth endures, and it takes precedence over political expediency. We need to have the same outlook and act upon it. The world needs that witness now more than ever.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.