Former Ravens center Matt Birk, the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2012 and a Super Bowl champion, will be back in the Baltimore area this Thursday for a signing for his new book, “All-Pro Wisdom: The 7 Choices that Lead to Greatness.” The book, which Birk describes as “a manual to put people on their own path, their own journey for personal greatness,” was co-authored by his friend Rich Chapman. In advance of the book signing, Birk had a lengthy phone conversation with reporter Matt Vensel about the book, the 2013 Ravens and his thoughts on NFL prospect Michael Sam.
MV: Many former players have talked about the tough transition into life after football, but it looks like you are staying busy by spending time with your family, writing a book, working for the NFL and, most notably, becoming a supermodel. A year removed from the Super Bowl, how is life treating you?
MB: It’s good. And like you said, it’s busy. That’s kind of been my problem throughout my whole life -- I probably don’t slow down enough. That’s OK. I’d rather be too busy than not busy enough. Certainly coming out of last year, coming out of football, this book was like a calling for me, something I had to do. That, along with my family and my position with the NFL, which I was very fortunate to get, I haven’t really had much of a chance to sit around and reflect, but that’s OK. I’m more of a looking-ahead kind of guy anyway.
MV: You went from being an NFL player to working for the league as an appeals officer, meaning you are part of the judge and jury of your former peers. What appealed to you -- no pun intended -- about serving in that position and did you ever hear from any former teammates about your role?
MB: [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell was the one who reached out to me and asked me if I was interested. I have a great deal of respect for him so I just kind of put everything else on hold and pursued it. I had to be approved by the NFL and also the NFLPA and [NFLPA executive director] DeMaurice Smith, another guy I respect. They felt good about me taking on this role. I want to do a good job because those are two guys I respect a lot. And I feel like this is important work right now with the call for change that is going on in the NFL as it relates to safety, specifically the head injuries and trauma. We have to see these rule changes through and uphold them. It’s also a little bit of an adjustment period going on with defensive players and helmet-to-helmet hits. Sometimes, football is not played in a vacuum or played in straight lines. There is a lot of different things that are going on out on the field, and as an appeals judge I’m just trying to read the rules, interpret the rules and the spirit of the rules. At the end of the day, I’m just trying to get it right but I feel like this position is an important one because it is kind of the final channel that the safety changes go through. It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal to me.
MV: Was it difficult watching the Ravens from afar, especially since they struggled by their standards? Did you ever think about coming back?
MB: There were a couple of times where I sat on the couch and thought, “Yeah, I can still do it.” And you know, you’re just full of yourself. There’s no way I could do it anymore. There’s certainly part of me that wishes I still could. That will never get fully out of my system, even though I was able to play for a long time. Playing football -- next to being a superhero -- is probably the best thing there is to make a living. It’s just a lot of fun. When I would watch and I really would miss it -- this is going to sound kind of odd -- was after the Ravens lost a tough game on the road. It’s hard as those are to go through as a player, you always learn more from a loss than you do from a win, especially when you go on the road and have to fly back home after a tough game. You tend to have very raw, honest conversations with your teammates. You’ve just been humbled and guys are vulnerable and somewhat emotional. Conversations with that kind of depth don’t happen every day. That’s when I really felt like I wish I was there in some way to maybe try to help out. I don’t miss the game. Like everybody else that retires, I miss the guys. I miss the locker room.
MV: Would you ever think about coaching? I know it’s not the same thing…
MB: I am. I’m coaching five-year-old tyke football. That’s just about the same as the NFL. [Laughs.] I don’t think I would only because of the commitment time-wise. I mean, players work hard, but coaches and their families, they sacrifice the most. I just don’t see that fitting into my life.
MV: How do you think your successor, Gino Gradkowski, performed, and do you believe he is the answer at center?
MB: Yeah, Gino is more than capable. There’s no substitute for a young player getting live reps, live bullets. Gino was one of the many changes that happened on this year’s team. It just seemed like it never quit clicked like they hoped it would for the entire team. So many changes personnel-wise, coaching, a different philosophy on offense of how they were going to run the ball and how they were going to attack people. With so many new things, they probably have a better idea now of what works and a better idea of what didn’t last year. They will have to build on those strengths as a team and as an offense. They need to get better. The best thing that Gino’s got going for him is the type of guy that he is. I’m sure a lot of fans probably think that doesn’t matter, but that actually makes all the difference. Gino is a high-character guy, a hard worker and he’s going to play to the best of his ability and get the most out of that talent. You can win with guys like that. I get excited -- I know there are some free agents -- but with Gino and Marshal [Yanda] and [Kelechi Osemele] back. I don’t know if they’ll keep Michael Oher or Eugene Monroe. But those are quality individuals right there. Those are the types of people you want playing offensive line.
MV: I know you and I talked about this in the past, and you kind of alluded to it a minute ago, but how much of a challenge is it for offensive lines to gel in today’s NFL with so much annual personnel turnover?
MB: Stability is important. But you’re probably going to have to plug guys in here and there because of injuries or when guys leave in free agency or retire. That’s where you need strong leadership and strong coaching. Everyone is going to do things a little bit differently, but if your coaches coach everybody the same and hold everyone accountable to use the same techniques and the same standard of play no matter who is in there, it will be OK. The guys I know that are still there, those are right-way guys. Whatever they are being coached, they are going to work as hard as they can to get it right. So when it does happen and when someone else has to fill in for someone, it won’t be that big of a difference.
MV: You have been vocal in your opposition to same-sex marriage, in the past writing op-eds for both The Baltimore Sun and The Minneapolis Star Tribune. What are your thoughts on Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announcing a couple of weeks ago that he is gay? And do you think he will be accepted and respected in an NFL locker room?
MB: What do I think of him announcing that he is gay? I guess that’s fine. I don’t see a reason to celebrate anyone’s sexuality. But I think as far as him fitting into the NFL, he’s not the first gay player in the NFL. When you spend that much time together… I know I’ve had gay teammates before and I think a lot of people on the team knew that they were gay, and it really wasn’t a big deal. In the context in football, we’re all there to work hard and try to be the best football player we can be because that’s our careers and we have families. But as a team, it is about coming together to win games and what guys do -- as long as what guys do off the field doesn’t take away from the goal and the mission of the team -- guys are fine with it. It’s 2014. I don’t think that this is quite the bombshell that it would have been 20 or 30 years ago. But it has caused and will continue to cause a media frenzy and I think how it is handled going forward… I guess whatever team drafts Michael Sam will have to deal with that. I’m sure that all that extra attention could get real old for guys in the locker room. But I think for some reason people on the outside think that, right or wrong, the locker room is this barbaric, Neanderthal-type place. Certainly, sometimes that kind of behavior will occur there, that kind of boys-will-be-boys type of stuff. But football players, it takes a special kind of person to play in the NFL. It’s a hard game. And I think some people underestimate football players a little bit.
MV: Taking the Xs and Os out of it, are the Ravens the kind of open-minded NFL franchise that can handle that extra attention and would that be the type of environment in which Michael Sam could thrive?
MB: I think they could. Any place with strong leadership could. I mean, Steve Bisciotti, [John Harbaugh], Ozzie [Newsome], those guys, they know what they’re doing. They’re not going to be swayed or distracted by anything. They’re going to set the agenda. I think those guys can handle just about anything. And you know what, during the course of a football season, a lot of stuff does happen -- some of it publicly and some of it stays in-house. The leadership of your team will be tested throughout the course of any season, no question. I think that Harbs and the Ravens have proven they can handle just about anything.
MV: Tell us about your new book, “All-Pro Wisdom: The 7 Choices that Lead to Greatness.” What’s the focus of it?
MB: The focus really is that greatness is not winning the Super Bowl or making a bunch of money or any of those things. Those things are achievements. No matter what you do for a living or where you come from, everybody gets to choose what kind of life they want to lead. There are a lot of things that are out of our control. But the type of life you want to lead, that’s 100 percent your choice if you want it to be. I’m trying to empower people by taking these seven choices, these seven questions that deal with things like identity, purpose, character, goals. It’s a pretty light touch on heavy topics, Matt. It’s not an academic journal. It’s a fast read. There’s a lot of football stories to get the points across. But it’s the framework for people to start thoughts and conversations. It’s not just the what, but the how -- how people can develop more confidence, more passion, stability, focus, strength, guidance and how they can continue to get better. It’s a manual to put people on their own path, their own journey for personal greatness. It’s being the person you want to be, the best version of yourself. I wrote it with my neighbor, who is a real successful business guy who took his company public and traded on the New York Stock Exchange. But all that being said, it has nothing to do with the type of person that he is. Life can be fleeting, but if people make the right choices, anything can happen for them. The way I describe it is that if you go through these choices, you are bulletproof.
MV: What inspired you to write this book? And why now?
MB: Well now I guess I still have a little bit of notoriety left. Why? I didn’t think I would last 15 minutes in the NFL, much less 15 years. I really tried to soak it all in while I was there. Football is great for so many reasons. One of them is that the game is such a great teacher of life. Metaphors like when you get knocked down, you get back up. Sometimes you drop the ball. Those things really happen in football. It’s not just figuratively speaking. You’re with great coaches and players who have accomplished great things. They’re great men. And you are always looking for motivation, but you don’t have to look very far. Coaches are always trying to give you pep talks, citing things from the Bible, movies, poets, pop culture. Motivation is everywhere. And football is so intense, it’s always being put in front of you. I called it my “notebook wisdom.” On one side of my notebook, I always had the Xs and Os. On the other side I would write down great ideas and concepts coaches talked about or things that they said in their little talks. Or things that I learned in a specific experience in my career. This book is kind of the framework that I lived my life by and the response to the book has been very powerful. Even though there is a lot of football in it, it’s not a football book. But there are a lot of great men who play this game so I interviewed Aaron Rodgers, Jason Witten, Anquan Boldin, Jared Allen, Harbs, Troy Polamalu, Adrian Peterson. I talked to them about things other than football and their lives off the field and why they are so well thought of off the field. They intentionally made decisions off the field to live their lives a certain way and it has nothing to do with football or their achievements.
MV: You have a book signing at the Greetings & Readings in Hunt Valley on Thursday night. You moved back to Minnesota, but I know you still have a soft spot for Baltimore. Are you looking forward to spending a little time with Ravens fans?
MB: I had never been anywhere else [when he signed in Baltimore in 2009]. But when I got there from Day One, it was obvious that the Baltimore area loves the Ravens. It probably has something to do with everything they went through with the Colts. I’ve never seen anything like it. Purple Fridays. The city is just engaged in what is going on. They’re plugged in. It was a big deal for my family to move. I’m not some huge free-agent signing, but when you tell your wife and kids that you are moving away from the only home you’ve ever known, that’s a big deal. You don’t know how it’s going to go. I had the team, so I could throw myself into my work. But my wife and kids, they had to start fresh with no built-in friends or support groups. They quickly felt right at home. I tell people I meet now that Baltimore is the city of champions. I have a ton of fond memories in Baltimore that have nothing to do with winning the Super Bowl, but it was pretty cool that we did. My last memory of Baltimore is winning the Super Bowl and what that meant to the city. I guess I underestimated the bond of sharing that moment with the fans. We know fans support us and we appreciate them, but maybe not as much as we should. It was almost like when we had that trophy, the feeling that I got from the fans was, “This is ours. We all did this.” That’s how it felt to me. That was a little bit of a surprise.