It was long expected…but it's always a shock when it happens. Friday it happened. Matt Birk is done after 15 years. Ravens backup center Gino Gradkowski is next man up.
Just the day before, Birk decided that after 15 years in the league that he was going to retire. But it still wasn’t easy for the 36-year-old veteran to walk away.
As Ryan Mink of the Ravens NFL.com site wrote, it has been a difficult decision for Birk to walk away from the game he loves. But with the script to the perfect ending before him, Birk bowed out.
He won his first Super Bowl this year. He had one of his finest seasons, according to his head coach.
The 2011 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year enjoyed a long, decorated career both in Minnesota (11 years) and Baltimore (four years). He went to six Pro Bowls and was played in 210 regular-season games, including 124 straight starts (including postseason) to end his career.
“I'm old. I have six kids. It's just time," Birk said. "I really enjoyed playing football I got to play it for a long time. I've been very fortunate. I just feel like it's time to do something else."
Birk said he flirted with retirement for the past six years. He called Head Coach John Harbaugh on Saturday just to talk about it, and still hadn’t made his mind up after an hour-long conversation.
He didn’t make his decision until Thursday afternoon, and he called Harbaugh back and spoke with General Manager Ozzie Newsome.
“Just ultimately I followed my heart,” Birk said. “I just kind of waited a couple weeks for it to settle and kept coming back to this being the right decision for me and my family.”
The Ravens wanted to put on a big press conference to send Birk out the way other great players in purple and black had done. But Birk didn’t want that. He chose to do it at Battle Grove Elementary School after announcing that he and his HIKE Foundation were going to open the “Larry Bryant Reading Oasis” at the school. Bryant is a special needs fifth-grader who Birk especially bonded with this year.
His "Ready, Set, Read!" program, which is affiliated with his HIKE Foundation, works with about 100,000 Baltimore students on improving their reading skills through an incentive-based system. It's partly what earned him Man of the Year honors.
Birk has also agreed to donate his brain and spinal cord tissue to the Center for Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University's School of Medicine for head trauma research.
On Friday, he took questions from the students before reporters.
“I’ve enjoyed playing football,” Birk said. “But as much as playing it, I’ve enjoyed doing this [working with community children] as an NFL player.”
“We were all so fortunate to have Matt Birk as a Raven – the team, everyone in our building, the community," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "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."
On the field, Birk was rock solid for Baltimore during his four seasons there. He provided stability along the offensive line and helped Joe Flacco mature into a Super-Bowl MVP quarterback.
Birk had one of his finest seasons last year. He graded out positively in 13 of the Ravens’ 20 games, according to Pro Football Focus. He had some of his best performances in Baltimore’s playoff run.
To my eye, he is playing the best football that he’s played since he’s been here – right now, at this point,” Harbaugh said heading into the Super Bowl.
Birk was also a great presence in the Ravens’ locker room, a smart Harvard-educated, funny, calm, and well-spoken leader. He helped mentor countless linemen, including rookie fourth-round draft pick Gino Gradkowski, the player that will likely be his successor.
"His leadership on and off the field was outstanding," General Manager Ozzie Newsome said. "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."
Birk was moved by his teammates' messages to him. He got a bit choked up when talking about them Friday. Of all his memories, Birk said he expects to cherish the time spent with his teammates, the bonds, the most.
“That stuff right there, it just stops you in your tracks,” he said. “You play the game for a lot of reasons. But the respect of your opponent, and more so the respect of your teammates, is probably the biggest thing you shoot for.”
Birk talked about his strong relationship with Harbaugh, and how he was blessed to have made the right decision to leave his hometown team in Minnesota. He said it was “truly an honor” to play in Baltimore.
He signed a three-year contract last offseason to make sure he retired in purple and black. Birk’s retirement will save the Ravens $2.05 million against the 2013 salary cap, according to The Baltimore Sun.
Great player, even greater guy… I wish Matt Birk the best for the future. Gino had a year to learn so he knows the league, and he had the chance to study one of the best in the game at center.