Updated: May 26, 2021
Retired Super Bowl Champion,
Winner of NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award,
Professional Speaker, Author, and CEO
A caring leader who believes in faith, family, and community service – and learned many valuable lessons from football.
“Football is what I’ve done, but it’s not who I am,” Matt Birk likes to say. “I’m very grateful for all the opportunities football has brought me. But at the end of the day, there are other things that are more important, such as spirituality, family life, friendships, and community service.”
He is profoundly grateful to his loving and devoutly Catholic parents for being such wonderful role models and giving him a rich spiritual foundation. Attending church every Sunday was a cornerstone of family life for Matt and his two brothers. Moreover, both parents set a strong example of the importance of service to the community. “The things they chose to do were never about them; it was always about helping the community,” Matt recalled.
Matt refers to himself as a chubby kid who daydreamed his way through school. He always knew he wanted to be a professional athlete, although he had an innate sense of humility that also made him realize it was a long shot. Being accepted to Harvard was a dream come true. But the boy from Minnesota found the transition to the Ivy League harder than expected. “Going away to college was quite a culture shock for me. I was homesick. I struggled in my classes. It was a tough experience. I was humbled a lot that first year, to the point where I thought I should leave and move back home.” His father set him straight, pointing out what a remarkable opportunity he had to get a fine education while playing football.
Still, Harvard’s influence on him was not always positive. “Until I went away to college, I never had any choice about whether or not I went to church,” he said. Faced with the option of not attending, he found himself slipping away from his faith and the fundamental priorities he had been taught as a child. But marriage brought him back to his Catholic faith. His wife, Adrianna, insisted that the two resume the habit of attending church, and they found their faith deepening as their marriage grew and they became parents to six children.
His last year at Harvard, Matt was drafted by the Vikings – the home team of his childhood. It took two years sitting on the Vikings’ bench before Matt saw any game time, but he had no complaints. “If you go out and play as a young player, you don’t always get a second chance. I was grateful to have the time to develop. I understood the importance of being patient and waiting until I was good enough to start,” he said.
“We are so driven by results. That is the wrong thing to focus on. John Wooden never talked about winning. He talked about execution and working hard in practice. John Wooden's definition of success is knowing you gave it everything you had in preparation. That’s what my parents had always taught me, in sports and in school; it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, just do your best. There are certainly no guarantees of success in the NFL; all I could do was give it my best. And in the end, that paid off.” He would eventually be named two-time All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowl selection, and win a Super Bowl with the Ravens.
Eventually, Matt’s NFL career took a turn for the worse with injuries: first a hernia, then major hip surgery. “It was humbling,” he said of that time. “I had surgery after surgery. I wondered if I’d ever play football again. Moreover, my self-worth was tied up in having this big strong body that could do whatever it was called upon to do, and having that assurance taken away was scary. I had to come to grips that I may never play football again. In the end, that was a very good experience. I learned you can't tie your identity to something that could be taking away from you. It is important to tie it to something that is more eternal."
Now, he tries to counsel young people not to make the same mistake he did in terms of self-perception. “I tell kids not to have their whole self-worth tied up in their physical performance. I tell them to be well-rounded and find other things besides sports that make them feel good about themselves.
Even after playing both for the Vikings and then the Ravens, Matt calls himself “the most unlikely NFL player ever.” “I love football most because of all the preparation that goes into it year-round, on and off the field. I like the daily grind of it. I guess I always knew deep down that I wasn’t going to succeed in football on talent alone; to be successful, I’d have to be more diligent than anyone else. That was really the key to my success, from high school through college and throughout my 15 year NFL career. I actually enjoyed all that hard work.”
In 2002, Matt’s passion for community outreach and public service culminated in the HIKE (Hope, Inspiration, Knowledge and Education) Foundation, which he and his wife co-founded to provide educational resources to at-risk children with a passionate goal to help them succeed at school. And his efforts to make the world a better place don’t end there. He is registered to donate brain and spinal tissue for medical research, and has also donated $50,000 to that same cause. In 2011, he received the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for his excellence on and off the field plus his commitment to community service including improving literacy among at-risk youth.
Matt also co-wrote a book with his close friend Rich Chapman. Titled “All-Pro Wisdom: The 7 Choices That Lead to Greatness” (https://www.mattbirkandcompany.com), the book shares the personal lessons that Matt has learned through football, his strong family ties, and his Christian faith. The book inspires readers to reach for the best and greatest version of themselves and become part of something greater than themselves.
During the same time frame of writing the book with Rich, Matt lost 75 pounds. He recognized it wasn't healthy to remain at the same weight as he was as a professional football player.
In Matt is a visionary leader who has earned the respect of all those around him, including top officials at the league. Matt was invited by NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell to take on the role NFL Director of Football Development. He worked with coaches and NFL personnel to develop the game and assist in game day operations. "My job was to develop the people of football including a pipeline, of the next generation to come. It was very fulfilling work."
After what his parents taught him, he credits the game of football with much of his core value system. “You learn things in all sports, but football is different. For me, my football career was a spiritual journey, one of self-exploration and character development. Football is like life: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes you get knocked down. Sometimes you do everything right and you still don’t get the desired outcome. I just want to be able to share those lessons with as many people as I possibly can.”
Matt is the Founder and CEO of Matt Birk and Company LLC (https://www.mattbirkandcompany.com)
Matt is happily married to his wife, Adrianna, and they are the proud parents of eight children.
Instant Replay of Matt Birk’s Guiding Principles:
1. Foster strong family connections. Learn from those who love you most throughout your life: your parents, your spouse, your children.
2. Rely on your spirituality to provide a moral compass. Follow the tenets of your faith to stay on the right course.
3. Work hard in school, and always make academics a top priority.
4. Learn from adversity. Remember that there’s a reason for everything that happens to you, whether or not that reason is apparent; look for the positive lessons to be learned from the negatives.
5. Accept that no matter how hard you try, some outcomes will be out of your control.
6. Look for mentors of your own to guide your decision-making, and serve as a mentor to others.
7. Be generous with your time, attention and resources.
8. Remember that your life is about much more than your personal happiness. Your purpose is to contribute to the greater good, not to accrue personal gain.
9. Reach for your very best and always strive for being the very greatest version of yourself.
10.Consciously choose to always be yourself. Build a strong foundation so you don't fall into the trap of letting others define you. This will be a great source of strength for you, especially during tough times.
The Insightful Player® series is brought to you by Coach Chrissy Carew, Hall of Fame Master Certified and Board Certifeid Personal and Business Coach and Author of INSIGHTFUL PLAYER: Football Pros Lead A Bold Movement of Hope. Chrissy has been deeply inspired by her father, the late Coach Walter Carew, Sr. Her father is in several Halls of Fame as a high school football coach and baseball coach (as well as high school and college athlete). He used sports to help kids build strong character and teach them valuable life skills. Insightful Player® was created to transform culture to be more inclusive, kinder, and more loving by inspiring youth. To contact Chrissy Carew visit http://www.insightfulplayer.com or call her landline, 603-897-0610.
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Matt Birk is a valued member of the Insightful Player® team. To be named to this team, one must be a person of integrity, such as a current or former NFL player, who shares their personal message of hope for the sole purpose of lifting the spirits of all, especially children.