When Matt Birk ’98 was growing up in St. Paul, Minn., his family made faith, family, friends, and education their top priorities.
Not much has changed.
Sure, Birk has moved from Minnesota to Maryland, become a six-time Pro Bowler, and, most recently, been named the 2011 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year; but his community of friends, focus on faith, and commitment to education have remained the same.
“It’s not difficult to hang around people who you share a lot of the same values with,” said Jim Runyon, Birk’s lifelong friend and classmate at their high school, Cretin-Derham Hall. “Everyone is still very humble, still very down to earth. They have the same values they had 20, 30 years ago.”
Birk’s Catholic upbringing and his family’s focus on education have inspired the center’s work at his HIKE Foundation, which promotes literacy among at-risk children in the Baltimore area.
“When I talk to kids, my message is always education,” he said. “What’s more basic than reading?”
It was a message Birk and his brothers received from an early age as part of a St. Paul community that emphasized family and education.
“It started with parents who believed that education was the backbone of any good future and good family,” Runyon said of growing up in St. Paul. “It wasn’t something you talked about as much as something you did.”
Birk and his HIKE Foundation now work in areas that need that kind of talk. And he earned the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award because he has made those schoolchildren and their families listen.
“He’s very selfless,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “He realizes that he lives a very privileged life, but he doesn’t feel entitled.”
THE HARVARD DAYS
Birk left Minnesota as a standout athlete from Cretin-Derham Hall—a high school that also boasts Baseball Hall of Famer Paul Molitor and Twins catcher and 2009 MVP Joe Mauer.
“Once I was able to focus just on football, I was able to improve, to train more, to train smarter, [and] to put more effort into it” said Birk, who also competed in basketball and track in high school. “I had some great coaching along the way...I was like a hungry dog and they just kept feeding me.”
While Birk improved throughout his four years at Harvard, his biggest jump came between his junior and senior years.
“He started his junior year, had a rocky year, and was probably 6’5”, 275 [pounds]. He came back his senior year at 300 pounds and dominated—simply dominated,” remembered Colby Skelton ’98, Birk’s teammate and blockmate who later moved to St. Paul.