Just like Ray Lewis, Matt Birk ’98 has decided to go out on top.
After 15 seasons in the NFL, the Ravens center announced his retirement today in the library of Baltimore’s Battle Grove Elementary School, surrounded by a classroom of children.
“I'm old. I have six kids. It's just time,” Birk said. “I really enjoyed playing football [and] 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.”
The six-time Pro Bowler ends his career as one the most accomplished big-four-sport athletes in Harvard history.
After earning first-team All-Ivy accolades with the Crimson, Birk was a sixth-round draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings in 1998. He was a two-time All-Pro with Minnesota before moving on the Ravens, with whom he won his first career Super Bowl earlier this month.
"Matt will down in NFL history as one of the best players, classiest guys and great human beings,” Crimson coach Tim Murphy wrote in an e-mail. “He is a an outstanding ambassador for the NFL and Harvard.”
The 2011 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year, Birk had strongly considered retiring after last season but instead decided to return to Baltimore. The 36-year-old had two years and $8 million left on his contract when he decided to hang up the cleats.
“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.”
His former coach said he was not surprised by the decision.
“Matt informed me of his impending retirement at the beginning of [December],” Murphy wrote. “Me and my son Conor flew down to see his last home game against the Giants as his guest[s].”
After the announcement, a number of Birk’s teammates paid their respects to the center on Twitter.
“Matt Birk was one of the greatest people I've ever played with...truly a great role model and parent...very fortunate to be his teammate,” wrote wide receiver Torrey Smith.
“I have been blessed with the people that I have been able to learn from. Matt Birk was one of the best. It was my honor truly,” added linebacker Jameel McClain.
When told his teammates’ comments, Birk reportedly got emotional.
“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.”
The Ravens wanted to have a press conference for the center, but he declined. Instead, he chose to make the announcement at the elementary school where his HIKE Foundation will be opening a “Larry Bryant Reading Oasis,” in honor of a special-needs fifth-grader with whom Birk became close.
After going out a champion, Birk said he did not have any definitive plans for what he is going to do next.
“I certainly didn’t plan on playing football for 15 years,” he said. “Not having a plan has worked out for me so far, so I’m going to stick with it. To cap it with a Super Bowl win, that's a great thing.”
—Staff writer Scott A. Sherman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.