Matt Birk ’98 faced long odds to achieve NFL stardom and reach the top of the football world. Harvard had produced just 15 NFL players since 1935, and even after the Minnesota Vikings selected him with the 173rd pick of the 1998 NFL Draft, he faced an uphill road to success in a league nicknamed “Not For Long.”
Fifteen years later, Birk beat the odds and went out on top, announcing his retirement on Feb. 22 after making more Pro Bowls—six—than all but four players drafted in 1998 and winning Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3 as the starting center for the Baltimore Ravens.
The two-time All-Pro is arguably the most successful NFL player to play for the Crimson and is just the second Harvard player to win a Super Bowl.
Crimson coach Tim Murphy, who coached Birk during his time at Harvard, saw his success coming.
“I’m not surprised at all that Matt made it in the NFL,” Murphy remarked. “What is truly amazing, though, is that he has become one of the best players at his position on the planet.”
JOE MAKES HIM PRO
Hailing from St. Paul, Minn., Birk arrived in Cambridge to a team that had gone 3-7 the previous season. Murphy came to campus the same fall and the pair helped engineer a turnaround that culminated in a 9-1 record and Ivy League title in Birk’s senior season in 1997.
“Matt probably improved more as a player and an athlete in his four years than any other kid I’ve ever been around,” Murphy said. “He basically willed himself to become an NFL-caliber player.”
The center took his game to the next level entering his senior year, and he credits much of his improvement to a new offensive line coach, Joe Philbin, who is now coach of the Miami Dolphins.
“Going into my senior season, I thought it would be the last time I’d ever play football,” Birk said. “So I really rededicated myself that off-season, but the biggest key was that they hired Joe Philbin as the offensive line coach. I learned so much from him.”
Birk progressed so far that he began to catch scouts’ eyes.
“One day, I asked a scout, ‘Do you really think I have a shot at this?’” Birk recounted. “He said, ‘Yes, you do.’ So that’s when I really decided to go for it and went full speed ahead.”
At the season’s end, Birk earned All-Ivy League and All-ECAC first team honors and became the first Crimson offensive lineman to be drafted since Roger Caron ’85 in 1985.
After his hometown Vikings selected him, the sixth-round draft pick spent his first two seasons as a backup on the squad’s offensive line, where he learned from the team’s stars.