Now in Baltimore, Birk ready for Minnesota return
Matt Birk has taken his Harvard-educated brain to Baltimore. He even plans to donate it, for future concussion research on pro football players. Birk's head is in Maryland and he's happy with his fresh start, but he left a piece of his heart in his native Minnesota. This weekend, the six-time Pro Bowl center will return for a visit when the Ravens play the Vikings. This week, Birk is predictably playing the no-big-deal card, but it will be a strange experience. After all, his first time at the Metrodome was the first year it opened - for a Twins game on his sixth birthday. "I don't know what it's going to feel like," Birk said. "I've never done it before. In a lot of ways, it another trip, but I guess in a lot of ways it's not." This much he's figured out: He misses his friends and family. "My wife and I are a lot busier. I have a new appreciation for the people that you're close to in your life, the people that really care about you and that you really love," Birk said. "It's kind of a bad thing, but obviously a great thing too. It kind of reminds you of who and what's really important." He exchanges occasional text messages with former teammates and Vikings employees, but the NFL season - and a family of six, with a seventh on the way - doesn't allow much time for keeping in touch. He keeps tabs, though, on his old team. "I always check the Vikings score. I check all the scores. We're in this information age, where it's pretty easy to get scores and things like that," Birk said, with familiar sarcasm as he transitioned to reminisce about growing up in the capital city of St. Paul. "It's not like the old days where you had to wait for the afternoon edition of the Pioneer Press," he said. "I used to go to the street corner and wait for the truck to pull up. He'd throw off Route 39-183, and that was our route. My brothers and I would take it, we'd fold up the papers, we had the old bag across the handlebars of the bike, we put 'em all in there, and went and delivered the afternoon paper." Big bucks, huh? "Six cents a paper times 30 papers was a buck-80 a day," said Birk, who majored in economics at Harvard before being drafted in the sixth round by the Vikings in 1998. "And you can check these numbers, because they're 100 percent accurate." The Vikings offered him a little more money than that last February, when Birk became a free agent and decided to sign a three-year contract worth $12 million with the Ravens. His choice to end his Minnesota tenure at 11 seasons wasn't about dollars, but rather for a professional and personal challenge. "I just felt like in my heart and in my gut, and talking it over with my wife, we wanted a change," Birk said. "We wanted a new challenge, a new experience, a new adventure." The Vikings are 5-0. They also - news flash! - have Brett Favre as their quarterback. "I don't regret it," Birk said. "I think I've gone at least ad nauseum to explain the decision that I did. I'm still happy with it. That's the way it is. I don't look back." The Ravens (3-2) have lost two in a row, but second-year quarterback Joe Flacco could be a future star. "He just always seems to be in control of things and what he's trying to do and what the offense is trying to do," Birk said. "He's got that really good disposition for the position, where he's pretty low key and doesn't get too excited or worked up about anything." Baltimore coach John Harbaugh has raved about Birk's relationship with Flacco and his steadying effect on a young offensive line. "I think he was well-trained in his years over in Minnesota. He understands pass protection and the run game and how to get guys going in the right direction," Harbaugh said. Now wearing No. 77, partly to honor his late former teammate Korey Stringer, Birk will find himself facing the heart of Minnesota's stout defense in tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams during Sunday's game. Might it be easier for him, having learned their tendencies over the years in practice? "Probably scarier because I know exactly what we're getting into," Birk said. "They're great players. It starts with them, but that whole defense: When you're No. 1 against the run for three years, it's not a fluke. They're as good as there is up there, and we'll have our work cut out for us."