Matt Birk, a retired professional football player, Super Bowl champion, and current Catholic speaker, joined Fr. Craig Vasek, athletics chaplain of the University of Mary, to discuss his career in football, experience of playing in the Super Bowl, and life as a Catholic.
Father Craig Vasek (FVasek): Matt, I’m excited for this conversation. You are a graduate of Harvard with a degree in economics and you’re married with eight kids. You were drafted into the NFL by the Minnesota Vikings in 1998 and concluded your 15-year career in the NFL with a Super Bowl victory with the Baltimore Ravens. I’m not great with Roman numerals – was it Super Bowl XLVII?
Matt Birk (MB): That’s right! Super Bowl XLVII. But Roman numerals shouldn’t be hard for you Father! Shouldn’t you have those down?
FVasek: I did study Latin, so I don’t have any excuse! I want to talk to you today about the integration of virtue, faith, and sport. I’ve heard you speak brilliantly on that topic before, so maybe you could speak to your background and we can continue the conversation from there?
MB: I’ve come across the saying, “All I need to know I learned in kindergarten.” I’m sure you’ve seen it, too. I want to come out with my own version: “All I need to know I learned playing football.” I think football is such a great metaphor for life, and I even rediscovered my Catholic faith through football. I tend to football-ize everything when I speak, because football has been such a huge part of my life. I played in the NFL for 15 years, college for four years, and high school for three years. I’m 44 years old now, so that’s 22 years playing football and 22 years not playing football.
A lot of people are surprised to hear that Harvard has a football team, but I can assure you that we do. We had uniforms and everything! Harvard currently plays in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). I was a late bloomer. I was a pretty good high school player and student, but I couldn’t have made it to a top-tier Division I program at the time. So I found my way to Harvard.
While I was at Harvard, I loved working out and seeing how big and strong I could get. My friends and I were just a group of guys who loved lifting weights, reading magazines about lifting weights, talking about lifting weights, and drinking protein shakes. We weren’t going out and partying – we were going to bed early so that we could get huge lifts in on Saturday morning. I was 310 pounds by my senior year at Harvard. There aren’t a lot of 310-pound guys in the Ivy League. So by that point I was doing pretty well on the field because I was blocking guys who were 230 pounds!
I was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings and I showed up to my first practice thinking, “I want this to happen, so it’s going to happen. I am going to be successful because I want to be successful.” I think there’s often a part of us that thinks like that, and we’re even taught to think like that a bit. In my mind, I was going to will my way to success in football because I wanted to be rich and famous and I wanted to win a Super Bowl with the Vikings.
I had a rude awakening. The NFL is made up of the best of the best. I wasn’t playing against guys from Princeton or Cornell or Dartmouth anymore! I went from being one of the best on the field to the worst on the field in a heartbeat. Almost immediately, my confidence was shot. I was totally lost. I was thinking “They’re going to cut me. I don’t know what to do. I guess I’ll go into investment banking. A career in football isn’t meant for me.” That entire mental change happened over the course of two hours! So my offensive line coach – Mike Tice – pulled me aside after what was the worst practice performance ever given in the history of the NFL and said, “Look, we do the same five drills every single day. Just get really good at doing those five drills.” There was so much wisdom in that. Football coaches are very pragmatic. They tell you what to do, and if you want to succeed, you just do that. So instead of worrying about results, I focused on becoming really good on those drills.
That same day, he moved me to center, which was a position I had never played before. We had practice again that afternoon, so he told me to go out five minutes early and practice snapping the football to the quarterbacks. There’s no glory in being a center, but it’s not rocket science, either. You bend over and put your hand on the ball, and the quarterback puts his hands underneath you. It’s a little uncomfortable at first, but then you just snap the ball to the quarterback. And we would do that over and over and over, five minutes before every practice, every day. Then the coach blows the whistle and everyone breaks off into their position groups. I would join the rest of the linemen in our corner of the field and we would get in the chutes. The chutes are tunnels that are six feet long that force you to stay low. You get into your stance, and when you explode out of your stance to move through the chutes you have to stay low or you’ll hit your head on a metal bar. In football, playing on the line as all about leverage, so you have to stay low. After we had done that for a while, we would put boards that were about 10 feet long and one foot wide into the chutes. The boards force you to keep your feet apart while you stay low. Again, it’s all about leverage. The moment you put your feet together on a football field is the moment you’re going to get knocked over.
Every single day for 15 years I practiced snapping five minutes before practice, then I got in the chutes, and then I went on the boards. We did that every day because the fundamentals of football never change. One thousand years from now, the centers will still be out snapping the ball five minutes before practice, and then they will join the rest of the linemen in the chutes and on the boards.
No one has ever watched a football game and said, “Wow, did you see how perfect that snap was?!” No one ever gave me a standing ovation as I came off the field for snapping the ball. But every time the snap was bad, I heard about it! When the snap isn’t good, nothing else in the play is going to be that good. The best-case scenario with a bad snap is that your team holds onto the ball or recovers the fumble. But that’s the best-case scenario. So the snap is really important. It’s kind of human nature to say, “I’ve already done that a million times, we don’t need to practice snapping the ball today! What’s next?” If you want to be successful, there is no “next.” Good centers give a clean snap and come off the ball low with their feet apart. That’s it. If you do that every time, you have a good chance at being successful. That was true my first day of practice in the NFL, and it was true in my last game 15 years later, which was the Super Bowl.
The point is that commitment and dedication to the process are what brought allowed me to be successful. I think that’s why I love the Catholic faith so much. It takes no talent to be Catholic and I’m a low-talent guy! As Catholics, we have those fundamentals that we can stick with.
Two weeks before we played in the Super Bowl, they told us that the first play we were going to run was “Dot Right 40 Go.” That might be the most basic running play in the playbook after the quarterback sneak. Every team in America – NFL, college, high school, and even little popcorn leagues – runs that play. As the center, all I had to do was snap the ball, take a little step to the right, and block the guy that was in that gap to my right. That’s it. So we practiced all week in Baltimore, then we flew to New Orleans and practiced there the week before the game. We finally got into the game, they called it “Dot Right 40 Go,” and we ran it. It was all pretty unspectacular. But here’s the point: If you removed all the fans and reporters, all the coaches and all the other players other than me, you would have seen me doing something I had done every day for 15 years. I snapped the ball, I was in the chutes, and I was coming out on the boards. In my mind, I was not playing in the Super Bowl. If I would have thought, “I’m playing in the Super Bowl and a billion people are watching me,” I probably would have wet my pants! So I did what I did every single day: I focused on executing the fundamentals. The fundamentals were the same: the stage just happened to be different that day.
So my thought process that day wasn’t about how badly I wanted to win or how lucky I was to be on such a great team. While all of that was true, what allowed me to perform at a level worthy of the Super Bowl was that I was doing that day what I had practiced every single day for 15 years. I had nothing to do with talent. It had everything to do with commitment. I had everything to do with finding purpose every single day. That commitment wasn’t just a means to an end. If I was only in the NFL for the money or the desire to win a Super Bowl, I wouldn’t have lasted 15 years! Football is a hard game – no one needs the money so badly they’ll play in the NFL for 15 years!
The point is that commitment and dedication to the process are what allowed me to be successful. I think that’s why I love the Catholic faith so much. It takes no talent to be Catholic and I’m a low-talent guy! As Catholics, we have those fundamentals that we can stick with. We have prayer. We have the Mass and the Eucharist. We have confession. We have the rosary. We have adoration. We have a Hall of Fame – the saints – for inspiration. Nothing is really kept secret: we’re given exactly what we need to become the best versions of ourselves and live a virtuous life. We’re given exactly what we need to go to heaven. There’s no secret – we practice those things over and over. Some days it’s really easy: for some reason you wake up and you can’t wait to do it. Other days it’s really hard. All that matters is that you wake up each day and decide you’re going to do it all again.
I can’t understand every single teaching of the Church on my own completely. Some of it is beyond me. I’m not that smart and I’ve been hit on the head a lot! But I still show up and I keep doing the little things over and over.
FVasek: The image of what someone would have seen if they had stripped the Super Bowl down and watched only you is brilliant. If you strip away the fans, the cameras, and the hype, you’re going to see Matt Birk doing the same thing he did on his first day in the NFL. I think people could apply that image to many aspects of life – especially the Faith – to great effect. I’m thinking about the martyrs in a particular way: I think that in most cases, we would recognize that their lives and their moments of death looked a lot alike. If you strip away that moment of glory, the persecution and persecutors, the context – all of it – you would see them doing what they had done every day. They were praying, they were humbling themselves, and they were being faithful to Jesus. They were saying, “God, I want to follow you no matter what that means.” They were saying that every day, in big ways and little ways. So when we look at that ultimate expression of their faith and say, “I don’t have that, I wish I had that,” we have to recognize the striving and perseverance that led to that moment. Your image of football provides an excellent image for the faith of the martyrs.
MB: That’s spot on. The other thing I would add to that example of martyrs and saints is that holiness was a struggle, even for them. I was with my men’s group recently when one of my buddies said, “Do you think the saints ever sat around a fire and said, ‘Man, we’re just killing it. We’re crushing it for Jesus. This is great.’” No! Of course not! They struggled and persevered! Saint Theresa of Calcutta is one of the greatest saints of the century, and after her death we discovered that she went through an extended dark period of her life where she didn’t feel close to God. I think a lot of us imagine that Mother Theresa, who served God faithfully in the poor every day, must have woken up every morning and everything was easy and felt life-giving. No! She went through extended periods of time where she didn’t feel close to God, just like everyone else does.
I want to use football as an image for the life of faith again: football is never easy. I don’t know how many plays I played in my career. Some were bad, and some were horrible. I played with Hall of Famers, and every one of them dropped catches, blew plays, and got knocked down. They weren’t perfect, and they struggled.
We should take inspiration from all that. Saints and Hall of Famers are people – they’re not superhuman. We all have the same struggles. Many of us won’t be canonized saints in the Catholic Church and many of us aren’t living up to the highest definition of sainthood, but we can achieve greatness if we continue to practice the fundamentals of the Faith.
FVasek: This is all bringing one particular virtue to mind: courage, which is also known as fortitude. Part of courage is moving through difficult experiences of trial or fear. It’s what we think of when we refer to someone as brave. But another element of courage, which tends to be overlooked because it isn’t as glamorous, is persistence. Persistence means that I do something over and over and over, regardless of how boring it is or how many times I’ve done it before. Persistence means that I do what I need to do even if I find it mundane and think I could find more pleasure or excitement elsewhere – and then I do it again, and again. I think you’re shining a light on the importance of persistence in relation to faith, football, and every other aspect of life.
Leveraged Arenas and College Athletics
Thomas Wurtz, founder of FOCUS's Varsity Catholic, joined Fr. Craig Vasek to discuss the relationship between athletics, evangelization, and leveraged arenas.
A lot of young people look at professional athletes and see glamor and money, popularity and interviews and autographs, commercials and endorsement deals, and they think, “I want that.” So the idea for many aspiring athletes is that if they work hard at being amazing and making sure everyone knows how amazing and brilliant they are, they’ll make it. Maybe that misses the reality: the most successful people are often those who are willing to focus on the hidden things and pour their time into things that aren’t so glamorous and aren’t so fun.
MB: Our culture doesn’t celebrate persistence. We celebrate the top ten plays on SportsCenter, which are often one-hit wonders. We don’t celebrate people like my dad, who woke up 365 days per year at 2:00am to throw newspapers. That’s incredible dedication and perseverance to take care of his family. As athletes, we call it the lonely work. It’s easy to run out onto the field on Sundays when the crowd is cheering for you and you’re making a lot of money to do it. It’s easy to get hyped up about that. But what about the offseason, when no one is watching and it’s really hot outside: are you going to finish your sprints? Your choice then is what really matters.
The point you made earlier about the martyrs is all about persistence. We love to imagine that we will be courageous when the time comes. We love to imagine that when the crisis finally comes, we will stand up and say, “I’ll save you! I’ll slay the dragon!” If you’re not persistent in the meantime – if you’re not doing the right things over and over – you won’t stand up when that time comes!
So it’s important that we embrace doing the mundane thing over and over when that’s what is being asked of us. But that doesn’t mean that we have to dwell in the mundane. If you’re doing something over and over and there’s no glamor, no glory, and no one cheering you on, I think you have to find a reason outside of yourself to persevere. In the world of sport, that might sound like, “I’m doing this because my teammates are counting on me.” In the spiritual life, it might sound like, “I’m doing this because God is calling me to do it and I want to bring glory to him.” I don’t know how you could be a highly persistent person and develop the virtue of fortitude without a reason greater than yourself; in fact, it seems like you would have to be a little full of yourself. I’m just thinking in real-time here, but it strikes me that to develop the virtue of courage, there has to be a level of selflessness involved.
FVasek: I think that with the virtue of courage, there needs to be an end – a goal – that the individual can see. And when there is something between me and the goal that I want to achieve – whether it’s some difficulty or a lot of mundane repetition – courage is what I need to get through it. I agree with the point you’re raising: if the goal is just something I’ve concocted within myself for my own sake, it seems unlikely that it will be enough to get me to my goal. But when I can find something greater than myself, the sacrifice seems more stable and more substantial. Committing to the necessary mundane becomes more meaningful when there is a good greater than oneself attached to it.
I think this is something students and athletes need to hear. Players and coaches are always willing to repeat the line, “I just gotta do the little things. We just gotta be faithful to the little things.” But saying it is easy, doing it is hard. When push comes to shove, am I actually being faithful to the little things I have to do? Or am I choosing things that are easier or more fun? Am I going out every Friday and Saturday night, or am I going to bed early so my buddies and I can push each other through huge workouts early the next morning? When you talked about your time at Harvard and mentioned building yourself to 310 pounds, my thought was that I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be 310 pounds! Did you have the same doubts?
MB: They say “youth is wasted on the young” and “ignorance is bliss.” When you’re young, you don’t know the limits! At the time, my thought process was basically, “Life sounds fun at 300 pounds and I like pizza, so let’s try it.”
People who are involved in or interested in sports might not see the connection between virtue and sport, but I think the connection is so obvious for those of us who live in that world that it doesn’t need to be explained. We can talk about virtue in sport, virtue in business, virtue in life: but virtue in sport is unique because it’s physical. Sport takes the question of virtue out of the abstract and puts it right into the physical.
We can talk about developing the cardinal virtues – prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude – but in sport, we have the opportunity to live them in clear, physical, concrete ways rather than just choosing them in our minds. I think that makes the virtue formation that occurs in sport so much deeper and stronger than anything that can be accomplished in a conversation or lecture. On top of all of that, sport is for the young – young people play sports! Even Tom Brady is young. And that’s why I’m so passionate about virtue and sport: sport is a place for deep, lasting formation in virtue for young people.
FVasek: Our philosophy at the University of Mary is that the object of sport is to win – your primary objective when you step onto the field (or the court or the rink) is victory. But the purpose that runs alongside that and directs everything you do in sport is character development – it’s becoming who you were meant to be as a person. You’re doing great work with that general idea in your organization, For His Glory, helping the youth to understand the integration of sport, virtue, and faith.
Sport really is a concrete domain where human virtue is on display. There’s something vulnerable about it: ESPN doesn’t only show the top ten plays of the week, but they also have the “C’Mon Man!” segment, where mistakes and errors are on full display. When a player runs out of time on the basketball court because she wasn’t watching the clock, or a football player turns and runs left when he was supposed to turn and run right, everyone sees the mistake. And that really adds to the concrete nature of sport. Everything is on display in physical, obvious ways for the world to see, from your successes and failures to your virtues and weaknesses.
MB: I like that distinction between the object and purpose of sport, and I wonder if we can apply it to every aspect of life? In football I accomplished more than I ever thought I would be able to, both physically and mentally. As human beings, we like staying in our comfort zones, but we don’t grow if we never leave our comfort zones. So we can’t grow if we’re always comfortable. Sports make us uncomfortable in a variety of ways and your teammates make you accountable and hold you to a higher standard than you would hold yourself to if you were alone. Sports make us go beyond ourselves and remind us that we need others and that we need to be there for others to help them become better, too.
I feel like God gave us sports for that reason. I really think he gave us sports so that meatheads like me could grow in virtue! It’s like he looked at me and said, “I’m going to make this really simple for you: just go play sports and you’ll learn all about virtue and life.” That’s why it’s such a loss when coaches – especially youth coaches – don’t take advantage of the opportunity sport provides for forming virtue.
Sport really is a concrete domain where human virtue is on display... Everything is on display in physical, obvious ways for the world to see, from your successes and failures to your virtues and weaknesses.
I was so fortunate to have played at the highest level for so long: we won games, we lost games, we even won a Super Bowl! But when I look back at it now, those victories aren’t what I care about. I care that the coaches and teammates I had helped me to grow as a man. Coaches like John Harbaugh, Steve Loney, and Joe Philbin helped me to grow as a man, even though that wasn’t their job. Their job was to make me a better player, but their purpose – as you said – was to make me a better man. That’s what I’m grateful for when I look back on my career. That’s what I care about. The other stuff barely seems like it even happened.
FVasek: So many coaches know the purpose of sport, even if they haven’t heard it said that way. So many coaches are humbled and honored to work with young men and young women on a day-to-day basis. They become more than coaches – they also become something like parents, mentors, and guidance counselors all at once. They become people that young men and young women trust with their lives and stay in touch with forever. Coaching is an amazing opportunity to change athletes’ lives for the better when we remember that life and relationships exist beyond the field and the court and the rink.
Before we conclude, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to talk a little bit about how well you’ve used your platform as a professional athlete. You’re a man of great faith, integrity, and virtue, and you’ve poured yourself out in service. Some of the ways you’ve used your platform include working with at-risk students, helping to develop reading programs for young students, and even donating part of your body to science to further research into the impacts of concussions on the human brain! You’re giving yourself away in so many different ways, but I really want to point to your work for the pro-life movement. Part of my purpose for mentioning it is just to say “thank you” – but I also want to give you a chance to speak to it, because I know it’s near to your heart.
MB: Well it’s not just me – it’s my wife, as well. My wife, Adrianna, was involved in the pro-life movement before I was. As a professional athlete, I had a platform, and she pulled my arm a bit. Then I had a few priests tap me on the shoulder asking me to come and speak at a pro-life event, and I couldn’t say “no” to a bunch of priests! My involvement evolved from there. My thinking is that we’re all called to use our gifts and our talents for good, so we need to be serious about discerning what God is calling us to do.
I think that the pro-life issue is the issue of the day. As Mother Theresa said, if abortion isn’t a sin, then what is? It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God or not: why are we talking about all this other stuff if we can’t even agree that every human being has the right to live? All of us are called to stand up for good and to fight evil, and this is the fundamental issue of our time. It’s really been an honor to meet so many heroes who have dedicated their entire lives to fighting for the unborn. I’ve met women who have had abortions and have spent their lives as pro-life advocates because they don’t want other women to make the same mistake. I feel like half a man standing next to people like that. The pro-life movement is full of selfless people working tirelessly for the good. I’m still working on dying to myself more and more each day, and there’s a lot of darkness when you start engaging in the abortion debate – but there are so many heroes and there is so much light in the pro-life movement. Those people are all-in for good and all-in for God. I’ve had people approach me and say, “Hey, I appreciate what you do for the pro-life movement,” and my response is always the same: “I’m glad you feel the same way because we’re all here to encourage each other.”
Look, I was the fat kid in the playground: I got made fun of and picked on all the time. I’m used to people saying bad stuff about me – and when they say bad stuff about me on Twitter, it really doesn’t bother me at all! I’ve never had anyone approach me to express a problem with my involvement in the pro-life movement. Maybe part of that is because I still weigh 250 pounds! But part of it is the devil, too. The devil is a coward. He really is. He thrives on fear and intimidation. If you stand in the truth, you don’t have anything to be afraid of. God will give you the strength and he will put people in your life to give you the strength to stand up to whatever the resistance is.
FVasek: And that takes us back to the beginning of this conversation: if I am faithful to the little things day-in and day-out, I’ll become able to stand whatever the world throws at me. You mentioned that God will put people in your life to give you strength. Are there any people you worked with in the NFL that played that role?
MB: I named a couple of coaches earlier, and in terms of players I’ll say this: playing offensive line is the best job in the world. There aren’t little kids praying, “God, please make me an offensive lineman.” I certainly wouldn’t have chosen it. But it’s the best gig in the world. Offensive linemen eat whatever they want, they lift heavy stuff and are the strongest guys, and you know your wife married you for the right reason. She’s certainly not marrying you because you’re the fittest guy on the team! Offensive linemen can’t take themselves too seriously: we’re the fat, dumpy guys that nobody else wanted to be. There’s no glory. So that means when you play on the offensive line you meet the best guys. Some names that come to mind from my time with the Vikings of great guys I got to play alongside are Todd Steussie, Randall McDaniel, Korey Stringer, Cory Withrow, Chris Lewinsky, and Mike Rosenthal. They’re just awesome dudes. I hope all of my daughters marry offensive linemen. They’re just salt-of-the-earth guys.
FVasek: One last question: What was the inspiration behind the Two-Fisted Bacon Cheeseburger? It’s featured in Morton’s Cookbook with your endorsement!
MB: Well what I am going to have when I go out to eat? A petite slider? A slider wouldn’t even fit in my hands! Ridiculous. Everyone has their vice, and food is mine. You know what’s better than a good, juicy burger? A huge good, juicy burger. The bigger the better. The dangerous thing about being a lineman is that you can justify your indulgence: “I have to eat the whole pizza! I have to eat the two-fisted burger! I’m a lineman, being big is part of my job!” Justifying gluttony is a slippery slope!
FVasek: Linemen have to be able to transition into non-football, non-bulk life at some point! You’re looking great!
MB: We try!
FVasek: Matt, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.
MB: My pleasure, Father.