Ravens center Matt Birk, a former sixth-round draft pick from Harvard who went from NFL long-shot to six-time Pro Bowl choice, announced his retirement from the NFL today after 15 seasons, the last four with Baltimore.
Birk made the announcement while visiting Battle Grove Elementary School in Dundalk to help dedicate a community reading center.
"I have absolutely nothing to complain about and a lot to be grateful for," he said.
Birk, who had signed a new three-year, $8.5 million deal with the Ravens before last season, never missed a start in his four seasons with the Ravens and made 136 straight regular-season starts since 2006.
"From the beginning, the organization and the city just welcomed us with open arms," Birk said, adding that it was "truly an honor" to play for the Ravens.
Coach John Harbaugh said, "We were all so fortunate to have Matt Birk as a Raven – the team, everyone in our building, the community. It was a privilege to coach him and an honor to have him as a friend. We are better people for being around Matt, blessed in fact. Young players could watch Matt and know that was how to be an NFL professional. He took notes like a rookie, he owned the weight room, and we would have to push him to take some plays off in practice. There are reasons he played at such a high level for 15 years. We will miss having him here every day, but we look forward to always calling him a friend and a Raven.”
Birk contemplated retirement last offseason, but speculation grew that he would retire after helping the Ravens to the Super Bowl title in New Orleans earlier this month.
”A guy like Ray Lewis, you send him off properly — press conferences, all that stuff,” Birk said. “Guys like me, I just disappear, and then you’re sitting around one day wondering, ‘Hey, whatever happened to that guy whose locker used to be over here?’ That’s how it goes.”
Don't let Birk's self-deprecation fool you. He was definitely noticed and widely respected in the locker room.
Birk, 36, was a veteran mentor for many young players, but particularly for linemen such as rookies Kelechi Osemele and Gino Gradkowski. It is Gradkowski, a fourth-round pick by the Ravens last season, who will become the early favorite to take Birk's place as the Ravens starting center.
Birk's retirement frees up about $2 million in salary cap space for the Ravens.
Birk was the 173rd player taken in the 1998 draft, selected by the Vikings in the sixth round. He told the Baltimore Sun that "my first two years, I was just fighting to prove I belonged as a backup."
He became a starter with the Vikings in 2000, and started every game for four straight seasons. He missed the entire 2005 season because of sports hernia, but started every game since, three seasons in Minnesota and four in Baltimore.
A father of six, Birk is one of the Ravens' most active players in the community. He was named the 2011 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year, which recognizes community service contributions as well as play on the field.
Birk said he wanted to make his retirement announcement at a school because he loves working with kids. He announced that he will build the Larry Brown Reading Oasis at Battle Grove Elementary.
"I've enjoyed playing football," Birk said at his retirement announcement. "But as much as playing football I've enjoyed doing this (community service with kids.)"