Flashback Friday – Matt Birk, Unexpected Draft Phenom

Jan 9, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; A general view of U.S. Bank Stadium before the game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

When the Minnesota Vikings drafted center Matt Birk in the 6th round of the 1998 draft, they hoped he would be a solid addition. What they got was a perennial Pro Bowler that remained the anchor of their offense for almost a decade.

From Minnesota to Harvard and Back Again

Birk grew up in Minnesota and was a lifelong Vikings fan. He has recounted how, as a child, he would pretend to be Tommy Kramer playing football in his backyard. When Birk got the call that he was being drafted by the Vikings it was a dream come true. 

Birk played offensive line at Harvard. He was the first Crimson lineman to be drafted to the NFL since 1985. While he had won some honors playing – All-Ivy League, All-New England, and Division 1-AA All ECAC – he was still playing Ivy League football. He entered the draft ranked 16th among available offensive linemen. The consensus was that he was a solid player but not likely to excel at the pro level.

Hometown Hero

Birk was drafted the same year as another very famous and, at the time, controversial Viking, Randy Moss. In interviews given after the draft, Birk expressed excitement over getting to play with someone of his caliber. Normally drafting a player from Harvard would be a bit of a novelty and garner some attention. However, any attention Birk would have received at camp was overshadowed by the talented Moss. 

Birk spent his first two seasons in Minnesota on the bench as a backup lineman learning the position. In 2000, he was awarded the starting center position. He played all 16 games and was named to his first Pro Bowl. Birk went on to start 16 games a season from 2000-03. In 2004, he missed the last 4 games of the season with a hernia and in 2005, he had hip surgery and missed the season.

Birk became a leader on the Vikings offense and was considered one of the best centers in the league. He was a solid, consistent, and dependable player. During his 11 seasons with the Vikings, he was named to 6 Pro Bowls (2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2007) and was a 2-time All-Pro (2000 & 2003). His 6 Pro Bowls tied him for a franchise record with Mick Tingelhoff, for the most by a Viking center. Birk helped 3 running backs rush for 1,000-yard seasons – Michael Bennett, Chester Taylor, and Adrian Peterson (twice). Birk was also an exceptional pass blocker; during his career, he rarely gave up a sack. 

Hardwork and Kindness Pays Off

Birk was loved by his teammates and by Vikings fans. No one questioned the hard work he put in and the dedication he displayed toward improving his craft. When he was still at Harvard he wanted to get stronger and hone his craft. He listened to his trainers and put almost 80 lbs on his 6’5’ frame going from 235 lbs to 310 lbs. This not only made him tougher, but it also gave him the size he needed to line up in the NFL. 

He was not just known for his toughness but also his huge heart. The people of Minnesota matter to him and he did as much off the field as he did on the field to help those in need. He was named the Minnesota Man of the Year 6 years in a row. In addition, he was the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2011. 

The End of an Era

Sadly at the end of the 2007 season, Matt Birk was feeling underappreciated by the Vikings. He saw many of his teammates signing huge contracts and was frustrated. He sat out during offseason practices as a way of voicing his displeasure and it showed in his performance in 2008. Despite the Vikings offering him a contract extension, he entered free agency. He was signed by the Baltimore Ravens, played for them for 4 years. Birk finally won a Super Bowl with the 2012 Ravens team. 

Despite the friction, in the end, Minnesota fondly remembers Birk, who has been considered for the Hall of Fame. If he is inducted he will be the only player from Harvard in the NFL HOF. Birk will always be a Viking at heart and is still giving back to Minnesota.

Matt Birk is proof that great things can come from unexpected places and that late-round draft picks can make all the difference.

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