FARIBAULT — Minnesota-native and former Vikings offensive lineman Matt Birk told students Wednesday how important it is to place sports in proper perspective, noting that his Catholic faith rescued him from a personal malaise early in his professional career.
Birk is the ambassador for “4 His Glory,” a Catholic Schools Center of Excellence initiative to reclaim the pure joy of youth athletic programs, particularly at the K-8 level in Catholic schools, said Kris Sauer, director of admissions at Faribault’s Bethlehem Academy. “We lose a lot of students” as they age because sports “are not fun anymore.”
“Sports can be pretty serious,” even at the youth level, but “they shouldn’t be that serious,” said Birk, a Harvard graduate who spent a decade with the Vikings before concluding his career with Baltimore, winning a Super Bowl with the Ravens. Sports ought to be fun, he said, a chance to spend time with friends, an opportunity to learn the virtues of determined work, “how to handle success, and how to handle failure.”
“Sports were a big part of my childhood, how I socialized, how I was accepted into the group,” said Birk, adding, however, that “we’ve made it too much about the results.”
Birk, who is heavily-involved in youth coaching, has eight children of his own.
Sports “should be about doing your best, not who is the best,” he said, and Birk found peace in the “super stressful” NFL by concentrating on delivering his maximum effort, rather than living and dying with final game results.
Birk, a six-time Pro Bowler in the NFL, is “obviously passionate about youth sports,” so he was an ideal candidate to deliver Tuesday’s message inside the Bethlehem Academy gym, Sauer said. In addition to the 275 or so students in grades 6-12 at Bethlehem Academy, roughly 80 students in grades seven and eight from St. Mary’s School in Owatonna were also in attendance Tuesday, as were eighth graders from Northfield’s St. Dominic School, some B.A. coaches, and Faribault community members; Birk also spoke at Divine Mercy Catholic School next door to B.A. Tuesday morning.
Birk, who was the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award winner in 2011, is “committed to supporting and helping youth,” said Dr. Chuck Briscoe, Bethlehem Academy’s principal. He also embodies how to “live your faith in 2018.”
“It’s hard to be a Catholic” in this era, but “the road to happiness is not to do whatever you want whenever you want,” Birk said. In fact, that’s “the road to despair.”
Growing up, Birk believed he’d be “100 percent happy” if he made the NFL, but that turned out not to be true, he said. “I had a hole inside of me that was big and vast,” because he’d drifted away from the Catholic faith in which he’d been raised by devout parents in St. Paul.
After never missing Mass with his family, he started skipping Sunday services as soon as he left Minnesota for Harvard, he said. Exhausted from football and academics throughout the week, Sunday was his “day off,” and he enjoyed his “freedom,” feeling less guilty about missing worship with each successive week.
In mid-October, his mother flew out for a visit, and he lied to her about church attendance, he said. She “busted” him because the house of worship he told her he attended on Sunday wasn’t Catholic, nor did it conduct services on Sunday, but “I was 18, and I could do whatever I wanted.”
Following graduation and a selection in the draft by the Vikings, Birk thought “I was crushing it,” as everyone told him he was “awesome,” but “my whole life was about me,” he said. He was “only looking out for number one.”
Despite the fame and fortune courtesy of football, “I was sad, not happy,” he said. Fortunately, he met his eventual wife, who “dragged” him back to church, and “it all started making sense again.”
He’d been away from worship for eight years, so “it was scary,” at first, but then “like coming home again,” he said. Just as professional athletes practice drills daily, or a musicians practice their instruments, Catholics “need to practice” their faith routinely through Mass and the sacraments.
If students remember “only two things” from Birk’s speech Tuesday, those lessons ought to be that Catholic faith teaches “you who you are and why you’re here,” he said. “God made you, and you’re here to know, love, and serve God.”