In my latest piece for The Tidings, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, I profile former Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens player Matt Birk, a Harvard economics grad, husband, father and Catholic revert. He was also recently named the head of football development for the NFL, based in New York.
What he has to say about the Faith — and football — is impressive and inspiring.
Here’s a taste:
“The NFL team,” he said, “it’s probably the most spiritual workplace in America. Every team I was on had a team chaplain who was available almost all the time, had an office there; the door was open. We had player Bible studies Monday; had a couple Bible studies during the week; had fellowship service and Catholic Mass Saturday night or Sunday morning. Where else are you encouraged to grow like that in your faith?
“If you’re feeling a calling, you have an outlet there to nurture that. The culture of football is very spiritual; I don’t think most people realize that.”
According to Birk, this spirituality — whether or not all players share it, or express it in the same way — is baked into the football cake.
“I’ve always said football’s a very spiritual game,” he said. “The game will bring you to your knees, so you might as well start there. It’s just because football’s so difficult, and the highs are high, and the lows are very low, and it’s so much work and grinding and dedication.
“You have to have a spiritual experience or awakening while you’re doing it. You just have to, otherwise it’s like you’re not even alive. Football brought me back to my faith.”
“I fell away from the faith hard all through college and then the first couple years in the NFL — what a waste.
“I try to communicate to young people, ‘Don’t waste time in your life. You’re never going to regret going to confession or saying the rosary, but you’re going to regret not doing it.’ Better late than never. I look at it as God’s trying to use me, use my story, so hopefully other people won’t make the mistakes I did.”
Click here to read the rest.
And here are a few quotes that didn’t make it into the story:
On Ravens kicker — and Catholic — Justin Tucker (who makes the Sign of the Cross before every kick):
Justin’s great. At his age to be devout like that is wonderful. He’s a kicker so he’s a little different, but not different in a bad way. It’s just, you got to understand that kickers are a little different. He embraces his originality, and embraces his Catholic faith.
On Benjamin Watson of the New Orleans Saints, an outspoken Christian, and also on his fellow Ravens:
Oh yeah. I always think Ben is a fantastic man. I look up to him, I’ve met him a few times, spent a little bit of time with him. There’s lots of guys like that in our league. They don’t get the attention that they should, due to the imbalance out there. The media’s going to focus on a lot of the bad stories.
I don’t want to blame the media, I’ll blame society, that’s what society wants. For some reason, part of us as human beings, we like to see people fail. That’s probably our own insecurities coming through. Ben Watson’s extraordinary.
… I was lucky to play on, especially the Ravens with Coach Harbaugh. We felt like as a team, I know our job was to win the Super Bowl, but we all felt like we had a higher calling, a lot of guys on that team did. It was a very spiritual team, guys that I’m honored to call teammates, and to stand next to them, and just be associated with them. Like I said, it surprises some people, but I got to live it for fifteen years.
On fellow former Raven Ray Rice, disgraced after a domestic-abuse incident with his then-fiance, now-wife (and who’s trying for a comeback)
People ask me is Ray Rice is a good guy? I say, “No, Ray Rice is a great guy.” Ray Rice made a bad decision, one that you can’t defend or excuse. I don’t want to be judged by the worst five seconds of my life either. … I think a lot of people want to blame football for it, it’s not the case.
On the future of football:
A lot of it is just really understanding totally what football is. I don’t look at football as a sport at all, really. Primarily that’s not how I see it. I see it more as an institution, and the institution that makes people better, and it brings families and communities together. At the core there’s those two things, and if that’s not happening then why are we playing? Right? You don’t just play just to play. It’s too hard of a sport to just play as a sport, it’s much more than that.
On the similarities between the bonds of football players and those of soldiers:
It rivals the military, but obviously the stakes are higher there. Over the years, I’ve met a lot of soldiers and when they tell us how much they respect and appreciate what we do, it’s like, “Are you kidding? It pales in comparison to what you guys sacrifice and what you guys put on the line, what you guys actually accomplish.” I think that says a lot when people in the military talk about that they admire what you do. That saying something, high praise.
On what Birk has to say to young people to bring them back to the Faith:
For me, the framework that the faith provides allows me to be my best, be the best version of myself, or just to live my best life. [Using] a football metaphor, you have all this discipline and structure in place to help you perform at the highest level on the field. I feel like the Faith and all these rules, rules, if you want to call them that, but all these guidelines help you to perform your best, your best in life.
We’re ultimately here to live the life that God intended us to. We might not know what that is, but we do know that it’s in direct conflict with what our culture tells us we should be in it for. God calls us to be in this world, but we’re not of this world. The faith helps me keep that perspective and that balance. I’ve been on both sides, right, I fell away and I’ve been on fire.
Image: Wikimedia Commons