Matt Birk, the former NFL center, is being urged to run for high office.
Almost from the moment he won a Super Bowl ring in February, retired and then lost 60 pounds, the tugging to get Matt Birk’s attention began.
There were the requests to be a motivational speaker — he recently spoke at 3M — along with guest appearances as an analyst for the NFL Network. There was the meeting last month in New York with the NFL, including Commissioner Roger Goodell, about Birk’s interest in helping down-and-out former players. The next day, there was a meeting with Eduardo Gonzalez, a sixth-grader whom Birk is sponsoring at the faith-based Hope Academy in south Minneapolis.
And there was no shortage of high-profile cheerleaders who saw Birk, a former Pro Bowl player for the Vikings and Baltimore Ravens, as a budding political candidate.
“Politics today, in our country, is nonsense. Matt is common sense,” said Mike Ditka, the legendary former Chicago Bears coach. “What you see is real. There’s substance there.
“His politics is the same as mine — I’m conservative,” said Ditka, who chairs the Chicago-based Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, which helps former players. Birk, a friend, is a member of the five-man board. “Bypass the preliminaries,” Ditka added. “Go right to the White House. Go for the presidency.”
While Birk is not yet jumping into any political ring — and, in fact, is moving his family to Florida for the coming school year — he said there have been plenty of knocks on his door since he retired and returned to Minnesota.
“Kind of the whole gamut,” said Birk, describing the offices that prominent Republicans are urging him to consider. “Governor, [U.S.] senator.”
He declined comment on reports that he met with the Republican National Senatorial Committee.
“The term ‘public servant’ — that’s appealing to me,” he added, however. “There is something about the idea I still find romantic.”
What happens next remains a mystery.
Birk said Thursday that he “should have some clarity on my short-term future next week,” and said it would not, for now, involve politics.
But Birk is not backing away from adding to the intrigue surrounding a possible political career.
He made national headlines last month when he declined to go to the White House with his teammates from the Super Bowl champion Ravens because of his disagreement with President Obama over Planned Parenthood and abortion. The move came after Birk also took a high-profile stance against the same-sex marriage amendment in Minnesota.
“Birk actually has bitten on it [politics],” said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin, who said Republicans still seem to be trying to get Birk to run sooner than later. “He’s met with people, clearly. He’s talked about it, and he’s actively engaged in trying to plot out his political future.”
With the Republican challengers short on name recognition in the campaign to unseat U.S. Senator Al Franken, a Democrat, former state Republican Party Chair Pat Shortridge said there are those hoping Birk will reconsider.
“In politics, you always want to hear people say, ‘No, absolutely not, under no circumstances.’ And then you want to see them repeat it publicly about five times.
“Until they’ve absolutely, positively ruled it out, you don’t want to leave a potentially good candidate on the sidelines,” he said.
Replied Birk, who turns 37 on Tuesday and played at 6-4, 300 pounds last season: “I just did 15 years in the NFL. I need a little rest.”
At an annual dinner last month in St. Paul for Prenatal Partners For Life, a support group for expectant parents of handicapped infants, Birk was greeted as a conquering hero. A young man wearing a priest’s collar — the event was held at the University of St. Thomas — called out to Birk that “you’re an inspiration to all of us.” Moments later, Birk told one small group at a VIP reception — he was the dinner’s featured speaker — that “stress is playing football. There’s no stress in speaking out.”
Mary Kellett, the group’s founder, was impressed. “He’d be great” as an elected official, she said. “Other people want him to” run.
Birk clearly already is connected. His charity, the HIKE Foundation, helps disadvantaged children and has an executive board that includes the senior house counsel for Under Armour, the chief financial officer for the Ravens, and a senior director and regional general manager for Walmart.
Back in Minnesota, Birk recently gave the commencement address at Providence Academy, the Catholic high school in Plymouth whose founding board members include Bill Cooper, the TCF Bank head and a former state Republican Party chair.
In bypassing the 2014 elections, some political strategists believe Birk may be missing an opportunity because DFLers Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton were elected in Minnesota only after hotly contested recounts. Although other Minnesota sports celebrities have been mentioned as possible political candidates — former Twins catcher Tim Laudner and TV analyst Michele Tafoya, being two — Birk continues to draw interest because he defies stereotyping.
He is a graduate of Harvard University with a degree in economics, and wears a Crimson football tattoo on his left leg. He plans to donate his brain to science because of his concerns over football concussions, and he does not wear his Super Bowl ring regularly, telling one person recently that it was big and “obnoxious.”
Despite finishing his pro football career with the Ravens, Birk has strong Minnesota ties. He attended Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul and, after a decade-long career as a dominant Vikings lineman, was voted one of the 50 greatest players in Vikings history. He is also a board member at the Wakota LifeCare Center in West St. Paul, a pregnancy resource facility whose services include “educational counseling on abortion and alternatives.”
There is also Birk’s disarming personality, and dry wit.
“What’s your name, again?” a student at Hope Academy asked Birk during his recent visit there. “Me? Ray Lewis,” replied Birk, referring to his former high-profile Ravens teammate.
For now, Birk has been busy home schooling his children — he has six, the oldest just 10 — and has all of their names tattooed on his arm.
“These guys are home-schooled, right now,” Birk said, pointing to his daughters, Sydney, 8, and Madison, 10, who accompanied him on a visit last week to Hope Academy. “Heavy reading — heavy, heavy reading.” Later, Birk downplayed his commitment to home schooling, saying “it was more out of convenience for us [because it fit] our lifestyle.”
Both Birk and the NFL, meanwhile, are coy on what role he may have with the league.
“We have great admiration for Matt and have always valued his leadership in the locker room and on and off the field,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an e-mail. “He would be a great asset to the game, players and the NFL in any capacity.”
After listening to Birk at the Prenatal Partners for Life dinner and elsewhere, Gretchen Thibault, of Shoreview, said she quickly became a fan.
“I just thought, ‘Man, this guy should be running for office. He’s just got what it takes,’ ” said Thibault, a mother of nine who adopted three children with Down syndrome.
A few days later at Hope Academy, Birk listened as Dan Olson, the director of development and operations, explained the school’s academics-first philosophy. “Sports — we always want them to be completely secondary,” Olson said.
“Absolutely,” said Birk, nodding.
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