While Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis marched loudly toward retirement with all the attention befitting a superstar, one of his teammates quietly hung up his helmet after the Ravens won the Super Bowl. Center Matt Birk announced his retirement on Friday after 15 seasons in the National Football League.
Instead of holding a press conference, the 36-year-old Birk announced his decision to a classroom full of students at Baltimore's Battle Grove Elementary School. The gesture symbolized his career-long commitment to the community.
"To cap it with a Super Bowl win, that's a great thing," Birk said. "But, regardless of that, had that not happened, it would have still been a fantastic experience and one that I would have been very thankful and grateful for."
Birk, a father of six, was selected to six Pro Bowls and won the 2011 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, which honors one player each year for his community service. Drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the sixth round of the 1998 NFL draft, Birk spent 11 seasons in Minnesota and four in Baltimore.
"I just followed my heart," Birk said. He "waited a couple of weeks" for the Super Bowl victory to settle and "kept coming back to this is the right decision for me and my family."
Birk's visit to elementary school was on behalf of his "Ready, Set, Read!" program that encourages children to read at home.
"My name is Matt. I play for the Ravens. Did you hear that the Ravens won the Super Bowl? It was good stuff, right?" Birk joked with the fifth-grade students.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said this season had been Birk's best in Baltimore: "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."
Birk, a devout Catholic, was willing to speak out on important social issues throughout his career. Last October, he publicly opposed same-sex "marriage," writing an editorial for the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune and creating a video for the Minnesota Catholic Conference in support of the Minnesota Marriage Protection Amendment (see below).
"Our culture today of moral relativism attacks marriage and a lot of our Catholic values," Birk said in the video. "But marriage is a foundation of our society and it's definitely something worth fighting for, my marriage and the institution of marriage itself."
Birk, who also participated in pro-life marches and spoke at right-to-life rallies, told The Catholic Review, "I don't think I'm a superstar by any means. But I'm glad [for] the platform that football allows me. I'm glad to use it to support causes that I passionately believe in and this is one of them. For me, it comes down to what's right and what's wrong-what's God's will and what's not."
Birk was not the only athlete to call it quits in the past few days.
Fauja Singh, the world's oldest marathon runner, finished his last race on Sunday at the age of 101. Singh completed the Hong Kong quarter-marathon (6.25 miles) in 1 hour, 32 minutes, 28 seconds.
"I am feeling a bit of happiness and a bit of sadness mixed together," Singh said in a pre-race interview, according to ESPN. "I am happy that I am retiring at the top of the game, but I am sad that the time has come for me to not be part of it."
Nicknamed the "Turbaned Torpedo," Singh became the oldest man to run a full marathon in 2011. Guinness World Records refused to recognize the feat because the Indian-born runner does not have a birth certificate. Singh does have a British passport that marks his birth date as April 1, 1911.
Singh began to run marathons at age 89 after the death of his wife and one of his sons in India. His son's death in a grisly accident on his farm hit Singh especially hard and sent him spiraling into depression. Marathon running, Singh said, allowed him to find new purpose in his life: "From a tragedy has come a lot of success and happiness."