Matt Birk turned down a Wall Street job out of Harvard University to play in the National Football League, a career move that paid off in a Super Bowl berth with the Baltimore Ravens 15 years later.
Birk, an economics major, had a summer internship with Prudential Securities Inc. after his junior year at Harvard and was offered a job upon graduation.
A sixth-round NFL draft pick, the center has gone on to six Pro Bowl selections and has started every regular-season game since the 2006 season. The Ravens play the San Francisco 49ers for the NFL championship in New Orleans in two days.
“I don’t think deep down I was Wall Street material,” Birk said last week in an interview. “I have six kids now and I’m not looking to work 100-hour weeks and sit in front of a computer.”
Birk, 36, was focused on Wall Street before scouts started showing up on Harvard’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and saying he had a chance to play at football’s highest level.
“It was just a unique opportunity; it’s not like you can put it off,” Birk said. “Wall Street would always be there when it didn’t work out. Maybe I’d delay the real world for six months; I didn’t expect to play football for 15 years.”
The 6-foot-4, 310-pound native of St. Paul, Minnesota, was taken by the Minnesota Vikings with the 173rd pick in the 1998 draft. He played with the Vikings through 2008 and signed with the Ravens as a free agent in March 2009.
Birk didn’t play football until his sophomore year at Cretin-Derham Hall High School, a private Catholic institution of 1,300 students in St. Paul.
“He fancied himself a basketball player,” Mel Scanlan, 70, Birk’s high school football coach, said in a telephone interview. Scanlan said he began calling Birk “Doc” after he injured his ankle during junior year.
“He tweaked his ankle,” Scanlan said. “He gave me a medical analysis. I said, ‘I just asked you how your damn ankle was, and not for an orthopedic description.’”
Birk said he chose Harvard over other Ivy League schools and service academies that recruited him. Coach Tim Murphy, who started with the Crimson the same year as Birk, is still Harvard’s coach.
“Before he got there, football was more recreational, intramural, just something to do,” Birk said. “He came there and was running it like a Division I-A scholarship program. He expected guys to be serious about football.”
Harvard won the Ivy League title with a 9-1 record in Birk’s senior year. Murphy encouraged him to take the next step, saying Birk improved more in his four years “more than any other player I have ever been around.”
“Once he became passionate about football, he was relentless in his pursuit of making it in the NFL,” Murphy, 56, said in an e-mail.
Isaiah Kacyvenski, who as a linebacker with the Seattle Seahawks in 2006 was the last Harvard player before Birk to reach the Super Bowl, had a locker next to the offensive lineman during his freshman year with the Crimson. Birk was then a junior.
“I come in as a freshman, red hair, reverse mullet, felt like I shouldn’t even be there,” Kacyvenski said in a telephone interview. “I’m asking a ton of questions like, ‘Where do I get my playbook?’”
By the second day, Birk had heard enough.
“Isaiah is a pretty energetic guy with a great attitude,” Birk said. “Always really happy, he would come in there bouncing. Being older and a little more calloused, I needed to put a stop to it.”
Birk told Kacyvenski he was restricting the number of questions he could ask and placed a piece of sports tape on his locker. When Kacyvenski asked him “What do you mean?” Birk made a tick on the tape and said, “That’s your first question.”
Kacyvenski, 35, director of sports business at the biomedical technology company MC10 Inc. in Cambridge, said Birk would have succeeded at whatever he chose.
“He will go down as the best player in Harvard history, bar none,” Kacyvenski said. “It’s going to be hard for anyone to match what he has done. Matt is an unbelievably intelligent individual.”
Kacyvenski said he and Birk have played down their Harvard degrees in the NFL.
“It was like the scarlet letter,” Kacyvenski said. “It’s like your street cred is lowered a little.”
Murphy joined Birk, Kacyvenski and another Crimson alumnus, Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, for dinner seven years ago. The coach arrived with Harvard sweatshirts and pants.
“You would have thought I was giving them keys to a Mercedes,” Murphy said. “The point is Matt, and for that matter Fitzy and Isaiah, were the exact same humble, unpretentious, genuine kids that they were when I recruited them out of high school. Matt Birk has never forgotten where he came from. He is extremely loyal, he is class.”
Birk said he hasn’t decided if the Super Bowl will be his last game. After retirement, he’ll continue the charity work that earned him the 2011 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
Wall Street isn’t in his plans.
“This is as dressed up as I get,” he said, sporting a Superman T-shirt and sweatpants. “I’m a pretty simple guy when it comes down to it. I enjoy the peace and quiet of outside — the simple life more than the hustle-bustle of the big city. I might be a professional fisherman.”
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