Matt Birk played 15 seasons in the NFL and took countless hits to the head in the rough-and-tumble trenches.
He wouldn’t take back any of them – no matter what happens to his body down the road.
As of last week, Birk hadn’t yet watched PBS’s documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”
He knows about it, and the work that has been done. But it’s not going to change his mind.
“I knew in high school before I read any studies that football wasn’t good for my head,” Birk said. “I don’t need a doctor to tell me that.”
It’s not that Birk doesn’t trust the doctors’ research claiming that repeated hits to the head in football can eventually lead to a neurological degenerative disease called Chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other problems. He does believe them.
But even if he knew all that long ago, he would have still suited up.
“If I was in my second year in the NFL and all these studies came out and said you’re at higher risk for CTE or ALS or Alzheimer’s by playing football, I would have just filed that away and kept playing,” Birk said. “We’re all called to do something in our lives. You’ve got to live your life.”
Birk is no brute, and he’s not ignoring the issue.
In 2009, the Harvard graduate pledged to donate his brain and spinal cord tissues after his [add] death to the Boston University medical school program that studies sports brain injuries. It’s the same program featured in the PBS documentary.
But Birk isn’t scared of what medical problems may lie ahead.
“Maybe it’s because I don’t have a choice, but I can tell you right now that whatever hand I’m dealt later on, I’m good with that,” he said. “I wouldn’t change it.
“To be able to make a living for 15 years playing professional football … the feelings you experience doing that, you can’t get that at other jobs. It’s more than just a job. In a lot of ways it was life.”
The documentary aims to leave the viewer questioning whether they should play football or allow their children to do the same. It questions the future of the game.
A devoted family man with three sons (and three daughters), Birk said he would let his kids play. At least once they’re in high school and have given their brains more time to develop.
“I’ll definitely let them play because it is one helluva game,” he said. “It’s a great game that teaches a lot of young people great things.”
Birk is also now in charge of enforcing the NFL’s player safety rules.
This summer, he accepted a position to replace Art Shell as one of the league’s two appeals officers. He joined former player and longtime coach Ted Cottrell in the role.
Birk got an early test on the job oddly enough from the player that replaced him, Ravens center
Birk laughed when asked if he gives Ravens players preferential treatment and said, “absolutely not.”
“I feel like it’s an important job,” Birk said. “You’re involved with the rules of the game and interpreting the rules. I thought it would be a way for me to make a positive contribution to the game and the league that I love. I’m honored to do it and I’m really enjoying it.”