As the Ravens prepare for their 2009 campaign, hopes and expectations are raging high. After spending nearly a month away at camp, going through another preseason schedule, and finally exhaling from the collective breath that is roster cut down day – it's time to restore some sense of normalcy into the daily lives of those enlisted in the NFL.
This league employs players who are dedicated for a varying array of reasons – which undoubtedly come back to their love and passion for the game. But as the Ravens move forward and push to exceed last year's storied season, not far from thought are the loved ones who collectively wish for the daily well-being of their fathers, husbands and brothers.
In a roster spanning 22-35 years of age, the demands of an NFL lifestyle have differing effects. The Ravens are partly made-up of young, single athletes who strive daily to establish a long career in the league. The remaining are veterans, who continue to work for financial stability as a means to provide for their wives and kids. To their families, they aren't the NFL superstars that the world casts in its brightest light. To them, these guys are simply known as 'dad.'
For Ravens center Matt Birk, he is one who admittedly has turned to the back nine of his playing days. With his wife, Adrianna, and four children at home, the 33-year old Birk has enjoyed a very successful 12-year NFL career. It has not only fulfilled his passion to be a part of the game, but also the daily needs of the family who supports him.
"Truthfully, I think my playing is more selfish than anything at this point, but my family is great about it," Birk explains.
"My wife supports me, and she's willing to sacrifice for a little while longer. I figure that if she's willing to make the sacrifice, then I owe it to her to take advantage of the opportunity to play football. I really do feel like it is a blessing to play football for a living. It's winding down for me, so it's my last shot to really do this and enjoy it."
A native of Minnesota, the six-time Pro Bowler spent 11 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings before moving his family to Baltimore this offseason. He will embark on a new chapter in his NFL career as his family adjusts to living in a new city. For his four young children, Minnesota is all they have ever known. But Birk remains excited for his next endeavor, and optimistic that his family will adjust.
"The move has been pretty good on our family," Birk states. "The people have been great out here and we've met some great people in the organization and on the team. There are great people in the community, too. There have certainly been some bumps in the road just with the kids and them having to leave the only place that they've known back in Minnesota, but in the long run I think it will be good for them. And good for us as a family. I think this will eventually bring us closer together," he added.
While Birk adjusts to his new teammates and a new town, other players are adjusting to a new outlook on life with the arrival of their first little ones.
Ravens LS Matt Katula recently entered his first training camp with baby daughter, Lillian, and wife, Allison, waiting in the wings. Although fatherhood isn't completely brand new to Katula (whose daughter just turned 1), he certainly endured an adjustment period being away from his family for an extended time.
"This year, camp was a lot harder," Katula declares. "I love my wife, and when you have a child it's different. Having a little baby now, she wasn't able to come up as much; the baby had to sleep. You miss the family, and you realize how important family is when you're up there.
"Before we had a baby she was up there a ton. She was pregnant, but we didn't have any baggage at home; no dog, nothing. So, I'm there, she's here. It's a lot less seeing her, and it was the first time in five years that I hadn't seen her almost every day, so it was tough."
But Katula realizes that despite the missed time with his wife and infant daughter, he has an obligation to provide for his family. And while the time commitments needed for an NFL season remain difficult, he continues to pursue his goals for a much greater good.
"My family is why I play football," Katula asserts. "Family is probably why 95 percent of the people that are out here do this. For me, that's always been the case. I've always wanted to support my wife and just make sure she's happy. Now with the baby, you've got college to pay for in 18 years, and you want to hang onto playing football as long as possible."
As Katula continues to perfect his coveted trade as an NFL long snapper, Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is working hard to establish himself as one of the premier lineman in the NFL this season. In fact, FoxSports.com's Adam Schein recently predicted Ngata to finish as the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
With Ngata's expectations peaking on the football field, he is just now opening his eyes to the expectations of being a father. And at 26 years old, he still approaches the game with a hunger for improvement, despite the newest addition to his family.
Soloman "Sam" Ngata was just born nearly three months ago, on June 15, and is the first child for Haloti and wife, Christine. A 6-foot-4, 345-pound warrior on the defensive line, Ngata melts when holding his first son in his massive arms.
As with the others, Ngata sometimes struggles with not being around as much as he would like to help out with his baby. And while being away at camp was certainly a difficult time for the Ngata family, it becomes even more so as he prepares to put his body on the line for the Raven logo.
But perhaps more amazing than the sacrifices made by the players, are those made by their wives and family at home. Thankfully, these NFL spouses seem to have a great understanding that what their husbands do will be particularly helpful in the long run.
"My wife definitely still supports me and my playing career," Ngata explains. "She knows that what I'm doing is going to help our family out, and she feels blessed that I am able to be here and play this wonderful sport of football."
In the always changing world of professional sports, it's refreshing to see that family remains a top priority to many athletes. In a world where national publicity is too often reported for all the wrong reasons, it's nice to take a step back and realize that many of these guys are just regular, caring people.
These players bust their tails for 365 days a year, not only to be the best Ravens they can be, but to be the best dads, husbands and brothers that they can be. In a career filled with uncertainly, with the realization that life can change with one snap of the football, these Pro Bowl dads take nothing for granted.
"I'm just thankful that God blessed me with the opportunity to have a son," Ngata says. "I feel so blessed that God has trusted me with someone to raise and bring up in this world. It's just amazing."