A Conversation With Matt Birk


Believe it or not, this dopey blog actually scored an interview with a player.  And not just any player either.  We got an interview with Matt Birk.  Yes, the same Matt Birk who has been playing center for the Vikings for a decade.  Who has made the Pro Bowl six times and been named All-Pro twice.  Who famously took on Randy Moss (verbally) when Randy wasn’t putting the team first.  Who, as we all remember, went to Harvard.

You might think that I, a humble low-paid blogger, would be intimidated to converse with a multi-million-dollar pro athlete.  And you would be right.  But, brave fellow that I am, I put aside my terror and agreed to conduct the interview.  I waited in front of my humble blogger’s computer in my humble blogger’s chair for my humble blogger’s cell phone to ring, per the arrangement we had set up the day before.  Right at 10:45 the phone rang.  I answered.  “Hey, it’s Matt Birk,” said the voice on the line.  Yup, it sure was.

My bladder still holding, I edged into the pre-interview small talk.  Matt didn’t recognize my area code.  I told him it was a Wisconsin area code and he asked me whereabouts in Wisconsin I reside.  I told him I was up in Ashland, on the shores of Lake Superior.  “You’re way up there,” he said.  I assured him I was indeed, and that it was already getting cold.  We then commenced discussing Monday night’s game with the Saints.  “Crazy game,” I said.

“Lots of big plays,” he agreed.  I mentioned Bud Grant‘s famous statement that football is all about turnovers and big plays.  “The numbers don’t lie,” Matt replied.  “You look at teams that win the turnover battle, win the big play battle, they normally win the game.”

And no one made more big plays Monday night than Antoine Winfield.

“He was huge,” Birk raved.  “Absolutely huge.  Antoine’s a special kind of player.  He’s always in the right spot at the right time.  He’s just one of those guys.”

“A little guy,” I quipped.

“He plays big though,” Matt said.

And another guy who played big Monday night was Bernard Berrian, who scored the late game-tying touchdown on a bizarre semi-blown play that featured both him and Aundrae Allison running to the post.  Brad Childress said afterward that Allison ran the wrong route.  Berrian disagreed, saying it was his fault.  I asked Matt to clear up the controversy and tell us which receiver had so fortuitously messed up the play.

“I don’t know if anybody messed it up,” Matt chuckled.  “We scored.”  I had to agree.  “I don’t think it was designed to have two guys running to the same spot,” Birk then conceded.  “It was a great play by Gus.  He saw that they were bringing everybody.  He held the ball long enough, he put some air under it.  That’s what you need guys to do.  When you get single coverage like that, to go get the ball.  Bernard did that.”

It wasn’t the only great play Gus Frerotte made Monday night.  He did struggle for much of the contest though – until getting his bell rung in the fourth quarter, just before the Berrian catch.  I said to Matt I thought it was a Favrian moment for Gus, taking a shot and coming back stronger.

“He plays better when he’s a little dizzy maybe,” Birk laughed.  “On the play he got hit on, it’s one of those plays, it was courageous on his part.  He knew he was gonna get walloped.  He stood in there long enough for the receiver to get open, put some air under it.  It was a huge play.  That’s what Gus does.  I think he likes to throw it down the field, give the receivers a chance to make plays.  Certainly, that was huge last night.  They did a great job against the run.  If we were gonna beat them it was going to be with the passing game.  Everybody stepped up.”

Particularly Frerotte.  I told Matt I thought the offense really rallied around Gus.

“Gus is a great leader from the standpoint that he’s got credibility,” he agreed.  “He’s been around for so long and been in so many situations.  He’s seen it all, done it all.  He’s a fighter; he’s a survivor.  That gives him credibility and respect with the guys.  And he can play.  It certainly gives us a nice boost.  Hopefully we can continue to develop that balance between the running game and the passing game.  That’s when any offense is at its best, when you can have that threat of being able to do both.  That’s what we strive for, to have that balance, and move the chains.”

Unfortunately, the Vikings sometimes have problems moving the chains.  Many have chalked the offensive difficulties up to predictable playcalling.  I asked Matt about the team’s reputation for playing vanilla offense.

“I don’t know,” he said haltingly.  “We might not be The Greatest Show on Turf, but it’s all about – what we’re trying to do – we are a running team first.  We’re going to try to pound the ball.  That’s what we’re made to do.  But if teams are hell-bent on taking that away, you’ve got to hurt them in the running game.  Last night what you saw, was us trying to take advantage of that.  Throwing a lot of deep balls and trying to really hurt them.  To be explosive in the passing game is great.  Hopefully we can continue to do that if teams are going to load the box and try to take away our running game.”

The Saints were indeed successful at stifling the Vikings’ running game – they allowed Adrian Peterson only 32 yards on 21 carries, his worst game of the year by far.  I asked Matt why the Saints were so good against the run – was it just them flooding the box or was the blocking not up to snuff?

“I haven’t seen the film,” Matt said, “but yeah, it seemed like there were extra guys down there.  You know, it’s no secret what we’re gonna try to do.  You tip your hat to them.   They did a good job shutting down our running game.  But, good teams find another way to win, and that’s what we did last night.   We found a way to get a victory, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Squeaking out a win under bizarre circumstances is all great, but if the Vikings hope to have continued success, they clearly need more production out of Adrian Peterson.  He is a true superstar talent.  I asked Birk to talk about AD, the man who took the NFL by storm and vaulted the Vikings back into the national spotlight.

“He’s very good,” Matt said, understating things slightly.  “The great thing about him is that nobody outworks him.  They call him ‘All Day’ cause that’s what he is.  He’s a hard-nosed, hard-running guy.  He doesn’t ever just go half-speed or three-quarters speed.  He’s full-go all the time.  He’s always running hard.  Doing extra.  He’s always working on his game.  He’s got that burning desire.  Ultimately that’s probably what makes him so good.  Obviously he’s very talented, but it doesn’t just happen.  He works at it.  He’s got a great attitude.  It’s gonna serve him well I think during the course of his career.”

Adrian certainly does seem to have a great attitude.  And on the opposite end of the spectrum you may find Bryant McKinnie, who was suspended four games for attacking a bouncer in the off-season.  McKinnie played his first game of the year Monday night.  I asked Matt about Bryant’s return, how a guy like him assimilates back into the offense.

“He’s a great player,” Matt said of his long-time offensive line mate.  “He worked hard all the time that he wasn’t here.  Last night was his first entire game, and just like most guys, there are some things he needs to get caught up with.  Overall I think a guy like that with his talent, you just put him in there and let him do his thing.  That’s what he did last night.”

McKinnie’s game was relatively nondescript.  The same can’t be said for Chris Kluwe, who incurred the wrath of Brad Childress after punting straight to Reggie Bush when his orders were to kick the ball out of bounds.  The result?  Two second half punt return touchdowns for Bush and almost a loss for the Vikings.  I asked Matt what he thought of Childress’s rather frank public reaction to Kluwe’s failure.

“This is an ultra-competitive game,” Matt said, “and everyone’s trying to do their best, trying to do exactly what the coaches want to do.  But everybody’s human.  Sometimes you make mistakes and that’s just the way it is.  If that was the plan to kick it out of bounds, obviously Chris has been around awhile, he knows what he needs to do in that situation.  At the same time, we’ve got to cover the kicks too.  Also, you have to give Reggie Bush credit.  He’s a heck of a talent.  They did a great job setting up those returns.”

It was, quite simply, an amazing game – one that has had the media buzzing ever since.  These days, the media includes blogs.  I asked Matt if he himself reads blogs or checks out chatrooms, where every short-coming of every player, coach and front office person is mercilessly, and sometimes absurdly, dissected.

“I don’t [read blogs],” Matt confessed.  “I hear a lot of stuff just cause I have a lot of friends from around here who are huge fans.  You try to – not ignore it – but, whatever people are saying about you, shouldn’t affect how you go about your business or how you feel about yourself.  As players we understand that it’s a long season and we’re always trying to focus on the current opponent and not get ahead of yourself, not think about down the road at all or what’s going to happen.  You just focus on executing the game plan and playing good football.  If you play good football you’re going to win games and all the other stuff takes care of itself.  Good football teams always get better during the season, they improve, that’s what you strive for.  Obviously you want to win every week – but you want to continue to get better and develop as a team.  When you take that upon yourself as an individual, you work hard every day in practice, you try to continue to refine your game.  That’s why you practice.  It’s always a work in progress.  It’s never like, ‘Okay we got that done, now we don’t have to do that anymore.’  You’re constantly working at the same things over and over, trying to get as good as you can at them.”

So Matt doesn’t read blogs – but there was no way he could’ve avoided all the talk about Brett Favre during the off-season.  I asked him if there was ever a moment when he thought he might actually be snapping the ball to the great former Packer come opening day 2008.

“This thing’s so big now in the NFL, the speculation that goes on,” Birk replied.  “As a player, I don’t think it’s productive or healthy to get caught up in that.  So my attitude was if it happens we’ll deal with it then, when it happens.  Like I say, this thing is so big, and so many people are into it.  And that’s part of the fun.  Whether you’re talking about the draft or free agency or Favre or whatever, people love to talk about speculation, what if, this could happen.  As a player, it doesn’t do you any good to get caught up in all that.  That was kinda like, I’d believe it if I saw it, and I never saw it.”

So Favre never ended up as the Vikings’ QB.  They came into the season with Tarvaris Jackson, who has since been benched.  I asked Matt how he thought T-Jack was handling the demotion.

“He’s taking it in stride,” Birk said.  “It’s never easy, I’m sure.  His attitude is still good.  He’s just like the rest of us, he’s got a role.  His role has changed.  It’s different right now than it was.  He’s just working at knowing his role, and fulfilling it.  Ultimately it’s about the team.  What does the team need you to do, what is the team asking you to do.  That’s why football is such a great sport, it’s so team-oriented.  You need guys to buy into that, which I think this team has.  It’s all about the team.  It’s not about you, individually, not the number of snaps you’re getting, the number of plays, or whatever.  It’s all about whatever the team needs you to do, and right now, they’re asking him to be the number 2 quarterback.”

And T-Jack will continue holding the clipboard this weekend against the lowly Lions.  I mentioned to Matt that the Vikings own Detroit at home – 10 straight wins at the Dome and counting – and suggested we could beat them with our second-string.  That got a laugh, then:  “Never once have I gotten out there on a Sunday and said this is gonna be easy, and it never is easy.  We certainly know what it’s like…you play this game long enough on any level, you know what it’s like to struggle.  The NFL is crazy.  There’s no easy ones.  You never take anything for granted.  There’s a lot of talent over there.  They have pretty solid leadership as well.  They’re obviously not where they want to be, so I’m sure we’re gonna get their best shot.”

Just the sort of diplomatic answer you’d expect from a veteran looking to avoid giving a team any bulletin-board material.  Having failed to drag a potentially life-ruining gaffe out of Birk, I asked him instead to talk about his association with Reebok, whose NFL gear, including all the Vikings stuff you could ever want, is available at NFLshop.com (and who made possible Mr. Birk’s appearance on this blog).

“I’ve been with Reebok a long time,” said Birk.  “I Just want people to know that Reebok’s the official authentic outfitter for the NFL.  Everything you see on the sidelines – shirts, hats, sweatshirts, work-out gear – all those things are all made by Reebok with the NFL shield on them.  If people want to buy the exact same stuff that we wear then go to NFLshop.com and peruse through the inventory.”

Thus concluded my first ever interview with a bonafide NFL star.  Good thing he couldn’t see me – the soiled underwear and flop sweat probably would’ve made him gag.