Leaving the nest: Super Bowl shine dimmed by departure of vital Ravens

Shown, from left, are Dannell Ellerbe, Matt Birk, Cary Williams, Ray Lewis, Paul Kruger, Bernard Pollard and Anquan Boldin.
Shown, from left, are Dannell Ellerbe, Matt Birk, Cary Williams, Ray Lewis, Paul Kruger, Bernard Pollard and Anquan Boldin.(Brian Patterson/Staff Photo Illustration, Carroll County Times)

When Matt Birk spoke to Taneytown Elementary School students last year, he became reflective.

Birk said he would have to retire from playing professional football one day. And when he did, he would need to fall back on his Harvard University education.

That day has come.

Birk retired last month after 15 NFL seasons, including the last four years with the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. His departure means the approachable offensive lineman Taneytown students related to and rooted for will no longer be wearing purple and black.

He's not alone.

At least seven Ravens players who started Super Bowl XLVII will not be back next year. Those players had a combined 40 years of service playing for Baltimore.

Ray Lewis, the screaming, dancing leader of a tough-as-nails defense, retired after 17 seasons with the team. Reliable possession receiver Anquan Boldin was traded to San Francisco last week.

Defensive starters Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger and Cary Williams signed free agent deals elsewhere. Safety Bernard Pollard was released.

The Super Bowl win was glorious for Ravens fans, but the offseason has been bittersweet. Next year's team will be vastly different than the one who beat the San Francisco 49ers and earned the second NFL championship in team history.

Megan Whitehead, a Ravens fan who cheered on Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco during the Walt Disney World parade in Orlando, said she trusted general manager Ozzie Newsome, the architect of this franchise. "In Ozzie we trust" became a common refrain as player after player departed last week via free agency.

Even so, it was a difficult week, particularly after the Ravens surprisingly dealt Boldin, a player who said after the Super Bowl he would either play for the Ravens next year or retire.

"This one hurt because he had such a good connection with Joe [Flacco]," said Mort Shuman, a Ravens fan who serves on the Board of Directors for Ravens Nest 14 of Eldersburg and Sykesville. "He also made some incredible plays this season, especially in the postseason, and was a huge reason why the Ravens won the Super Bowl."

Players like Kruger, Ellerbe and Williams wanted more money than Baltimore could pay them under the salary cap, Shuman said, so he understands why they won't be back.

Most Ravens fans felt a deep connection to at least one of the players. In Taneytown, Birk became well-known in the region for his educational outreach. He won the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for his work through his Hike Foundation. Established in 2002, the Hike Foundation offers at-risk children educational opportunities needed to excel in the classroom and in life.

Birk's Taneytown visit coincided with his work through "Ready, Set Read," a countywide incentive program that encouraged students to read. Students get robo-calls with a message from Birk that encourages them to reach their reading goals.

Two students from each public school who meet their reading goals are chosen at random annually. They get to spend a day at M&T Bank Stadium with Birk, where he's previously played flag football with the group.

"You could just tell he was thrilled to be interacting with the kids," Taneytown Elementary School Reading Specialist Chris Vincent said.

Even though Birk is no longer playing, Vincent said she hopes he sticks with the programs he's established in the area. During his playing career, many students got a chance to meet the gargantuan lineman face-to-face, interactions that some Ravens fans will remember.

"It was a wonderful visit," Vincent said. "It impacted the kids."