Ravens' Birk is front, center

The Baltimore Sun

Matt Birk doesn't know the exact moment when he felt like he was going to be the newest member of the Ravens, but the starting center remembered when he got the confirmation to sign with them.

His wife, Adrianna, was on her way to catch a flight to Minnesota on Wednesday when she smiled at Birk and gave him a nod.

"That was the last blessing that I needed," Birk said at yesterday's introductory news conference.

In a life-changing move, Birk decided to leave his hometown team and sign a three-year, $12 million contract with the Ravens. A native of St. Paul, Minn., who has played his first 11 NFL seasons with the Vikings, Birk is uprooting his family to move to Baltimore, where he plans to live nearly year-round.

Although some league insiders thought Birk was using the Ravens as leverage to drive up the Vikings' offer, the six-time Pro Bowl lineman showed his commitment to the Ravens by paying his and his wife's way for the two-day visit here. All he needed from the Ravens was a commitment that they wanted him for more than one season so he could move his family.

"It really wasn't a tough decision," said Birk, who continually glanced down at his wife and four small children in the front row.

"From the second I got here, I could sense that I really feel like there's something special here. We'll always be from [Minnesota], but this is exciting and a great opportunity. It's going to be a great adventure for our family, and we're happy to be a part of the Ravens' family, as well."

Birk, 32, fills the void left by Jason Brown, who signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract with the St. Louis Rams to become the NFL's highest-paid center.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who first ran into Birk at a Pro Bowl several seasons ago, was immediately impressed with him after some "pretty intense conversations."

"By the end of the day, we just had to have him," Harbaugh said. "It'd be hard for me to describe how excited we were in the building [Wednesday] when Matt made the decision to become a Raven. We are a better football team today than we were yesterday - by far."

Adding Birk was pivotal because the Ravens need to secure the middle of the line to protect Joe Flacco, their franchise quarterback.

Asked about the process of getting acclimated with Flacco, Birk jokingly said, "Well first, there's obviously the hands."

Birk said he has never met Flacco but "I feel like I know him."

"Since we have the same agent, he always brags about" Flacco, Birk added. "I probably hear about him a little too much."

These are the major reasons Birk fits with the Ravens:

* He's a smart, experienced leader. A graduate of Harvard, Birk has made 123 starts during his career (with a current streak of 48 straight games). That's invaluable to an offensive line that could have at least three starters younger than 26 (Jared Gaither, Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda).

* He's big enough to match up against AFC North nose tackles. At 6 feet 4, 309 pounds, Birk is one of the bigger centers in the league. General manager Ozzie Newsome pointed out that Birk had to practice against Vikings defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. He also played twice a season against the Cleveland Browns' Shaun Rogers (when Rogers played for the Detroit Lions).

* He's known for his strong character. Birk was a seven-time Vikings Man of the Year and was one of three finalists for NFL Man of the Year this season (the only league award that combines on-field excellence with community work).

He also has taken a leading role in the Gridiron Greats program, which assists former players who face severe health and financial hardships. He donated $50,000 and also sent a letter to every NFL player encouraging them to donate a portion of their Dec. 21 game check. About 20 players donated to the cause.

"I really, really like being able to play football for a living," Birk said. "I know that's made possible because of the guys that came before us. There's something not right with the way some of those guys have been treated, and I'm trying to fix it."

For now, Birk has fixed a major hole on the Ravens' offensive line.

"I probably can't adequately describe how excited I am to be here," Birk said. "I hate to use the word 'perfect,' but it feels perfect to me."

Notes: : Karl Paymah, a backup cornerback and special teams player from the Denver Broncos, made a free-agent visit yesterday. The 2005 third-round pick, 26, could fill the role left by Corey Ivy, who is a free agent. ... The Ravens will hold auditions for their cheerleading squad tomorrow and Sunday at the Downtown Athletic Club. Registration is at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow.


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