As a sixth-round pick out of Harvard, Birk was consumed by the fight to keep his job through each day.
"I remember my first training camp, I was just about crying myself to sleep," said Birk, the Ravens' center. "I was like, 'Man, this is hard. There's no way I'm going to make it.' You're always fighting for your job, but my first two years, I was just fighting to prove that I belonged as a backup. They were always bringing guys in, trying to replace me."
A decade and a half later, Birk will snap the ball to quarterback Joe Flacco on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys in his 200th career game.
"I never thought it would last this long," said Birk, who has started every game in his four-year career with the Ravens. "You say 200 games and I guess you have to take a step back, take a breath and give thanks to God and to a lot of people for making it this far. I feel extremely fortunate not just to play this long, but the teams that I've been on, the guys that I've played with, the friends that I've made. It's been a heck of an experience. It doesn't feel like it's been that long for me. In a lot of ways, it feels like I just started. Every week and every season is kind of like a fresh start and you kind of just focus on that."
For comparison's sake, Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis will play in his 228th game Sunday, and former kicker Matt Stover is next on the Ravens' all-time games played list at 207 games. Birk played the first 10 seasons of his career with the Minnesota Vikings, and he claimed he wasn't aware that he was approaching a milestone until he was informed by a reporter this week.
Birk will also start his 109th consecutive game Sunday, the longest streak in the NFL at his position. The 36-year-old, six-time Pro Bowl selection hasn't missed a game since sitting out the entire 2005 season because of hip and sports hernia injuries.
"Those are things that us guys up front, we don't really keep up with, but to know that you're hitting a milestone like that is a huge accomplishment," said Ravens guard Bobbie Williams, himself a veteran of 13 NFL seasons. "Everybody around the league, offensive linemen, offensive line coaches and defensive linemen, you hear Matt Birk's name and you know he's a true man, a true stand-up gentleman and a guy that gets down after it, plain and simple. His play speaks for itself."
The Ravens signed Birk before the 2009 season after their center Jason Brown, agreed to a lucrative free-agent deal with the St. Louis Rams. Birk, who had already been to six Pro Bowls, quickly became a leader on the Ravens' offense, and he's been a fixture on the offensive line since.
"I just remember when we lost Jason Brown and they were saying, 'We have a chance of getting Matt Birk.' I said, 'You have to be kidding me. This is one of the great centers of all time,'" Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "He's one of these guys that you look at his age, but then you watch him play, and I don't think anyone is saying that … you are going to take advantage of this guy because of his age. He plays young. He sets the table for everything we do. I think he and Joe have tremendous chemistry."
Birk, who is active in several charities and has long been an advocate for at-risk kids, was named the 2011 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, an award that recognizes community service as well as excellence on the field. At the time, he was pondering retirement.
However, feeling good health-wise and convinced that the Ravens were close to winning a Super Bowl, he signed a three-year deal to return in March. Birk, a father of six, has pledged to go year-by-year and hold off his decision on whether to retire until after the season.
"My mantra my whole career is just try as hard as I can, put as much effort as I can in meetings, in practices and in games, in everything, and just see where it ends up. That philosophy has served me well," Birk said. "I think you get to a certain age where nobody knows how it's going to end but it is going to end. Then, you have the rest of your life and you're never going to be able to get this back — the adrenaline of Sundays, the locker room. Those are unique things. You're not going to be able to replace those with something that is the same or comparable. I just enjoy all those things and basically just want to continue to honor the game and prepare and play the right way."