As Matt Birk spent the past couple of weeks pondering his football future, his mind kept drifting back to the immediate aftermath of the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII victory over the San Francisco 49ers nearly three weeks ago.
For about 30 minutes following the Ravens' 34-31 win, the veteran center lingered on the field at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, huddling with his teammates, embracing family members and running and jumping around in a sea of confetti.
"It is a great way to end it," Birk said Friday. "No one is entitled to a Super Bowl, certainly not me. But I'm so grateful and fortunate to be part of the team. It is a special team and the run that we made, the championship we won is something I'll never forget."
After 15 seasons, six Pro Bowl selections, one Walter Peyton NFL Man of the Year award and 112 starts to close out his career, Birk officially announced his retirement Friday. As he promised, the 36-year-old did it on his terms, making the announcement in front of a group of fifth-grade students at Battle Grove Elementary School in Dundalk.
In saying goodbye to the NFL, Birk also announced that his HIKE Foundation will team with Scholastic to supply a "Reading Oasis" at the school. The reading center, which will be a place where students and their families can go to read, will be named after fifth-grader Larry Bryant, a student that Birk had grown close to during his career in Baltimore.
Rather than making the announcement during a news conference at the team facility, Birk decided on Thursday that he wanted to do it at the school, calling it a "fitting" end to a career in which his commitment to his teammates and his community never wavered.
"Ultimately, I just followed my heart," said Birk who was wearing a T-shirt that read 'Finish Everything' that he took out of teammate Michael Oher's locker after a morning workout at the team facility. "I just kind of waited a couple of weeks for it to settle and I just kept coming back to this is the right decision for me and my family."
Birk's retirement puts the center position in the hands of Gino Gradkowski. A fourth-round pick out of the University of Delaware in 2012, Gradkowski played sparingly during his rookie season but he did perform well in relief of Birk in the regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"I'm very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from one of the brightest centers to ever play the game," Gradkowski said on his Twitter account Friday.
Birk's departure, which comes before the second year of a three-year, $8.525 million contract that he signed last March, will save the Ravens about $2 million in salary cap space but leave the organization without one of its top offensive leaders during head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco's tenure.
After playing 11 seasons with his hometown Minnesota Vikings, who selected him in the sixth round out of Harvard in the 1998 draft, Birk signed with the Ravens as a free agent before the 2009 season after he was swayed in a meeting with Harbaugh, then Baltimore's first-year head coach.
He started all 64 regular-season games during his Ravens' career and his 112 overall starts was the NFL's longest active streak among centers. In the four seasons in which Birk anchored the Ravens' offensive line, running back Ray Rice rushed for 5,066 yards and 33 touchdowns and was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
"Matt's influence in his four years with the Ravens is evident to all," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "First, he played well and gave us stability on the offensive line. You can't underestimate the line calls he made to help a relatively young offense get set to run plays the right way. Second, his leadership on and off the field was outstanding. We could go to young players and say, 'Do what Matt does, and you'll succeed. Watch him and follow him.' His work ethic was as good as any player we had."
Said Harbaugh: "We are better people for being around Matt, blessed in fact. He took notes like a rookie, he owned the weight room, and we would have to push him to take some plays off in practice. There are reasons he played at such a high level for 15 years. We will miss having him here every day, but we look forward to always calling him a friend and a Raven."
Birk's announcement triggered a flurry of praise for the center from teammates and NFL officials on Twitter. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who presented Birk with the 2011 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, congratulated the center on a "great career on and off the field" and called him a leader in his locker room and his communities.
Wide receiver Torrey Smith called him "one of the greatest people I've ever played with … and a great role model and parent." Offensive tackle Michael Oher called Birk the "best leader ever," while fullback Vonta Leach and linebacker Jameel McClain spoke of being honored to have played with him.
"When I look at my teammates, they are people that I look up to," Birk said. "Some of the text messages that I got, somebody was forwarding me the twitter [messages]. That stuff right there just stops you in your tracks and humbles you beyond belief. I was reading a couple of them from Jameel and Vonta, guys like that. It's like, 'Wow.' That means a lot. You play the game for a lot of reasons but the respect of your opponent and more so the respect of your teammates is probably the biggest thing you're shooting for."
Birk maintained that he went back-and-forth on the decision the past couple of weeks, even calling Harbaugh and speaking to him for over an hour last weekend. He finally informed Harbaugh and Newsome that he would retire on Thursday.
He said that he has no immediate plans, other than to spend time with his wife, Adrianna, and their six kids. Birk, who plans to donate his brain to science to aid research on sports concussions, said that he plans to continue to be an advocate for player's rights and player safety. He also talked about regularly gathering with his 2012-13 Ravens' teammates and celebrating their Super Bowl victory.
"From the beginning, the organization and what we really felt like the city, just welcomed us with open arms," Birk said. "I don't need to tell anybody here what this team means to this city. It's definitely a special connection. To have the honor of playing here for four years and playing under Coach Harbaugh, and his staff it was truly an honor. To cap it with a Super Bowl win, that's a great thing. But regardless of that, had that not happened, it would have still been a fantastic experience and one that I would have been very thankful for and grateful for."