With Peter King on his annual four-week summer vacation, veteran offensive lineman Matt Birk took time away from his holiday weekend to write today's Monday Morning Quarterback column. Birk, who played 11 seasons for the Vikings and was voted to six Pro Bowls, signed a three-year deal with the Ravens in the offseason.
It's truly an honor to fill in for Peter King. My only goal in this column is not to mention Brett Favre. Whoops. Mission failed.
But why would No. 4 want to retire? Playing in the NFL is a pretty good gig. We get to play a great game in a great league with die-hard fans, and the pay ain't too shabby. As a whole, I think players today are pretty lucky.
However, it's disturbing to me how the players of previous generations are being treated. The men that came before us built this game into the multi-billion dollar business it is today. Thousands of players fought for a lot of the things today's players enjoy -- free agency, top-notch medical treatment and million-dollar contracts, to name a few. Some of these guys jeopardized their own careers by going on strike, knowing they wouldn't be the ones to reap the benefits of their personal and professional sacrifices.
An alarming number of former players live in physical and mental pain because of injuries suffered while playing -- some with symptoms that didn't manifest until long after their NFL careers were over. These men have had to exhaust their savings in order to receive medical care for their ailments, achieving a quality of life most of us would not deem bearable. A good number are in such physical anguish it prevents them from securing any type of employment. They can't get health insurance because their conditions are conveniently categorized as "pre-existing." The odds of getting disability through the NFL are about as likely as hitting the lotto. Factor in the fact that a lot of these men have wives and young kids, and their stories are heartbreaking. I have seen these guys with my own eyes and heard their stories with my own ears. You might not read about this very often, but this problem is real.
This bothers me because everyone associated with the NFL is making money. Under the current system, about two percent of the revenues being paid to players go toward retired players. So why can't we give a bigger piece of the pie to the players of yesteryear? Well, the owners pay a negotiated percentage of revenues to the players. They feel like they already give up enough. The NFLPA wants the money to go to current players because football salaries already lag behind their baseball and basketball counterparts, for which the NFLPA catches heat. So, if this problem is going to be remedied it's going to have to come from the current players.
We need to make the former players a priority. In the NFL, where contracts are not guaranteed and everyone is one play away from a career-ending injury, I don't fault players for being focused on the present. But it's our responsibility to leave this game better than we found it. Players today should hope future generations will do the same for us. Every former player who suffers the effects of football-related injuries should have the basics -- food, shelter, clothing and medical care. This is the least we can do.
When I entered the NFL in 1998, I was told the league was a brotherhood. Once you were in, it was forever. It's time we stand up for our brothers who don't have a voice. I really like playing football for a living and I am grateful for the players who paved the way. Giving more to former players who did so much for us is the right thing to do.
A quick word on Steve McNair: He was the definition of a gamer. His toughness and grit are legendary. Not only was he out on the field every Sunday, but he also played at a high level. That is what great players do. A lot of guys can play well when they feel good, but the season is a grind. A professional gets his body ready for every game, regardless of what injuries he needs to overcome.
1. I think Favre will play for the Vikings this year. This will start a civil war between Minnesota and Wisconsin. A truce will be reached in this epic border battle after it is discovered at a tailgate party that Johnsonville Brats (Wisconsin) and Grain Belt Beer (Minnesota) are perfect complements for each other.
2. I think the media drives the business of football and I love that fans can't get enough of our sport, but sometimes I have to laugh at what is considered news in the offseason. If a player skips Organized Team Activities (OTAs), it's a headline. Newsflash: Ten years ago, OTAs didn't exist, yet somehow teams were able to pull everything together and play a 16-game season with uniforms and everything. The O also should stand for optional, since OTAs are not mandatory.
3. I think everyone deserves a second chance, especially Michael Vick. Third chances are extremely rare, however.
4. I think every stadium in the NFL should be outdoor and natural grass. I used to hate playing inside because turf burns on the old AstroTurf hurt like you wouldn't believe. But playing outside is how everyone grows up playing. It's pure. Also, football is a sport where the weather should come into play.
5. I think I am blessed to have three daughters. However, the older they get the less thrilled I am about cheerleaders at football games.
6. I think there is too much stimulation at football games today. We don't need all the lights and noise and T-shirts being shot into the crowd. The game on the field is enough.
7. I think NFL Films needs to start its own channel. It has the best and only footage of the early days of football. It's not only entertaining, but also I think it's important to be reminded of the history of the league.
8. I think kids should play flag football until they reach high school. Youth tackle football is dangerous and awfully boring for parents and kids alike. Besides, no kid wants to be stuck playing offensive line. Everyone deserves a chance to run and throw the ball, and that's what kids want to do.
9. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I think "Minnesota Nice" really does exist. It seems out here on the East Coast people are in more of a hurry and are a little bit crabby compared to those in the Midwest. You better be on your toes when you go to the grocery store out here or someone on a bluetooth is likely to push you into a stack of soup cans with their shopping cart.
b. I think playing football is a hard way to make an easy living, but watching my kids on a daily basis is even harder. The offseason is great because I get to spend a lot of time with my family, but at the end of a family fun day, I am dog tired. It certainly makes me appreciate what my wife does during the season when she becomes a "football widow."
c. I think you should always stop at any lemonade stand you see on the side of the street, buy lemonade, and leave a BIG tip. (Example: If the lemonade is a quarter, give the kid a dollar and tell him to keep the change.) The reaction is priceless.
d. I think, like your regular MMQB writer, I love drinking coffee and eating pizza. As such, I think it's funny when someone refers to me as an "athlete." When I wake up in the morning, I don't feel too athletic.
10. I think the Fourth of July always signifies the beginning of the end of my summer. A couple weeks until the beginning of training camp and, maybe like you, I am way behind on my summer projects. I need to get going on those because once the season starts, I am not much use around the house. Just ask my wife. She might tell you I am not much good in the offseason, either.
Editor's Note: Check SI.com tomorrow for a special MMQB: Tuesday Edition, guest-authored by another current NFL player.