Moving Up the Food Chain Thanks to big meals and hard work, the Vikings' Matt Birk is a Pro Bowl center

May 13, 2001

For having finished its colossal calzone--which comprised four
chicken breasts, peppers, onions and a pound of cheese--Harvard
graduate Matt Birk was memorialized by Tommy's House of Pizza in
Cambridge, Mass., with a photo behind the counter. No one
photographed the Calzone King vomiting in the bushes afterward.

Think eating comes easy for a 6'4", 316-pound man? Each morning
Birk, the Minnesota Vikings' Pro Bowl center, meticulously
schedules his daily bread. To remain NFL-sized he must gorge
every two hours on a diet low in guilty pleasures and high in
insipid but filling staples such as rice, beans and cottage
cheese. "I'm not naturally big," says Birk, 24, who entered
college at a svelte 225 pounds. "People say I'm lucky I can eat
all the time, but it isn't always fun."

Birk, Minnesota's sixth-round draft choice in 1998, is the first
Crimson player in the NFL since Cincinnati Bengals punter Pat
McInally retired in 1986. Saddled with the task of confuting his
alma mater's athletic reputation and validating its academic one,
he initially could do neither.

On his first day of rookie camp he was matched against Pro Bowl
defensive end John Randle. If I can block him, Birk thought, I
can block anyone. He couldn't block Randle, or anyone else, the
first few days. Brian Billick, then the Vikings' offensive
coordinator and now the Baltimore Ravens' coach, harangued Birk.
"I don't believe you went to Harvard," Billick would say. "Show
me your diploma."

"The guys laughed, but I took it seriously," says Birk. "The
Harvard stigma was what I was trying to avoid."

The skills he had displayed at the 1997 Blue-Gray Game practices
and at a private workout in January 1998 impressed the Vikings
enough to draft him, but Birk barely made the roster. "He just
needed to learn the pro game," says Joe Philbin, who was Birk's
offensive coordinator and line coach at Harvard and is now an
assistant at Iowa. "He's a very good athlete with good size and
mobility. The biggest thing he has going for him is that he's
tough and dependable."

Birk improved his role in each of his three seasons, replacing
departed free agent Jeff Christy as the starting center last
off-season. Minnesota, despite losing Christy and Pro Bowl guard
Randall McDaniel, went from 10th best to tied for sixth in the
NFC in sacks allowed (35) and from fifth to first in rushing
(2,129 yards). "[Birk] is a technician," says Mike Morris, the
former Vikings long snapper. "He uses technique rather than brute
strength, even though he has it. For as big and thick as he is,
he runs and pulls well."

Already blessed with skill, Birk made himself strong. Morris runs
what is known among Twin Cities elite athletes as MILO (Mike's
Insane Lifting Organization): four sessions a week of almost
nonstop powerlifting in his basement in Rosemount, Minn. In the
off-season Birk took up Morris's invitation to join MILO. He
threw up twice during the first workout. The next day he couldn't
bend over and was urinating blood. He kept going, though. Birk
was the first person to phone Morris after the Vikings' playoff
loss to the New York Giants in January and ask when workouts
would resume. Says Morris, "Normally we can run 'em out of here
in a couple of weeks, but you can't break Matt. Nobody works
harder."

Football has never been the path of least resistance for Birk, an
economics major who was offered an analyst's job with Prudential
after college. His financial acumen led to Matt's Money, an
hourlong weekly call-in radio show on KFAN in Minneapolis in
which he doles out investment advice. Birk's philosophy is
old-fashioned, more Warren Buffett than Mark Cuban. "It's not
timing that makes money," he preaches, "but time."

Such is his spartan conservatism that Birk has neither a credit
card nor a home phone. He and his pet bulldog, Jake, occupy a
basement room of his house, about two miles from his parents'
home in St. Paul. He rents the rest of the duplex to friends. In
March, Birk signed a one-year, $1.12 million deal with the
Vikings, his first contract above the NFL minimum. So far he
hasn't thought of anything to spend it on. "I have everything I
need and everything I want," says Birk.

That analyst's job is still waiting, but Birk is focused on next
season, when he may get a chance to show Billick where he can
stick that Harvard label. "The smart thing would probably have
been for me to work for Prudential in the off-season after my
rookie year, but I didn't want to get distracted," Birk says. "A
safety net might make me less hungry."

He wouldn't want that. He has to eat again in two hours.

COLOR PHOTO: STEVE WEWERKA

"I have everything I need and want," says Birk, who shares his
basement room with Jake.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)