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Vikings’ Birk scores big with cogent message on helping former football pros

Matt Birk
  Matt Birk

Matt Birk for president.

That’s whom I’m voting for — this week, anyway — after wandering over to his Minneapolis bar, Matty B’s, this morning and hanging out with a dozen, very big gentlemen who play in the NFL today, or once did.

I know it’s hard to vote for a guy — let alone root for a football player — who went to Cretin-Derham Hall, which always wins, and Harvard, which always seems to own or operate enterprises. Oh, he makes about $4 million a year to hand a ball through his legs to a quarterback. Good gig.

But Vikings center Birk took the most controversial issue facing the NFL today — the plight of disabled, financially strapped retired players — and turned what’s become a major political scuffle and internal union dispute into a cogent, humanitarian message.

Very impressive, indeed, for a football player.

Many pre-‘free agency’ players hurting
Basic problem: Some old football players — the guys who played before free agency, before billion-dollar TV deals, before a strong NFL Players Association — are broke, down and out, even homeless. Because of a complicated, even unresponsive, system and, apparently, an underfunded one, some players are in so-called “dire need.”

Active players — such as Birk and Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle Kyle Turley — have spoken out against the NFL Players Association, the union, for dragging its feet. The NFLPA, meanwhile, protests and touts all that it does for players. Former players complain about their pensions — former Viking Paul Krause, who played in the NFL for 16 years, said he gets $401.01 per month in pension. Others say their health benefits are lacking.

The NFLPA has shot back with a website of its own, defending itself.

Meanwhile, former Chicago Bears player and coach Mike Ditka, now a wild-eyed TV announcer, formed a foundation to help former NFL players-in-need, and USA Today recently exposed his foundation as not distributing its money adequately.

Lots of guy stuff flying all over the place like so many fumbled footballs.

But Birk, he put everything into an understandable package this morning. He came before cameras and microphones for a group called Gridiron Greats and presented one of those Toyota-sized cardboard checks for $25,000 to help needy former players. The group, led by Turley, announced that Dec. 23 is going to be Gridiron Guardian Sunday, when all active players are being asked to give money to the fund.

But listen to Birk, the one-time NFLPA shop steward for the Vikings.

“As players today, we stand on the shoulders of the players who have come before us, and we reap a lot of benefits of the price that was paid,” he said. “Right now, there are players, through no fault of their own, who are in dire need.”

He went on: “As a player, when you strap on the helmet, you know there’s a risk involved. You accept the fact … you might walk with a limp or have a scar. But the price that has been paid by some is way too high.”

Repeated head injuries causing dementia. A series of knee, back and hip injuries and replacements. Retirees who can’t mow their own lawns.

Birk rallies the troops for long-term solution
And here’s where Birk won me over. He didn’t blast the NFLPA, which, by the way, has helped NFL players reach an average salary of $1.5 million.

He rallied the troops.

“Active players need to step up,” he said. “We need to have a long-term resolution.”

And then he purposely avoided knocking the union. Today’s session wasn’t about that.

“It’s not important how we got here to this point,” he said. “We need to realize as a league, as owners, as a union, as players above everything else, this is a humanitarian issue. It doesn’t matter who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s at fault. … It’s time we stop that rhetoric and that game and realize what’s important here. We need to resolve this.”

Teammates Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera, Marcus Johnson and Ben Leber all nodded. So did Vikings greats Chuck Foreman and Jim Marshall. Foreman’s No. 1 draft-pick salary in 1973: $26,000. Marshall’s first salary in 1960: $15,000.

OK, Birk said we shouldn’t ascribe blame. But, can we look in the mirror, please?

We love the big hit. Admit it. If you’re an NFL fan, you cringe when a player is completely whacked — as, say, San Francisco’s Trent Dilfer was Sunday against Birk’s Vikings. But, when two guys weighing 215 pounds, going at super full speed, run directly into each other … and get up … we dip our chips into the salsa and mutter, “Wow, great hit.”

The game is violent. NFL ratings are sky high. Revenues top those of many nations. We relish the gladiatorial shows every Sunday and Monday night and Thursday night.

We let colleges “red-shirt” players, meaning they get five years of hitting, after four years of high school tackling and three or four years of youth football. The cumulative pounding of increasingly large men and fast men takes its toll.

And, yet, old men limp or, according to Vikings’ great Jim Marshall, commit suicide or go homeless — he wouldn’t name names — because they don’t have any support.

For better or for worse, Congress has gotten involved.

It’s a lot easier to blast the NFL and its union than it is to get us out of wars or establish a workable national health care system. So, maybe, as with drugs in baseball, Congress will force the NFL and the Players Association to do what Birk urged them to this morning.

Solve the problem. Now. Fix the system. Now.

Ditka, who can’t avoid giving a halftime pep talk to whatever audience he faces, raised his voice, got emotional.

Looking at all the Vikings around him, Ditka declared: “I’m not sure I’ve always had the fondest spot in my heart for the Vikings. But I’m a Vikings fan right now.”

Me? I’m a Matt Birk fan right now. The big guy actually learned something at Cretin and Harvard.

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