Matt Birk, former Vikings and Ravens center, presented an impassioned plea in support of Catholic education at St. Joseph’s School’s Black and Gold Gala at Turtleback Golf Course in Rice Lake on Nov. 4. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

St. Joseph School, Rice Lake, welcomed former National Football League star Matt Birk on Nov. 3-4.

Birk, whose accolades include a Super Bowl Championship, six-time Pro Bowl selection and the 2011 winner of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, is well-known for his public support of pro-life issues and traditional marriage. Birk ran for lieutenant governor of Minnesota in 2022.

He came to Rice Lake for another of his favorite causes, Catholic education. He co-founded a private school, Unity Catholic High School, in Burnsville in 2019 and started “For His Glory” (4HG), an athletics program to reclaim youth sports for Christ.

Birk spoke with groups of students from kindergarten through eighth grade, offering the last class an exclusive presentation.

The father of eight, two of whom are adopted, told St. Joseph’s oldest students how much attending Catholic school really helped form him. “I learned about what God did for me and what he expects of me,” he said.

Sharing that one of his sons is an eighth-grader this year, he added, “You are the leaders of the school … Everybody is looking up to you. Whether you wanted this opportunity or not, it’s here. It’s incumbent on you to use this opportunity for good.”

He then asked them to help define what it means to be a leader, acknowledging there are “one billion” answers, but pointed out that the answers they gave were “next level” and “spot on,” and congratulated their teacher.

Birk then used an example from his football career to highlight the importance of leadership. He said the difference between the Baltimore Ravens team – with whom he won the Super Bowl – and other teams he played for wasn’t talent or the best quarterback.

“We had great leadership,” he said and defined a leader as someone who wants to make others better and has character.

Character, Birk described, “it’s what you have when you go broke. It’s who you are without all the labels the world puts on you,” adding that it is what most attracts others to a person and is the reason we should focus on building it with virtue above all.

He told the students, “Not every eighth-grader in America is getting” the kind of education they are in a Catholic school, and that the world needs them and what they have to offer.

Birk’s final point with the eighth grade was something he also addressed with the middle school group, something he said is the No. 1 thing he tells his own kids.

“Do not be afraid of failure. Every successful person has failed a lot,” he emphasized and repeated, “A lot.”

“When opportunities come along, have an open mind. And encourage others to try new things. You don’t know all the gifts God gave you yet,” he affirmed and shared how many different he tried in middle school and wasn’t good at until his friends encouraged him to try football in high school.

To the middle-schoolers, he added, “Do things in front of other people. If you do anything in front of other people, you are taking a risk, a risk that you might fail.”

Asking those students if anyone likes to fail, students raised their hands to answer and one he called on said, “Yes, because I learn,” but admitted that failing doesn’t feel good in the moment.

Birk gave his own example of snapping the football over the quarterback’s head, in front of 70,000 fans in the stands and millions watching on TV. “They all knew it was my fault. The commentators put my face on TV…. That didn’t feel good, but if you’re going to accomplish great things, at times you’re going to fail …. Doing hard things is important because that’s when we change; when we grow and learn about ourselves and develop virtues that will help us do other things in life.”

He shared another personal example, his biggest regret from the fifth grade. He wanted to join the band but didn’t because his friend said it wasn’t cool, and Birk admitted he thought maybe they were right. There were audible gasps from the students, and one spontaneously called out “That’s very misfortunate!”

Birk smiled and agreed. He said at his age now he wishes that he knew how to play an instrument, but mostly that he regrets letting his friends talk him out of it.

“Be someone who encourages other people’s ideas and dreams,” he said, then commenting that all God wants from us is our best effort, to give him thanks and glory and to help others be their best. He said those elements were what made someone successful.

“Does God love me better because I won a Super Bowl?” Birk asked. The students chimed in no, to which Birk added, “He’s obviously got it in for Vikings fans,” and laughter erupted.

He finished by iterating that what God cares about is trying our best and helping others to do the same. Those are ways to live out the two commandments Jesus left us, Birk said, “to love God and love our neighbor.”

The following evening at Turtleback Golf Club, Birk was introduced by former Rice Lake High School football coach and fellow Knight of Columbus, Vern Pottinger.

After an animated plug for the Knights of Columbus, and saying he “came in peace,” the former Minnesota Vikings center expressed the obvious joy he experienced from the St. Joseph students the day before. He added that he believes Catholic school teachers get a straight shot into heaven without any purgatory time, then turned to the question: Why Catholic education?

Quoting Pope St. Pius X, Birk shared, “The soul of education is the education of the soul … It is incumbent on all of us as Christians to get our kids ready for eternity.”

He commented on the amount of knowledge that exists in the world alongside a “very little” bit of wisdom. “Society has lost sight of Jesus. We no longer live in a Christian culture.”

“We need to go out and evangelize,” Birk asserted.

He added that the only thing he loses sleep over is raising his eight kids in this world that teaches them to be consumers, pleasure and self-focused, and sets so many young people up for real mental health crises. “Our culture is teaching them to want the wrong things,” he said.

Birk admitted that buying into these “wrong” messages can be intoxicating but only leads to misery inside. “God knows what you need when you need it,” he said, “but he’s never early.”

He shared about his own personal reversion to faith – the germinating of seeds that had been planted during Catholic school. “I knew who made me …. but didn’t really know the faith.” Once he began to appreciate the fullness of his Catholic faith, Birk says he knew it was the greatest gift we can give young people.

“We can’t give our kids any gift more valuable than a Catholic education. These four walls with the future inside. What kind of future do we want?” he challenged.

Birk said that the strategy has to be for the long-term, for our country and for our kids, and not to take for granted the gift their community has in St. Joseph’s School.

“All we have to do is the next right thing,” he concluded. “It’s not any of our job to save the world on our own, but we do all have to do our part.
“I can’t think of a better way to do that than to support Catholic education. Pursue excellence and build the kingdom of God. We were not made for comfort; we were made for greatness … In a Catholic school, kids are taught that every day … It’s a very beautiful thing and there’s nothing more important we can do for our young people.”