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 power-lifting 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.