This past Tuesday, Saint Mary’s University welcomed former Minnesota Viking, Super Bowl Champion, speaker, and author, Mr. Matt Birk for the most recent installment in the Cardinal Virtue Lecture Series. Birk is a 15-year NFL veteran, former Minnesota Viking, and Super Bowl champion with the Ravens.
The lecture series was launched in 2019, shortly after the arrival of Rev. James P. Burns as the 14th president of Saint Mary’s. Cardinal Virtue speakers and topics are chosen to create thought-provoking dialogue as Saint Mary’s cultivates in its learners virtues that will guide them throughout their educational journey and as they enter the world as leaders in their professions and communities. Because of the importance of athletics at Saint Mary’s, some of the series speakers focus on the relationship between sport and character development.
Mr. Birk’s keynote lecture, entitled “Life as Sport: Winning, Learning, and Defining Personal Success,” offered his personal insights on what it means to live a “great life.” “In football, as in every other sport,” the former offensive lineman and six-time NFL Pro Bowler suggested, “most of us can only become excellent at what we do by relentless practice of the fundamentals. While it is true each of us has his or her own personal journey, a great life as a human being can only be built if we practice daily the ‘fundamentals’ of being a good person – these fundamentals are the four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude.”
The Cardinal Virtue lecture went from 7:00-8:00 p.m., followed by a rich Q&A session till 8:30 p.m. with an estimated 300 attendees nearly filling Page Theater on the Winona Campus. The event was free and open to the public, with dozens of student-athletes, the IHM seminarians, Christian Brothers, and SMU faculty and staff in attendance – as well as many alumni and members of the wider Winona-Rochester community.
Earlier in the day, Birk engaged SMU’s coaches in a Roundtable Discussion about the challenges and opportunities they have in seeking to help their players become better human beings, not just better players. As Birk put it, “While the goal of the coach is to win games, our common mission or purpose as coaches is more about helping them become better people and develop their character.” Over dinner, student representatives from the various sports teams enjoyed a dinner conversation in Toner Lounge on “Leading with Character on Campus and the Community,” where students shared their views of leadership and ways they strive to become ethical leaders as student-athletes on campus. Birk, in turn, shared sometimes very humorous stories of his professional football career as these related to student insights about character.
To conclude his seven-hour visit, Birk shared his personal faith journey as a Catholic Christian at Theology on Tap, sponsored by Campus Ministry, where he told stories illustrating how “faith and sport” are not opposed to one another in the NFL, but mutually reinforcing. While initially ceasing to practice his childhood faith early in his NFL career, Birk gradually realized how important faith was to him and his teammates. Perhaps surprising to some, Birk shared, “The locker room is one of the most spiritual places there is. Guys are brought to their knees through the game, and three of my four NFL coaches were Catholics who made sure Mass was celebrated at the hotel before games. It was a priority.”
Accompanying Birk throughout the day, vice president for Character, Virtue and Ethics at SMU, Dr. Matt Gerlach observed, “Delivering with wit and insight, Matt was highly engaging in all his encounters with our community today. He is down to earth and practical, and he strives to live a virtuous life of service and leadership in his work, leisure, and family life.” An entrepreneur and leader in the Twin Cities and beyond, Birk “gives us an example of someone who sought greatness and made it big but doesn’t let this go to his head; he uses it as a platform to positively influence others for a greatness we all tend to overlook at times – the greatness of character.”
Birk was a six-time NFL PRO Bowl Selection and two-time All Pro, as well as the recipient of the 2011 Walter Payton NFO Man of the Year award for this excellence both on and off the field, including his commitment to emphasizing the importance of education, which he continues to demonstrate by his H.I.K.E. Foundation and establishing a new high school in Burnsville, Minnesota.
Matt Birk’s visit was sponsored by the Office for Character, Virtue & Ethics, the SMU Athletics Department, Campus Ministry, and the Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership.