While the crowd on Friday night wasn’t quite the size of the one Birk appeared in front of three months ago at the Super Bowl, the Great Room was still packed full of students, teachers, and parents as he walked to the podium to give the 2013 graduation commencement speech.
“You made it,” he began. “It was a long hard road, there were times that you wanted to give up, but you made it.” He paused, then smiled. “I’m talking to the parents, of course.”
Then Birk proceeded to give a ten-minute long, inspiring address to the PA graduates of 2013, focusing on how to live a faith-filled life in a world where faith is tested on a daily basis.
“The fact that he was a professional athlete and is also a serious Christian – he’s a two for the price of one,” said Upper School Director Dr. Ferdinandt, who collaborates with Headmaster Dr. Todd Flanders each year to select the commencement speaker.
The story of how Matt Birk agreed to be the commencement speaker for PA’s graduating class of 2013 is an interesting one.
“He and I connected last summer,” said Dr. Flanders. Birk had been at a NET banquet that Dr. Flanders had spoken at before, then the two met again at a Religious Liberty Rally outside the federal courthouse in Minneapolis last June, where they were both speakers.
The two were standing together after their speeches at the rally when Dr. Flanders brought up the topic of speaking at PA graduation.
“I said, ‘ So, Matt, have you ever given a commencement speech?’ and he said no. So I asked if he would ever want to. He said, ‘At PA? Yes.’ And then I got his email and formally invited him later that night,” Dr. Flanders recalls. “He’s a tremendous guy and I really think he embodies faith, knowledge, and virtue in a distinct way.”
A commencement speaker for Providence has guidelines of speaking for 10-12 minutes and have a theme that is “inspiring in nature,” said Dr. Flanders. Other than that, Birk was given no restrictions or speech topic. Even with minimal direction from the PA administration, Dr. Flanders was certain that Birk would deliver an outstanding and relevant address simply based on his character and experiences.
From going to a Catholic high school, to attending Harvard, to playing professional football for more than a decade, “he’s a guy who’s been through a lot of life experience,” said Dr. Flanders. “But more interesting still is his commitment to faith, family, and civic life. A guy like Matt Birk in no way confuses fame, fortune, and position with the real stuff, and his virtue lies therein.”
While Birk clearly embodies Providence’s motto of “Faith, Knowledge, and Virtue,” students also felt he was an intelligent, clear speaker who was easy to understand and gave good advice.
“He was really funny and easy to relate to,” said Paige McAuliffe ‘14, who attended the ceremony.
Part of this may come from the fact that Birk graduated from a Catholic high school in Minnesota just like the PA graduates. He attended Cretin-Derham Hall, a school very similar to Providence. In fact, one of Birk’s favorite experiences in high school is one that PA athletes engage in too: praying as a team before a sporting event.
“Before football games we would pray as a team,” said Birk. “I think at the time I took it for granted…Looking back I think that’s special. Faith is a powerful weapon. To be able to pray with my teammates…you think you’re pretty cool, you put on this macho bravado, but it’s great to get down on your knees and humble yourselves before God.”
And now, after having been through the Catholic high school experience himself, he has advice for Providence graduates as they move on in life to college and future careers.
“Find really good friends, friends that have a desire to grow in their faith and live the faith,” he said. “That way you can support each other and challenge each other in your journey.”
Birk also recommends something that helped him in his own life: finding an older person as a mentor to be able to see what a godly person looks like, a person who is the “ideal of what you want to become someday.”
As was the theme in his speech, Birk says that becoming a faithful person is a process, one that involves a lot of hard work.
“I’m very lucky,” he said. “Unfortunately, I fell away from the Catholic church for a while but getting married and having children brought me back to it.”
For others who struggle with confusing the material world with what Birk considers the more important things in life he gives this advice:
“We can get in the Word every single day… You have to be consistent with it, you have to make it a priority. That’s how you grow stronger in your faith.”
This prevalent faith component of Birk’s life is one of the main reasons the administration approached him about being a graduation speaker. He may be a former NFL football player, but he is also a serious Christian and a virtuous human being who Dr. Flanders and Dr. Ferdinandt thought would be an inspiring role model for the graduating seniors.
“One thing I’ve come to know for people like Matt Birk is that sport is about life, but life clearly is not about sport,” said Dr. Flanders.
And it’s true. By most standards, Birk is very much a regular guy, although his imposing 6’4” stature did stand out amongst the crowd of graduates in the courtyard after the ceremony. He stayed to meet the graduates, talk with them, and take pictures like the many parents and faculty who attended. At home he himself has six children, who he loves to impress with his talents that aren’t necessarily football-related.
“I can juggle, my kids get a kick out of that,” he said. “I dabble in magic too…I like doing things where little kids are like ‘whoa’,” He laughs. “It’s only a matter of time before they figure out that they’re smarter than me but I enjoy it.”
While Birk’s own character is enough of an example of how he advises others to live life after high school, he also summed it up well in the conclusion of his address with a powerful wish for the class of 2013:
“My prayer for you is this: Let your dreams be bigger than your fears, your actions be louder than your words, and your faith be stronger than your feelings. God bless.”