Walter Payton Man of the Year 2012: Why Matt Birk Was a Tremendous Choice

Hal NicholsCorrespondent IFebruary 4, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 03:  (L to R) Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers, Charles Tillman of the Chicago Bears and Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens the three finalists for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, pose with the trophy following a news conference on February 3, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

One of my favorite things about the NFL is the integral connection between the league’s 32 teams and the local communities that support them.  Through a massive network of charities, the NFL is able to give back to those who need it most.

Beyond what the NFL does as a league through NFL Charities and the United Way, many players take it upon themselves to launch their own initiatives to benefit a cause that speaks to them personally. 

Every year, the NFL honors such players with the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  This year, the three finalists for the award were San Diego’s Philip Rivers, Chicago’s Charles Tillman and Baltimore’s Matt Birk.

Today the NFL announced that Matt Birk has been chose as the 2011 winner for his work in Baltimore on literacy and education among at-risk children.  Birk’s HIKE Foundation, which stands for Hope, Inspiration, Knowledge and Education, distributed thousands of books to inner city youth and to encourage greater literacy and to promote reading at home.

Birk is a great choice for this award.  Eight times previously he has been selected as his team’s Man of the Year award winner, but this is his first time to win the overall league award.  Given that Birk is a free agent this offseason and is reportedly considering retirement (via the Star Tribune), this is a great decision to recognize a guy that has always made giving back to the community a priority.

It goes without saying that addressing inner city education is one of America’s stiffest challenges in the 21st century.  For far too long, lower income areas have received inferior facilities and teachers, which generates a feedback loop and prevents disadvantaged communities from achieving social mobility and perpetuates poverty generation after generation.

By focusing on literacy and extra curricular educational opportunities, Matt Birk is helping to address some of the root issues that restrain lower income communities.  

Matt Birk is a shining example of how NFL players can use their ample means and status to really do genuine good in the world.  His longstanding commitment to doing just that is to be commended, as is the awards committee for making a great selection for this honor.