There will be some mixed emotions Saturday when the Vikings meet the Ravens at the Metrodome. The teams don't have much of a history. They've played only three times and this will be the first time they've played at the Metrodome and perhaps the most remembered part of what passes for a rivalry had to do with coaches. Former Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick was signed by the Ravens and won a Super Bowl with them. The following year in 2001, the scheduled game between Minnesota and Baltimore on a Monday night was postponed due to the 9/11 attacks and played the final week of the season – a game that Dennis Green opted out of when it was apparent he was going to get fired, and it was also the beginning and end of the Spergon Wynn era as the Vikings' starting quarterback.
This time when the Vikings meet the Ravens there will be some side drama. Matt Birk has played in the NFL since 1998 and, prior to this season, it was entirely as a member of the Vikings. He was the last vestige of the 1998 team that went 15-1 and dominated the NFL, but his fortunes went east to Baltimore during the free-agent period after he signed a three-year, $12 million contract to be the man in the middle for the Ravens offense.
For his teammates, it will be a bizarre experience seeing him on the other side of the field. Vikings offensive lineman Artis Hicks said Birk has a lot of friends on the team and in the community, and re-connecting with him will be an enjoyable part of the typically boring pregame warm-ups.
"It's going to be great seeing him again, even if he is playing on the other side," Hicks said. "He's a great guy. The three years I spent with him here I learned a lot. I haven't seen him since the last game, so I'm looking forward to saying ‘What's up?' to him."
Guard Anthony Herrera said Birk was a mentor for him and, since Birk left the Vikings, Herrera has taken every chance he's had to keep up with his exploits in the AFC.
"I've been keeping up with him and watching all his games," Herrera said. "It will be different seeing him in that other jersey. It makes him look a little more gross. I liked it better when he was in our colors. I plan to call him this week and wish him well, just not so well this week."
While the friendships remain, the business of football leaves such familiarity at the door. If you're wearing the road whites, you're the enemy … for three hours anyway. However, the wild card for the Ravens is Birk's intimate knowledge of his former teammates – what they do well and where they struggle. Bryant McKinnie said that knowledge is likely going to be tapped into by the Ravens defensive coaching staff during their week of preparation.
"He pretty much knows all of the offensive linemen's tendencies because he was here for so long," McKinnie said. "He knows mine, that's for sure. He might have the advantage by being able to share that information with the D-line. Any edge you get, you use and knowing us as well as he does is something he will probably use to help his team."
Sunday's game will also mark the first time that Birk and his replacement John Sullivan will be on the same field playing the same position as starters. Sullivan said that Birk was key to his acclimation to the NFL and that he was a role model from which to learn.
"I was backing him up and trying to learn from him," Sullivan said. "Any time I had a question, I tried to pick his brain. The onus is on the younger guy to ask (questions). The older guy doesn't just offer up information, you have to seek it out. He was always very helpful. I picked up a lot of stuff from him and tried to incorporate it into my own game – both on and off the field."
Sullivan said the off-field advice he gave him was just as important as teaching him the X's and O's and the nuances of playing the center position.
"We talked about life lessons, especially last year (with me) as a rookie," Sullivan said. "You go from college and dealing with going to class and dealing with football to being in the NFL as a 23-year-old handling different stuff off the field, whether it's relationships or handling your money. Matt and I would talk often."
For his former linemates, playing against Birk will be something they all do from the sidelines – when Birk is on the field, guys like McKinnie, Herrera, Hicks and Sullivan won't be and vice versa. But, for his former defensive teammates, locking up with their friend and war buddy will be a bit surreal.
"Any time you play an ex-teammate, it's a little strange, especially a guy like Matt who you had a close relationship with," linebacker Ben Leber said. "It will be different. Maybe we'll lock up several times, but see what happens."
Linebacker Chad Greenway said that it will be a new experience seeing Birk pulling on screens and potentially locking horns with him. But, as players are quick to point out, the nature of the business in the NFL is dealing with a bottom line and Birk's time with the Vikings is over, not his time in the NFL. Birk is seeking his fortunes elsewhere, but the friendship built over the years remains.
"I'm looking forward to it," Greenway said. "He's starting a new chapter in his career and I'm sure he's excited about getting back to the Metrodome and playing. It's going to be harder for the guys in the trenches going against him, but we all have a job to do."
One player inundated with Birk questions was defensive tackle Pat Williams. Asked what it would feel like to play against Birk after going up against him thousands of times during practices over the previous four years, Big Pat was obliged to point out that they have played against each other with bad intentions and that Birk stood out for his tenacity and effectiveness.
"I played against him when I was in Buffalo, Williams said. "People forget that. He's been in the league a long time. I've been in the league a long time. It was a battle and I expect the same this time around. We went up against each other a lot in practice, but that ain't the same as doing it in a game. It will be a battle."
The pleasantries Sunday will be restricted from about 11:30 a.m. until about 3:15 p.m. During that time, the friendship will be put on hold and the business at hand will take precedence. But what happens if Birk initiates a little trash talk. Williams said he will be flapping his gums – he always does – and Jared Allen joked that the Harvard grad will likely keep the trash talk nonexistent or the Idaho State guy will let him hear about it in spades.
"I played against him in Kansas City and he didn't really talk trash," Allen said. "If Matt wants to? Hey, I can talk trash with the best of them, but I love Matty B."
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