Fifteen years ago, they were NFL Draft afterthoughts. This offseason, Matt Birk and Jeff Saturday finally stepped out of the gridiron spotlight as two of the greatest offensive linemen of their generation.
With Thursday's announcement of Jeff Saturday's retirement from the Indianapolis Colts, the National Football League officially said goodbye to two of the most underrated offensive line greats of the last generation, with Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens announcing his own exit two weeks ago. Other players have received a greater share of attention with retirement announcements of their own -- ahem, Ray Lewis -- but both Birk and Saturday deserve their own piece of the media pie as well.
The game of football is won (and lost) in the trenches, after all, and for the last decade and a half, both Birk and Saturday anchored their respective offensive lines like few others in NFL history.
Birk's career with the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens positions him as one of the best centers of the last 20 years, a player who was a leader on and off the field. Not only did the Harvard University graduate play in 210 regular season games after being a 6th round selection by the Vikes in the '98 Draft, but his on-field skills earned him six Pro Bowl nods along the way.
In addition, Birk won the Ed Block Courage Award in 2006 as a member of the Vikings, but he also won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2011. He was also the Vikings "Man of the Year" every year from 2002 to 2007. In short, he was a consummate player and citizen, one of the NFL's well-rounded greats.
For Saturday, the climb upward was even more impressive after going undrafted in the same year. In 1998, every NFL team passed over Saturday's name on multiple occasions, and the Baltimore Ravens finally signed him as a free agent. He was released just two months later, and never played that season.
Yet after Bill Polian took a chance on him, he became the centerpiece of the Colts offensive line and never looked back. Saturday went on to play in 211 regular season games and equal Matt Birk's six Pro Bowl nominations playing with one of the NFL's great quarterbacks in Peyton Manning. Saturday also suited up this last season for the Green Bay Packers in his one season away from the Colts.
Both Birk and Saturday also achieved what every football player eventually longs for: a Super Bowl championship. Birk recently won the 2012 Super Bowl and retired on top. Saturday was the starting center on the 2007 Indianapolis Colts that won the title of Super Bowl XLI.
Between the two of them, Birk and Saturday rank at No. 16 and 17 among active players in the number of games played and now the game of football says goodbye to them both. Their long-term achievements will likely leave them standing outside of the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio looking in, but they still deserve their moments in the spotlight. For longtime fans of the Vikings, Ravens and Colts, Birk and Saturday will forever be a part of franchise lore. Yet the rest of the NFL should notice, too, when there seems to be something missing when the 2013 season begins.