There are 49 players on the Ravens' 53-man roster who are making their first Super Bowl appearance. But no one has waited longer than Ravens center Matt Birk.
He has reached football's biggest stage after 15 seasons and 227 games played. It's why the 36-year-old Birk decided to return this season after being bothered by neck, elbow and knee injuries during his previous three years.
“At this stage in my career, losing takes a lot out of you,” Birk said. “I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t think there was a legitimate chance that I could help the team. You're just thankful to be on a team that you feel has a chance. With the success we've had around here, it was a Super Bowl or bust mentality."
Before this season, Birk had been to the playoffs eight times (five with the Vikings and three with the Ravens) and left with heartache instead of a Super Bowl ring.
In his first season, Birk watched kicker Gary Anderson miss a 38-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game that cost the Vikings a trip to the Super Bowl. It was another painful finish for Birk last season, when Lee Evans failed to make the winning catch in the end zone in the AFC Championship Game and Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yarder to tie the game.
"My first year, we were two minutes away from going to the Super Bowl," Birk said. "I thought there was nothing to this. It didn't work out."
Birk has been the model of durability for offensive linemen over the years. Despite numerous injuries, including arthroscopic knee surgery just weeks before the 2011 season, he has started 112 consecutive games, which is the NFL's longest active streak among centers.
This year, however, Birk has had one of his healthier seasons in memory.
"Nobody has spent less time in the training room than me this year. I guarantee it," he said. "I haven't been in the training room in months."
Now, Birk is preparing for the biggest game of his football career. A day after winning in the AFC Championship Game, he said it hadn't sunk in that he's headed to the Super Bowl and still felt "numb."
"That’s your dream; that’s why you play," Birk said. "Nobody deserves it more than anybody else. It doesn’t matter how long you play. To be doing it with this team and kind of the journey that we have been through the last four years here, it’s pretty special.”