A trip to this year's Super Bowl was the only reason Matt Birk brought his battered body and aching knees to training camp for his 15th NFL season.
Birk, 36, was hampered by elbow, neck and knee injuries during his previous three seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, but he never missed a start. During the offseason, the six-time Pro Bowl center had surgery to repair varicose veins in his legs.
In spite of everything he's experienced over the past three years, Birk knew the Ravens had an opportunity to win a championship, and he wanted to contribute to that effort.
"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."
Birk, safety Ed Reed and guard Bobbie Williams are amongst several longtime veterans who will be making their first Super Bowl appearance when the Ravens take on the San Francisco 49ers on February 3.
Birk persevered through 11 fruitless seasons in Minnesota, making the playoffs five times without a conference championship. Then, after joining the Ravens as a free agent in 2009, he was part of three additional postseason runs that came up short of the Super Bowl.
The 34-year-old Reed has been selected nine times for the Pro Bowl in 11 years with the Ravens and has consistently been recognized as one of the best safeties in the NFL. But he never made it to the Super Bowl until now and to make it even sweeter, the game will be played in his home state of Louisiana.
"It's been a long time coming, but it takes time," Reed said. "We've built up to this point."
Teammate Jacoby Jones, who grew up in New Orleans, will be playing in his first Super Bowl in his sixth season. After Baltimore beat New England 28-13 in the AFC Championship Game, Reed and Jones prepared for a trip to familiar territory.
"I really don't have any words for it," Reed said. "I rushed into the locker room to call my mom, because I know that my family has been going through some things, so I'm just thankful to be going home and for the whole of New Orleans to see some hometown guys. Jacoby, we talked about it. We haven't been there since [Hurricane] Katrina. We're just grateful."