by: submitted photo, 
Former Lakeridge star J.J. Birden, shown here catching his first touchdown pass thrown by Joe Montana, played in the NFL for nine years and then returned to Lake Oswego where he has become a very successful businessman.

To J.J. Birden, life is like a box of chocolates.

No, Birden has not been driven to a Forrest Gump frame of mind from all the hard hits he took during his nine-year career in the National Football League.

The former Lakeridge High School grid great is now an executive with Team X 88, a company that sells a delicious dark chocolate called Xocai, which has amazing healing and restorative powers.

Birden should know. He eats it himself.

'I was banged up from my playing days, and I was sick of all the Advil, Ibuprofen, Aleve and all of the other painkillers I had to take,' Birden said. 'I started looking for some natural stuff that was unprocessed.

'I started taking Xocai (pronounced sho-sigh). It's a natural anti-inflammatory, it's good for my knees, it even helps my blood pressure. I love this product.

'I'm a skeptic. People are always trying to get ex NFL players to try stuff. But once I tried it, I fell in love with it.'

Birden felt that what would be good for him would be good for everybody else, and so for the last year he has been with Team X 88 distributors.

He manages to fit his duties there along with his other enterprises, which include being the director of Summit Rehabilitation and Wellness Center.

Add that to his wife and three children and you've got a very busy guy. But Birden has always been the gutsy sort, even before the days when he challenged tiger shark-like defensive backs - when he was the smallest player in the NFL at only 160 pounds.

A product of the inner city of Portland, Birden came to Lakeridge because he was in the very last group of students who were bussed in order to achieve racial balance in schools.

While doing his part to promote integration, Birden did even more to help the Pacer football team. He was good as a junior and great as a senior, making the all-state football team.

But where Birden really shined was in track as a sprinter and jumper.

'I almost won the state meet by myself,' Birden said. 'I scored 29 points. The winning team scored 31 points.'

Ordinarily someone of such athletic accomplishments would be heavily recruited. But Birden was a mere 133 pounds. NCAA Division II schools liked him a lot, but the little speedster could get nary an offer from Division I, where he was determined to play.

The best he could do was a possible tryout at the University of Oregon from Head Coach Rich Brooks.

But not until he was a sophomore.

The good news is that he got the tryout and made the Duck football team. The bad news is 'I had a most unimpressive college career in football.'

Birden said, 'I started as a junior, but I broke my arm against Nebraska. As a senior I twisted my arm against UCLA. I had one touchdown my whole career.'

This did not exactly overwhelm scouts like Mel Kiper, Jr. But Birden was such a standout in track that he wrangled an invitation to the NFL Combine for college prospects.

Initially, this was a very depressing experience.

'I was terrified,' Birden admitted. 'There I was with guys like Sterling Sharpe, Michael Irvin, Brian Blades, Ron Brown, Aaron Cox. All these super stars.'

But the combine called for skills in which Birden was richly blessed.

'I thought, 'If you want to see how fast I can run and how far I can jump, you got it!'' Birden said.

There was another factor, too.

'In the NFL you are dealing with the very best players,' Birden said. 'The strongest and the fastest. What sets players apart is intelligence. Their ability to learn the entire game.'

Starting out, Birden was not merely unsung, he was almost unheard of.

But after his glowing performance at the NFL Combine he was drafted in the eighth round by the Cleveland Browns, and he proceeded toward a productive career with the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons, which peaked with a 52-catch, 721-yard performance in 1993.

Not only that but Birden's teams won. Seven of the nine teams he played for earned playoff berths, although he admits, 'The biggest disappointment of my career is that I didn't play in a Super Bowl.'

Still, the little man who made good had one worry: How would he adjust when he had to leave the NFL.

'I knew so many guys who had a terrible time,' Birden said. 'They just couldn't give it up. I was afraid I would be just like them.'

Yet when the time came in 1997, Birden was more than ready to leave.

'When I retired, I was sick and tired of football,' he said. 'It had reached the point where it was no fun anymore. It's a cutthroat business and there's no loyalty.'

Two key factors launched Birden into a successful post-football life. One was that he became a Jehovah's Witness in 1998.

'That made it an easy transition,' Birden said. 'I was able to focus on something much more important.'

Number two, he was able to devote much more time to his family - his wife Raina, who he met at the University of Oregon, sons LaJourdain, 17, and Dante, 15, and daughter Camille, 12. Within a year, the Birden family expects to become residents of Lake Oswego.

'All my kids are dying to go to Lakeridge,' Birden said.

These days, Birden happily hawks dark chocolate to the world ('Japan, Australia, Canada. We're going everywhere!') and has even recovered much of his love for football.

'I watch it a lot now,' Birden said. 'Only I analyze every single play. Sometimes it drives people crazy.'

At age 43, Birden still deals with some aches and pains from his long NFL career. But as he has shown so often in the past, it is still a mistake to underestimate J.J. Birden.

'My kids and their friends call me the Old Man and get me out there for flag football,' he said. 'I run rings around them every time.'

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