Being that it’s the offseason and football activity remains virtual, it’s an ideal time to introduce ‘Steeler of the Day,’ a new series in which we’ll highlight the career of a Pittsburgh Steelers player from days gone by, while also bringing you up-to-date as to what that player is doing today.
In this first installment, we look back at the career of inside linebacker Levon Kirkland (#99), the first defensive player selected in the Bill Cowher era. Drafted in the second round in 1992 (38th overall), Kirkland went on to play for the Steelers for nine seasons before finishing his NFL career with the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles, spending one season with each of those teams.
Kirkland was part of an impactful Steelers’ draft class that also produced right tackle Leon Searcy (first round), nose tackle Joel Steed (third round), safety Darren Perry (eighth round) and long snapper Kendall Gammon (eleventh round), all but one of whom were named to the Pro Bowl at least once during the course of their careers. (Perry, believe it or not, is the exception.)
What Was Levon Kirkland Like as a Player?
If you never saw Kirkland play, think of him as a combination of Devin Bush and Vince Williams … except he was much, much bigger than either.
On the one hand, Kirkland was a thumper with pass rush skills, not unlike Williams (6-1, 233 pounds). On the other hand, he had many of the same responsibilities as Bush (5-11, 234), who plays sideline-to-sideline and can be seen tracking pass receivers across the field.
The difference is that Kirkland looked like more like a defensive end or small nose tackle than a linebacker. While he was listed at 6-1 and 275 pounds, he appears to have played at 280 or 290, maybe even as much as 300 pounds. Yet he excelled at covering running backs and tight ends downfield. In fact, he intercepted 11 passes during his time in Pittsburgh and had 15 passes defensed in 1998, a truly remarkable statistic for a linebacker.
While playing for the Steelers, Kirkland started 124 of 144 games, responsible for 849 total tackles, including 531 solo tackles and 17 tackles for loss. He also contributed 18.5 sacks and forced 14 fumbles. Kirkland was known for his durability; once he cracked the starting lineup in 1993, he rarely missed a game.
Kirkland’s best season with the Steelers came in 1997, when he was in on 125 tackles and had five sacks, two interceptions and seven passes defensed. One of his finest performances came in Super Bowl XXX against the Cowboys. He was arguably the best player on the team that day, contributing ten tackles and a sack, and he deserved serious consideration for Super Bowl MVP, even in a losing effort.
As for Kirkland’s NFL accolades, he was All-Pro in both 1996 and 1997, and was named NFL Alumni Linebacker of the Year in ’97. He was also team MVP in both 1998 and 1999 and was named to the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team.
Kirkland Returns To South Carolina, Clemson Too
Prior to being drafted by the Steelers, the Lamar, South Carolina native played for the Clemson Tigers (1988-1991), where he wore #44. Despite being lightly recruited, he starred at Clemson, finishing his college career with 40 tackles for loss and 19 sacks among 273 tackles. He was also a finalist for the 1990 Butkus Award.
Kirkland was inducted into the Clemson University Hall of Fame in 2001, the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008 and the South Carolina Football Hall of Fame in 2017. He was also added to Clemson’s Ring of Honor on October, 26, 2019, during a game against Boston College.
After retiring from the NFL as a player Kirkland embraced coaching. At one point he served as defensive coordinator at Florida A&M University and later landed a Bidwell Fellowship, coaching outside linebackers for the Arizona Cardinals. Sadly, he lost his wife Keisha to lung cancer in 2013.
In early 2019 he was hired as Vice President of Development for the South Carolina Football Hall of Fame—and to assist the Greenville-based non-profit with the development of its Museum and Leadership Center.
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‘Inside Blitz With Levon Kirkland’ Podcast
He also co-hosts a podcast called Inside Blitz with Levon Kirkland, where he interviews accomplished people—broadcaster Paul Maguire, former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Sam Wyche, and 3x Super Bowl champion Richard Seymour (New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders) being representative examples—to find out “why football made a difference in their lives.”
As Kirkland noted in the debut episode of the podcast, “We want to educate and empower people…. People need encouragement. I think they need coaches in their lives.”
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