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Levon Kirkland, Steelers Linebacker, 1992-2000

February 19, 2012
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Levon Kirkland:

First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself these days and about your new coaching job?

I’m the head coach now at a private school in Greenville – Sharron Forrest. I’m building the program up – it’s the first year for football there. I was chosen on December 2nd and I’m working hard now to build the program.

It’s my first experience as a head coach but I was a coaching assistant for three years and worked with Clemson’s football team too. It’s really cool – I’m having a good time and want to build  a great program and great young men.

What are some of the coaching lessons you find yourself leaning on now as a coach?

My better coaches used more instruction than yelling and that’s how I want to do it. I want to be a coach that teaches them how to approach the game – how to study. Hopefully what I bring as a coach is someone that cares about their academics and about them as people first and about them as football players as well. My playing experience and coaching experience gives me something I can share with them to make them better players and people.

Any particular coaches come to mind?

A lot of times when I talk to players, I remind them about Cowher’s words: “Never get too high with the highs and never get too low with the lows.” So much is emotional – it’s important to remind them to stay on a level – it’s never as good or bad as it seems.

With LeBeau and Capers, I think more about teaching the game. I have to understand that not everyone are the athletes that I was – not everyone can do it easy or right away. I have to work to improve their ability.

Who helped mentor you as a rookie and helped you adjust to the NFL, both on and off the field?

One of the players was Jerry Olsavsky, I was new to the position – I was an outside linebacker in college. I wasn’t familiar with the inside linebacker position and it was an adjustment. The speed of the game and how mentally and physically tough NFL players are. Plus, I was thrust into the leadership role, having to call signals. Jerry slowed the game down for me and gave me advice on who to follow and how to read other teams’ players.

Jerry and I had a ball on special teams. By my second year I caught on to things more. Kevin Green and Greg Lloyd were also helpful – instrumental on showing me how to play the game. They set the standards for all of us and if we didn’t play at that level, they let us know.

Dermontti Dawson showed me how to be as a person. Maybe they all didn’t know it, but I followed their examples.

You mentioned your adjustment to inside linebacker. How did you make that adjustment and was it frustrating for you?

I was nervous about it but was open to it. To help my draft status I was willing to do it (laughing). The coaches in the Senior Bowl and All-Star games put me inside a lot. I guess they saw something I didn’t see.

Funny story – one of my college coaches that recruited me was an inside linebackers coach. He said I’d be a good inside linebacker too. I guess it all worked out.

How did you manage to be as athletic as you were given your unique size for an inside linebacker?

When you look at my size then it was a unique thing. When I started I was 240 pounds. I didn’t realize in the 3-4 that the offensive guards get on you free – there’s lots of banging on you as an inside linebacker in the 3-4. In the 4-3 you could run around, but in the 3-4 the inside linebackers have to be more athletic in the run and pass game.

I wasn’t as strong as I needed to be to  take that pounding at first. That size and weight was an advantage for me in the end. I worked out – most don’t realize – I worked out twice  a day before most were doing that and had a boxing coach too. Some looked at me as too big but I had quick feet and was aggressive. In coverage I was patient and understood what I could and couldn’t do. With God’s blessing me and hard work I was able to learn.

Who were some of the biggest characters oon that linebacking corps and how did all of you get along?

We all got along great and all of the linebackers were characters. They all had a different spin on things. Greg {Lloyd} was aggressive and had a chip on his shoulder all the time. He was always pushing it to prove he was the best.

Kevin {Green} understood how to play a certain role. He had that long hair and knew how to use his personality to his advantage. And Chad {Brown} was more of an introvert. He was always reading these big books and kept mostly to himself.

Off the field we went our separate ways but clicked on the field. I think they broke us up too soon, really.

How did humor play a part?

I had more of a sense of humor than the other guys. I was probably seen as more normal, with my glasses on and everything. Everyone was game to me. As I played and got more confident, my personality came out more. I made fun of Dawson and even Cowher. When we were warming up in practices I’d  make this big Chewbacca sound and guys thought it was funny. I don’t even know how that got started (laughing).

What were some of your fondest memories of playing?

The Super Bowl had to be one of them. That was a growing period for me and I blossomed that year. It was the turning point of my career, really. I realized I could be a great player – more than just a run stopper. Even the coaches started realizing that then. I could do other things – it took them a while to see that, that I could play on third downs and do much more.

How was your relationship with your coaches?

Me and Bill {Cowher} had a good relationship. When I was drafted in the second round I wasn’t too surprised – they were the team I thought really liked me during the scouting process. I could joke with Bill. Capers and Lebeau – they really helped me develop as a player and I got along with them well too.

Haslett – now he and I had a real love-hate relationship. It was heated at times.

What did you argue about?

We argued about calls. I was more vocal then as a player. We argued on why we did things. Sometimes as  a player you don’t see the whole picture – you see more of your own role and you understand what the other guys are doing, but the bigger picture can get lost. That’s when things got harder – things can get difficult.

Mike Archer helped me a lot – he told me I was better than I thought I was. I needed confidence. It was hard to get noticed with so many great players. I thought I wasn’t getting recognition and was being overshadowed. I wasn’t used to that. Archer was the guy that gave me the confidence I needed. He told me to trust myself more. I wasn’t always sure of myself – it was a new position for me. When he came on the team after the Super Bowl his advice helped me to believe in myself more.

The team waived you in 2001. Was that a surprise to you? How did you take it?

It did surprise me. I really had no warning – I guess it was naive on my part. I thought I had bounced back that season and played like the Kirkland of old.

It was more of a money issue, I realized later. It hits you then as a player – it’s a business. You gotta be loyal to the team as a player, but you have to be loyal to yourself too. It can happen to anyone – no one – not even Montana – is immune to it.

I got nine years with the team though. They drafted me and extended me two times. But it was time to move on.

I loved the team dearly, but Seattle offered me a good deal. It helped to move far away, to see other things and meet new people and add to my career. I wanted to stay and probably would have taken a pay cut. I felt strongly about being a Steeler, but they did what they thought was best.

Any last thoughts for readers?

The fans are great. I respect their knowledge of the game. They understood how to approach players – there was no fan I didn’t like. They are involved – it’s like a religion. It’s nice when they recognize you as a good player.

I was blessed to play for a great organization and city. It was not all my doing – I had the support of my family and God. Now, I am giving back to the game I love in a way that is hopefully honest and pure, mentoring and coaching young athletes.

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