Heavy Hitter Fast and formidable, 275-pound linebacker Levon Kirkland was one free agent the Steelers couldn't afford to let go

July 13, 1998
July 13, 1998

Table of Contents
July 13, 1998

Boxing [bonus Piece]

Heavy Hitter Fast and formidable, 275-pound linebacker Levon Kirkland was one free agent the Steelers couldn't afford to let go

Levon Kirkland writes letters to God. Every Sunday during the
football season he writes a letter before he goes to Three
Rivers Stadium or wherever the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing
that afternoon. The letter writing has become a ritual.

This is an article from the July 13, 1998 issue Original Layout

"I guess it's cheaper than going to a psychiatrist," the
29-year-old inside linebacker says. "I write maybe a full page.
It gives me a chance to focus my thoughts. I read it over, think
about it, then rip up the letter and throw it away and go to the

"Then he crushes some heads," says Mason Ashe, Kirkland's agent.

"Then I crush some heads," the linebacker agrees.

In six years of writing letters--and crushing heads--Kirkland
has followed a remarkably ascendent career path. Since joining
Pittsburgh in 1992 as a second-round draft choice from Clemson,
he has developed into a two-time Pro Bowl selection and the
Steelers' most important defensive presence, a 6'1", 275-pound
bruiser with the tiptoe finesse of a ballerina. He can stop the
run with his size and cover the pass with his speed and grace.
He is a football aberration, too big to do the many things he
somehow does.

In April, Pittsburgh rewarded him for his success with a
four-year contract extension. The team that's been reluctant to
overpay its veterans since the start of unrestricted free agency
in 1993--the Steelers have lost 35 free agents since then--will
pay Kirkland $25.3 million in the next five years. He is the
highest-paid linebacker in the NFL.

"Have you written any letters to God since April?" he is asked.

"Hah," the big man replies. "I've been writing Him so often....
There's a lot to be thankful for."

Maybe it's time God knew a little bit more about this faithful
correspondent. Hey, maybe it's time everyone knew more.

A report to God (and everyone else) on Levon Kirkland: He is
home for the off-season with his new millions, back in tiny
Lamar, S.C., surrounded by tobacco fields and cotton fields,
back in the frame house where he grew up as the seventh of eight
kids and the youngest of four sons. He is not visiting; he is
home. He sleeps in the same boyhood bedroom; he has never really
left. "I wanted to get in touch with him last week," Ashe says.
"His mother left a note on his pillow, so he could see it when
he came in. It was kind of, you know, sweet."

"What's the matter?" Kirkland says in a deep voice of mock
threat. "You think there's something strange about a 29-year-old
bachelor who lives with his mom and dad?"

There will be residence changes in the future. "O.K., 30 is the
cutoff point--I know that," Kirkland says. But why would he want
to be anywhere else? The screen doors open and close, and
brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews come and go, visitors
all day long. Everyone else still lives in Lamar. Everything
somehow is the same.

"I changed your diapers," his sister Sandra, 35, a teacher who's
maybe a foot shorter and 150 pounds lighter, says for the 900th
time. "Don't you forget it."

"We braided his hair," says another sister, Barbara, 40, also a
teacher. "He had the nicest hair in the family as a baby. We
were so sad when our father cut it that first time."

The father, Levern, is a tough little knot of a man. He runs a
no-nonsense household that only in recent years has been relaxed
a bit. ("You see all those little branches on those pine trees?"
he says. "You get one of those down and use it. That's my
philosophy of raising children.") Until his retirement last
week, Levern was a custodian at Lamar High; he is still a barber
on Friday nights and all day Saturday, and the pastor of the
Lamar Church of God on Sunday. When he moves into a room, voices
are lowered. Even the voice of the highest-paid linebacker in
the NFL.

"When I played in high school, I had to ask him every day if I
could stay after school for practice," Levon says. "My brothers
played before me. They had to ask too. I even had to ask if I
could play the games. He always said yes, but we had to ask.

"I think he's missed one day of work. He was a truck driver for
a long time and got laid off. The next day he got a job as a
custodian. I think he must be the most respected custodian in
history. Everyone would say, 'Hello, Mr. Kirkland. Yes, Mr.
Kirkland. No, Mr. Kirkland.' I finally persuaded him to retire
from that job. I was at the high school [recently], and he was
cutting the lawn. I said, 'Hey, you're retiring on Tuesday, what
are you doing?' He said the lawn needed to be cut. That's the
way he is."

Levon's position in the family was unique. The rest of his
brothers and sisters seemed to be linked together in small
alliances through either age or gender. Levon was a late
arrival. The brother closest to him in age, Albert, is five
years older and joined the Army immediately after high school.
His nearest sister, Angela, two years older, was--according to
Levon--"too prissy." He always thought of himself as an only
child. He developed the imagination of an only child.

"I played by myself in the front yard every day," he says. "I
played football games against myself. I had a milk carton for a
ball. I was the quarterback, the wide receiver, everybody. I'd
throw the ball to myself. I'd straight-arm the trees. I'd tackle
the trees! I announced the games. I called the penalties. I
created two high schools--Jefferson High and Lincoln High--and
they always played for the championship. J.J. Miller was the
quarterback. Randy Jackson was the wide receiver. I'd be
shouting about J.J. Miller and Randy Jackson, people and schools
that didn't exist, and my sisters would look out the windows at
me, trying to figure what I was doing. Isn't that right?"

"We thought he was crazy," Barbara says.

"Crazy," his mother, Helen, agrees.

He moved into actual football at the real high school. It was a
small school, a small team, maybe 35 kids on the roster, so he
wound up playing most of the same positions in reality that he
had played in his mind. He was a wide receiver, a tight end, a
linebacker, a punt returner, a kickoff returner. In the winter
he played basketball. In the spring he ran track and
high-jumped. There was no great rush for his services when he
was a senior, but a scout from Clemson had noticed him at a
playoff game and offered a scholarship.

He arrived at college weighing 205 pounds and left at 240. He
became a weight-room demon, a pass-rushing outside linebacker on
teams that won 39 games in his four years. As a junior he was a
finalist for the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. He
was still available in the second round of the '92 draft because
the pros wondered where to line him up.

"He played pretty much like a defensive end in college,"
Pittsburgh director of football operations Tom Donahoe says. "So
he had a lot to learn when he came here, and we moved him
inside. He had to switch from a down position to standing up,
from the outside to the inside. That took his entire first
season. The only times he played were on special teams, but he
was learning during all that time."

The rest has been that steady, upward progression. A quiet
progression. He didn't wrestle like teammate Kevin Greene. He
didn't collect snakes like Chad Brown. He didn't know taekwondo
like Greg Lloyd. There wasn't a convenient hook to his story. He
was just football. His breakthrough came after Greene signed
with the Carolina Panthers for free-agent money in May 1996 and
after Lloyd went down in the '96 opener with a season-ending
knee injury. Brown would leave for the Seattle Seahawks the
following off-season, but Kirkland was already an every-down
player. He flourished.

"The game a lot of people have pointed to in Levon's development
was the Super Bowl in 1996," Steelers coach Bill Cowher says of
the game in which Kirkland had eight tackles and a sack and
helped hold the Dallas Cowboys' Emmitt Smith to 49 yards
rushing. "We bring our inside linebackers a lot as blitzers and
also have them drop back--so he has to do a lot. It's something
special for a guy who has [that kind of] size to be able to do

By last season he was calling the signals and was the leading
tackler (95 solo stops) and tied for second in sacks (five) on a
defense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the run. Never was
his versatility more evident than in the AFC Championship Game,
a 24-21 loss to the Denver Broncos. Kirkland had 11 tackles, a
sack and an interception. He has become a constant. He hasn't
missed a game in college or the pros.

Every year the family has followed Levon to Pittsburgh for the
home opener, four or five vans filled with Kirklands for the
10-hour trip. Every year he has followed the same path in
reverse at season's end. He has a house and a high-profile life
in Pittsburgh, but he has even more in Lamar, with its one
traffic light and Piggly Wiggly. He has routine and order and
common sense. His father puts him in the barber chair and gives
him a good trim and some familiar words of advice. His mother
puts his clothes in his dresser. His brothers and sisters put
him in his place.

He trains most days at the same high school field where he
practiced as a kid. The grass is bleached by the sun. The
goalposts are rusted. The track is nothing more than sand. He
runs his laps, runs his sprints, alone. Nothing has changed.

"I love to come to this field to work out," he says. "I hear the
voices of my high school coaches in my head, encouraging me,
telling me things...Coach Stires, Coach Poole, Coach Bell--they
keep me going. I don't mean to sound corny, but this is kind of
a spiritual place for me. This is who I am."

Things have worked out O.K., God, for Levon Kirkland. Just fine.
Then, again, you probably know that. From the letters.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER DIANA/PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE Headhunter An imposing presence on the inside, Kirkland led Pittsburgh in solo tackles last season. [Levon Kirkland in game]COLOR PHOTO: YUNGHI KIM/CONTACT FAMILY MAN Even at 29 and with a new $25.3 million contract, Levon moves back in with Levern and Helen in the off-season. [Levern Kirkland, Levon Kirkland and Helen Kirkland]
Kirkland is a football aberration, too big to do the many things
he does.