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Heavy Hitter
Leigh Montville
July 13, 1998
Fast and formidable, 275-pound linebacker Levon Kirkland was one free agent the Steelers couldn't afford to let go
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July 13, 1998

Heavy Hitter

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

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"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 that."

By last season he was calling the signals and was the leading tackier (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."

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