Note: The following appears in the Boston College gameday football program.
For the first time since 2001, an addition is being made to the Clemson Ring of Honor at Memorial Stadium. Levon Kirkland joins former Tigers Banks McFadden, Steve Fuller, Jeff Davis, Fred Cone, Jerry Butler and Terry Kinard, former Head Coaches Frank Howard and Danny Ford and former Sports Information Director Bob Bradley on the façade of the North upper deck.
It is an illustrious group of men who have made a significant contribution to the heritage of Clemson football from an individual and team standpoint.
Each person in the Clemson Ring of Honor has his or her own story, but some of them have a common denominator. Many reached greatness after coming to Clemson without a lot of fanfare.
Cone never played high school football and came to Clemson in 1947 as a walk-on because Howard’s sister thought he looked athletic diving off a diving board into a neighbor’s pool. Butler came to Clemson for track.
Kirkland, who never earned more than honorable mention all-state honors as a high school football player from Lamar, S.C., is receiving Clemson’s highest athletic honor.
“I really got discovered because some recruiters were coming to see players on an opposing team during my junior year. I had a good game with a couple of sacks, and I started to get some letters.”
The notices came from Clemson and South Carolina for the most part. He did get scholarship offers from SC State and Appalachian State, but that was it.
Fortunately for Clemson, former Linebackers Coach Miles Aldridge saw something in Kirkland.
“Coach Aldridge was my recruiter and did a great job keeping up with me. He never gave me lines about starting right away. He was honest, and I liked that.”
Kirkland did not see the field when he came to Clemson for the 1987 season.
“The coaches thought I needed to mature physically, and they were right. I had a good attitude about it.”
Looking back, it was the smart thing to do. By redshirting, Kirkland traded what would have been a small role on the 1987 team for an All-America season in 1991.
By 1988, Kirkland was ready. In the season’s sixth game, he made some big plays in a 49-17 win over a Duke team coached by Steve Spurrier.
“I had a strip sack that was a big play in the game and had another big play in the second half. That game gave me a lot of confidence.”
Late in the year, Kirkland finished with a career-high 13 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack and an interception in the ACC-title-clinching-win at Maryland.
More standout contests continued in 1989, including the Gator Bowl win over West Virginia when Kirkland was the MVP.
“We went to a press conference before that game, and I saw the MVP trophy. Wow, that was a big trophy. I had a goal to win that.”
In 1990, Kirkland was the only underclassman finalist for the Butkus Award, and he was an All-American in 1991 as well. He finished his career with 40 tackles for loss and 19 sacks among his 273 tackles.
There were a lot of accolades for Kirkland, but what he remembers most is the camaraderie with his teammates, especially fellow defensive ends John Johnson, Wayne Simmons and Ashley Sheppard. They were as fierce a group as Clemson’s four defensive linemen from the 2018 national championship squad.
“We had so much fun together. We were all so unselfish. Tommy West (his position coach) used to let us sub on our own. It didn’t matter. If one of us got hot with a sack or tackle for loss, we stayed in the game. Other than that, we subbed every two series.”
In his career, the Tigers won the ACC championship twice, had four top-20 seasons and posted a 39-8-1 record.
That success led to an NFL All-Pro career for Kirkland, who was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team of the 1990s. In all, he played 176 career regular-season games and 13 playoff contests. He totaled 1,023 tackles, 19.5 sacks and 16 caused fumbles in 11 seasons.
His late wife, Keisha, who died of cancer at the age of 41 in 2013, had so much to do with that success in the NFL.
“I only had her for 11 years and miss her every day. She was such an inspiration the way she fought cancer. She was the person who got me to go back to Clemson and finish my degree (in 2004) after I finished my NFL career.
“I would not receive this Ring of Honor induction today without her.”
Kirkland currently serves as vice president for development for the South Carolina Football Hall of Fame.