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Levon Kirkland Continues To Be A Great Clemson Representative

Sept. 11, 2000

By Tim Bourret Sports Information Dir. Missouri Game Program – September 9, 2000

Ever since I first met Levon Kirkland when he was a first-year freshman in 1987, he has continually done things that have made you stand up and take notice.

Kirkland came to Clemson without a lengthy resume of accomplishments from Lamar High School in Lamar, SC. Because he played at a school that was in a small classification, he did not get the attention in the state that he deserved, never mind any high school All-America attention. He was never named to an all-state team and was not a Shrine Bowl selection.

That all changed when he got to Clemson. After red-shirting his freshman year, he became an instant starter. He went from virtual obscurity to ranking fifth on the Clemson team in tackles in 1988, a team that finished 10-2 with a victory over Oklahoma in the Citrus Bowl.

I still remember the performance he had at Maryland that year. In a game Clemson needed to win the ACC Championship, Kirkland had 13 tackles, three tackles for loss and had a 22-yard interception return, leading Clemson to victory.

In 1989 everyone continued to take notice of Kirkland’s performances. He finished his sophomore season as a first-team All-ACC performer, highlighted by his MVP performance in the Gator Bowl victory over West Virginia. He harassed All-America quarterback Major Harris all evening. That Gator Bowl performance made the country stand up and take notice of Kirkland.

In 1990, Captain Kirk was named one of five finalists for the Butkus Award, the honor presented to the top linebacker in the nation. He was named an All-American, a big reason Clemson finished 10-2 behind a defense that ranked number-one in the nation, the first Tiger team in history to do that. His senior year, 1991, he was named a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award and again was first-team All-ACC and an All-American. Kirkland played 48 straight games for Clemson, a linebacker record 43 as a starter.

But, just like he had to do when he came to Clemson, he still had to prove himself at the next level. There were questions about where he could play on defense in the NFL because many thought he was an in-between size.

The Pittsburgh Steelers made Kirkland a second-round pick in the 1992 draft. Eight years later everyone assumes he must have been a first-round pick, just as they assume he must have been a high school All-American when he entered Clemson.

He became a starter with the Steelers in 1993 and has started all but four games in the last seven years. He has had at least 100 tackles in six of those seven years, leading the team in tackles three of the last four years.

His performance against Dallas in Super Bowl XXX made the pro football community stand up and take notice of his play. He had 16 tackles and personally was responsible for Emmitt Smith gaining only 49 yards in 18 carries. Had it not been for some mistakes by Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O’Donnell (who Kirkland had tormented as a freshman for Clemson against Maryland in that 1988 game I referred to earlier) Kirkland might have been MVP of that Super Bowl.

In 1997 and 1998 he was chosen to the Pro Bowl and made All-Pro. The Steeler organization has certainly noticed his performance, as Kirkland is now the highest paid linebacker in the NFL.

Ironically, one of the reasons Levon Kirkland is one of my favorite players since I have been at Clemson (22 years), is his down to earth nature. He doesn’t try to do things that make him noticed by the public, the media or his teammates.

A look to his childhood reveals the reason for his level headed nature. He is the product of a two-parent home, the seventh of eight children. It is a close family, one Kirkland still stays with much of the off-season. Yes, the highest paid linebacker in the NFL still sleeps in the bed he grew up in, a fact a 1998 Sports Illustrated article made in one of the most adoring profiles in the history of the magazine.

When Kirkland was at Clemson, he was an interview machine. Not because he craved the limelight, he was the opposite of a Deion Sanders, who played at Florida State in that era. He did the interviews because he knew it was part of his responsibility as a team leader.

When Clemson played in a bowl game, our office could always depend on Kirkland for live interviews. All the local stations come to the bowl site for special live interviews on their news programs. We scheduled Levon for “Live Shots” every night, not only because he was a good interview, but also because we could depend on him. Even on New Year’s Eve if we asked him to be in the lobby at 6:21, he would be there.

Today, between the first and second quarters, Kirkland will again do something that will make us stand up and take notice. He is presenting the “Call Me Mister” Program with a check for $200,000. “Call Me Mister” is a program coordinated by former Clemson All-American and National Championship team captain Jeff Davis that recruits African-American men to study to become secondary education teachers.

The program funds scholarships for these men at Clemson and other historically black colleges in the state. More than 50 of the young men who benefit from the program are scheduled to be in attendance to day and will stand up to recognize Kirkland’s contribution during the presentation.

Standing up and recognizing Levon Kirkland for his contributions to Clemson and the way he represents this University on a daily basis might be an appropriate response for everyone in attendance.