With the Steelers boasting a luminary linebacking lineage that stretches from Andy Russell to LaMarr Woodley, some incredible talents have made life miserable for offensive opponents of the black and gold.
However, arguably none were or have been quite the physical freak than the man that prowled the middle in the mid-90's, Levon Kirkland. Kirkland's playing weight routinely listed within a strip steak of 300-pounds, he had incredible agility and routinely took deep cover routes. He was a holy terror to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX and his versatility earned him two Pro Bowl trips and two All-Pro awards during his nine seasons with the Steelers.
I was able to catch up with Kirkland during a special guest appearance at the Meadows Race Track & Casino's weekly Sunday Steelers tailgate parties, hosted by former Steeler Mike Merriweather, in their Silks Lounge.
Q: Between the 1970’s Steelers linebackers corps, the 1990’s linebackers corps and today’s, you have some of the greatest linebacking corps in NFL history. Where did your group stack up and where does today's stack up?
Kirkland: Wow. You have to give the nod to the 1970’s group for being the ones that won four Super Bowls. I think our group was a very nice group – we didn’t win the big one – but I would really put us there at second I thought we had enough talent to face anyone – and this group that’s there now – that’s a great group too. It’s really hard to say, but I would put us second.
Q: Which guys from today's team do you enjoy watching play?
Kirkland: I like Farrior to be honest with you, because he plays my position. James Harrison … also Timmons because he’s from my area, he’s from the Pee Dee area – he said he remembered me signing something for him when he was a kid, so he’ll always kind of have a little special part of my heart there.
Q: You were such a big man -- exceptionally big for a middle linebacker -- but so fast on your feet. Do you think you'd still play the middle in the modern NFL or a position on the defensive line?
Kirkland: I think so. I think, myself, I was probably one of the more unique players in this regard. Even though I was a plus against the pass, most people kind of didn't put me in that box. But after Greg [Lloyd] went down (Kirkland became the only linebacker in the Steelers' nickel packages), I really had showed the coaching staff and a lot of other people that I can cover. I'd been covering guys for years ... I always felt like I had a natural knack to cover, so I feel like I could do the same today.
Q: Super Bowl XXX was one of your finest games as a professional -- you almost single-handedly took things over in the second half -- but ...you guys lost the game. Given that, is it a good memory or a bad memory for you?
Kirkland: It's kind of a bittersweet memory for me, myself. I think it was really my coming out party as a national player. I think people who watched the game [in Pittsburgh] knew how well I could play, but for everyone in the whole country, it kind of showcased my skills a little bit, so it was good to have a great game ... but man I really wanted to win that game so it's definitely bittersweet.
Q: You did a coaching internship with the Steelers several years ago, and now you coach high school football ...
Kirkland: I coach at the high school level now (at Woodmont H.S. in Piedmont, S.C.), which is a lot of fun for me. Being the defensive coordinator, I'm really trying to be creative as far as the play calling is concerned but also, really helping those young men become men. I think the most important thing we can always do as athletes is give our knowledge and experience back to people who really need it, and I really believe these high school players need it. And this will be something that I'm gonna do I think for the rest of my life as far as being a mentor and being a guide for younger athletes.Q: How are you guys doing?
Kirkland: We're struggling a little bit. We're only 1-6 but we're a team that's new to the division -- we moved up another division -- so it's a little tough for us right now, but we're really trying to instill some principles in the guys, and they're coming along pretty well, but we got a long way to go.
Q: Ever ask Dick LeBeau for scheme help? Do you run a 3-4 zone blitz?
Kirkland: [laughs] No, I run a 4-2-5 because its easier for the players. We definitely try to add a little bit of zone blitz, but the one thing about high school players is you don't want to overwhelm them, you don't want to give them too much at one time. There's probably a whole lot of stuff I could do, but we try to keep it simple so they can play fast.Q: You also work for Clemson University. What do you do for your alma mater?
Kirkland: I work in the admissions department as an [academic] recruiting coordinator. I go to a lot of different high schools and take family visits, and visits with students, trying to help them out to understand Clemson a little better but also to try and get them to Clemson University. I work mostly with African-American students.
Q: What do you think of Pitt joining the ACC?
Kirkland: Changes always happen, and I could understand why Pitt would want to do it. I think it's going to be great for basketball, I really do. Football ... it's going to be good too. I don't see any bad part of trying to expand [the conference] and trying to get better, and I think Pitt is doing the best thing for their school. People may say whatever, but you have to do what's best for your college, and they're doing that.
The NFL Network rated Kirkland and his linebacking cohorts Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene as the #7 linebacking corps of all-time -- have a look below: