Q&A with Levon Kirkland


Weeks ago, we gave our personal top 5 Clemson football players and both Andrew and I selected former linebacker, Levon Kirkland. The former Pittsburgh Steeler and two time Pro Bowler is a member of the Clemson University and the state of South Carolina Hall of Fames so he was an easy choice for me.

Kirkland played 11 years in the NFL and retired in 2004. He went back to his alma mater, Clemson, not as a football coach but as part of the admissions office to coordinate minority recruitment. During his time at Clemson and after his departure in 2009, he coached on the high school level in Greenville, SC and now he gets a chance with the Arizona Cardinals.

First of all, congratulations on being the inaugural recipient of the Bill Bidwell Coaching Fellowship. How does it feel to be the first?

Levon Kirkland: I’m the very first one, so it’s nice, it’s nice to be thought of in that way. I like that Coach(Bruce Arians) gave me the opportunity and gave me a chance.

So you will be in Arizona for two years?

Kirkland: Yeah, I will basically be here for two seasons, and then hopefully this will open some doors and open some opportunities for me. But in the meantime, it gives me the opportunity to learn on a very high level during the season. Which normally you don’t have a chance to do. So I’m very blessed and I prayed for this one. I just want to take advantage of it.

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  • I know that Bruce Arians came to Pittsburgh after your career. Did you have a previous relationship with him?

    Kirkland: Actually, I did an internship at Pittsburgh and he was the offensive coordinator at the time. And we really didn’t speak that much-we said hello to each other and that was it. You know, years went by and I thought I had an opportunity this year to be on staff, but I was able to go to a mini- camp. I did a good job there so I guess he wanted to keep me on the staff.

    You weren’t the only new coach announced for the Cardinals. Jen Welter became the first female coach of any kind in the NFL that day. What is she coaching and how do you feel about the move?

    Kirkland: She’s coaching the inside linebackers. She has been a professional football player for 14 years and she also coached in the arena league. I think she also has a PHD in sports psychology. So she brings a lot to the table. I think this is groundbreaking and we will see what happens but she’s going to be here through the preseason and she’s done a really good job.

    Were you aware of the hiring before the announcement or did you find out at that time.

    Kirkland: No, I knew this was going to happen. BA( Bruce Arians) told me before he hired me and I think it’s a good thing.

    The current Cardinals roster has former Clemson players, Andre Ellington, Chris Clemons, Antione McLain and Brentson Buckner is on the staff. Did you know any of them?

    Kirkland: I knew them when I worked at Clemson but only in passing so I didn’t know any of them that well. I knew Brentson Buckner from college. He came in slightly behind me and plus we played together at Pittsburgh. We have developed a really good relationship.

    Not only do you have Buckner as a former Steeler teammate but cornerback Willie Williams is also there.

    Kirkland: He’s on the internship also- so it’s good. It’s a familiar surrounding and because I have been in a few mini-camps- it makes it a little more comfortable for me.

    When you worked at Clemson, Did you spend any time around the football program?

    Kirkland: I kinda stayed away. The reason was because I had a job to do myself. I really didn’t have a lot of time and plus I was coaching high school ball.

    Was it tough to stay away from the football program especially since it was right there.

    Kirkland: I wanted to do something different because I was involved in football for quite some time. I just wanted to see what else I could do.  But I fell back in love with football once I started doing camps and coaching high school. Sometimes you don’t want to over step your boundaries even though you’re invited to come all the time. I had a job to do, a wife and kids. I had to do what I had to do. I couldn’t always go over there. I always wanted to get back into the game and it’s amazing that I’m at this level.

    And you coached at Florida A&M , right?

    Kirkland: After I coached high school for several years, I went to FAMU for two seasons and we got released. It was a good experience so I’ ve coached on the college level. I’ve coached on every level and played on every level so it’s really remarkable for me.

    How does it feel to know that you were the first or one of the first big linebackers in the NFL?

    Kirkland: Seems like I’m always the first( laughing) in doing things- Lamar, being a big linebacker. It’s kinda been my thing as being the first one. I think I was unique in a way when I played, people always say that we can’t find a linebacker quite like you. But these guys are good, there are some talented guys who can really play. We have some good guys on this team. Honestly, I’m looking forward to coaching them and learning myself. It’s going to be a good thing.

    What was your true weight?

    Kirkland: I ranged between 260-290. My best years were probably when I was 280 that is when I went to the Pro Bowls. I carried weight differently and I’m sure it probably drove coaches crazy that I was that size but it worked for me.

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    Was there any talk of a change to defensive end by any of the your teams?

    Kirkland: No, not really. Honestly, I probably could have been a pretty good offensive lineman, but I always told people that I was too talented to play down the line of scrimmage.

    Jerome Bettis, a former Steeler teammate of yours, was enshrined into the Hall of Fame. Is he the first teammate to enter the Hall?

    Kirkland: Actually not. Rod Woodson was a teammate of mine and so was Dermontti Dawson. I’ve played with a few Hall of Famers, Jerome is probably the 5th or 6th that I have played with. I’m happy for Jerome-he was a great running back and a great representative for the Steelers organization. I’m just happy for him.

    Dabo Swinney just recently lost his Dad to lung cancer and I know you lost your wife, Keisha to the same disease in 2013. How has it been dealing with that life change and now being a single parent?

    Kirkland: It’s been a huge change for me-it’s been a role. My wife was important to my family. Everything she did was amazing and obviously it has been hard. But God puts you in a place where you need to be. I’ve worked my way through the struggle and I will continue to fight. It’s tough when you lose someone and especially someone so young to cancer. It’s no excuse. I have to continue to move on. It’s like waves and some days it hits you harder than others. You have your holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries-it’s tough. She was a wonderful woman and I was fortunate to be with her for the time that we were together. I have a job as far as raising my daughter and I’m doing a great job of doing that. Although it’s been hard and some good lessons for me-I’ve learned a whole lot. It’s a journey and we will continue on the journey.

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    Are you involved in any cancer awareness programs or charities?

    Kirkland: Chris Draft, who played with the Falcons and Panthers has a program that I was involved with. Ironically, his wife was named Keasha, my wife was named Keisha. She died from lung cancer right before my wife did. So, he created a program where we brought people from Greenville, SC to the Pro Bowl just to really celebrate them being in remission and being healthy. That was a great experience for me and I hope to continue to do that. There will be some other organizations that I will also want to join. Like I said, I have the opportunity now that I am in the NFL to capitalize on a lot of things.

    I know a few people who have met you and they all uttered these two words when talking about you, “big”, and “nice.”

    Kirkland: I try to be the best that I can possibly be. It comes from my father, with having respect for everybody. So it’s great that people are reading me that way.

    I’m sure that Levon doesn’t mind if I take a moment from his moment to expand on his wife’s journey.

    Keisha Kirkland and Keasha Draft, who was also a former Clemson Rally Cat, both were non smokers and were dedicated to educating others about lung cancer. Their main message was to dispel the myth that the disease is only a “smoker’s” disease and their message will continue to be relayed through their husbands and through the Chris Draft Family Foundation.

    Kirkland made his debut as a coach last night and his Arizona Cardinals lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 34-19. I’m pretty sure he has a positive outlook on his team after the loss, like he has on everything else.

    I asked him if there was a chance that he might get in the NFL Hall of Fame. He replies, “You never know. It may not be as a player. It could be as a Coach, you never know.”

    Next: Clemson Football Analysis: Wide Receiver Situation