The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the richest traditions of linebacker greats in the history of professional football. One name that probably isn’t mentioned as often as it should be is that of Levon Kirkland.
The Clemson graduate and South Carolina native was a two time Pro Bowler, a two time All-Pro, a two time team MVP and he was named to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1990s all while wearing the famous black and yellow.
After a season each with the Seahawks and Eagles, the stocky and speedy standout called it a career after the 2002 season. He recorded over 1,000 tackles and had 11 interceptions in his career.
In retirement, Kirkland moved up the linebacker coaching ranks over the years from high school to college to the NFL.
I spoke to him recently about his most memorable autograph experience, his favorite teammates and his love of a good backstory.
TR–Can you share the story of when you were first asked for your autograph in college?
LK-It was during my first year in college. They usually had a fan appreciation day and all of the fans come out. No one really knew who I was but one kid did come up to my table and asked for my autograph. That was the first time I ever signed an autograph. It was a lot of fun. I didn’t have it down. It took me a little bit longer to sign it.
TR–That’s funny because so many of the athletes that I talk to say that you really don’t even know how you want to write your autograph the first time you are asked. It sounds like you were in the same situation.
LK-Yeah, you start writing like you normally write your name or write a sentence, so it’s not very fluid that first time.
TR–Speaking of fan appreciation, what is the most memorable fan interaction that you’ve had?
LK-When I first started getting noticed in college, a fan wanted me to sign a body part. I thought that was craziness. I am on another level when they want me to sign their leg. I was like ‘Are you sure?’ I thought that was unique and hilarious. I have always said that I am just blessed that people even want my autograph. When someone does a body part is like ‘OK…’ but I signed it for them.
LK-Yes I do. It was amazing! As a kid, baseball cards and the various other cards that you see are special. To see yourself and your likeness on a card is amazing. Then they have all that information on the back. That was the coolest part for me. I always wanted to know, as a fan or as a reader, the origin and story behind a player. I like hearing the fun facts about the players. To see yourself and to flip the card over and see the fun facts…that was cool.
TR–What fun fact would you want to have appear on one of your cards that never appeared on one for whatever reason?
LK-I have various nicknames. If they could have put all of my nicknames that I had in college, that would have been a fun fact. With a last name like Kirkland there are so many things you can do with Kirk. I was Captain Kirk. Guys would call me Kirk Dogg. I had the nickname Robocop. I was called G.E. for Great Effort. It just flowed with a lot of nicknames.
TR–Did you collect cards as a kid?
LK-I never had a collection of cards. What I did was I read a great deal about athletes. We had the old encyclopedias back in the day. One day I just started reading the bios of all these great athletes. One of my favorite books to this day is Jerry West’s Basketball My Way. It was my brother’s book. I learned so much history from that book about all of the players form that era. There were so many great pictures in the book. When I went to college I started calling out names like Gail Goodrich, Connie Hawkins and guys like that. None of my teammates had a clue of what I was talking about. They looked at me like I was out of my mind. Pat Riley used to play on some of those teams, too. I didn’t really collect but I read a lot of books about sports figures and that was my geek moment.
TR–You played 11 seasons in the NFL, including nine in Pittsburgh, becoming one of the great linebackers in Steelers history. You were a member of the 1990’s All Decade Second Team, a two time Steelers Team MVP, a two time All Pro, and a two time Pro Bowler among other honors. What one accolade or honor from your career are you most proud of?
LK-I would say being inducted into the Ring of Honor at Clemson. That was a great honor. That blew my mind. To have your last name on there, that represents my family legacy. That represents my mom and dad, who gave blood, sweat and tears for me. That represents my high school coach who first told me I could make it at the next level. It represents my brothers and sister and nieces and nephews and future family to come. That’s the coolest thing about that accolade. It is up in public and up in the building.
Another accolade that means a lot was All-Decade Team. That is a big one. Someone wrote an article about me the other day and said I was one of the most underrated players in Steelers history and I am sure of it because I see people who have Steelers gear on and I walk by them and they have no idea who I am (laughs). It puts you in a very humble state. To be on the all decade team means you put in a lot of work. As long as people recognize you did good work, it’s cool with me.
TR–Do you have an office or man cave where you display memorabilia from your career?
LK- I have a space. My favorite picture there is the picture I took with Chad Brown, Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd. That picture goes down as one of my all-time favorites because I was a picture I took with three guys I really respect and loved playing with. We are in the top ten in all time top line backing core. To be a part of that squad, that is one of my favorite pictures.
TR–The jersey swap is a huge thing in today’s sports world. Do you wish that was more of a tradition back when you were playing?
LK-They only did it during the Pro Bowl. That would have been really cool to do it more often. I don’t think our equipment guy was having that back then, though. They just order them now. It’s no big deal now. I think it would have been really cool to be able to collect different guy’s jerseys. The only two I ever got was Derrick Brooks and Randall McDaniel. Me and Brooks are cool. We are good friends. I really respected Randall McDaniel. I got them at the Pro Bowl.
I really wish we could have done it in the regular season. I would have been after Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Dan Marino. That would have been cool. That is the one thing we don’t cherish enough. I have a collection of all the interceptions I got. Those pieces of memorabilia tell a story. They tell a story about your career. It is special.