Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland is remembered for one big reason. Literally. Kirkland is one of the greatest linebackers in recent NFL history, a clear juxtaposition to today’s game, where the league takes a collection of former safeties, turns them into 215-pound “linebackers” and calls it a day.
I spoke with Kirkland, a two-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro who spent nine years in Pittsburgh, to reflect on his career. While Kirkland became one of the league’s greatest linebackers, he wasn’t always that way.
“Coming into Clemson, I was undersized,” he says in a Saturday interview. “I weighed about 195 pounds.”
And he wasn’t an inside linebacker like he was in Pittsburgh. He played outside linebacker, bulked up to 240 pounds with the Tigers and became a college All-American. Eventually he would be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor. It wasn’t until the Senior Bowl that he changed positions, Coach Art Shell moved him to inside linebacker. Kirkland admitted he wasn’t quite sure what he was doing, but if he could find the ball, he would hold his own. He did.
That made him the Steelers’ second-round pick in the 1992 draft, Bill Cowher’s first move. Once in the NFL, he continued to bulk up and estimated he played most of his career in the 270-280 pound range, though he lost some weight in his final seasons. While unusually large and broad-shouldered for the position, Kirkland was also a terrific athlete, and his size never hindered him. He intercepted eleven passes in nine seasons with Pittsburgh and made countless other plays in coverage.
“I didn’t gain weight on purpose. What happened was I was still so good at that weight, especially around 270, 280, I was probably no different than any linebacker that weighed 230. I could run, I can cover tight ends down the field. So it wasn’t that big of a difference compared to other linebackers.”
He was the self-described “enforcer” of the Steelers’ excellent linebacking group, playing alongside the likes of Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Earl Holmes and Jerry Olsavsky. Kirkland’s size was an asset for the era, the game largely played inside the field with big linemen and lead backs to contend with.
Despite being a high draft pick, he wasn’t an instant player. As a backup his rookie year, he quickly learned that the NFL didn’t follow the college model.
“I was naive when I first came in. I thought like in college you did a lot of rotation. In college we rotated a lot. So I thought it was the same in the NFL that you want to rotate. If you don’t would be a starter, you’d get some playing time. I quickly realized that if you’re not a starter, you don’t get any playing time.”
Kirkland became a starter in his sophomore year. And he shone. He was second on the team in tackles in 1993 and 1994, recording over triple digits. A versatile and well-rounded player, he could stuff the run, sack the quarterback and pick them off in the passing game. In 1996 he earned his first Pro Bowl berth and in 1997 he made his first All-Pro. This past year, he finished with 126 tackles, five sacks and two picks. He is the only Steeler with such a single-season stat line, 120+ tackles, 5+ sacks and 2+ picks. And Pittsburgh’s tradition at linebacker is as strong as any in franchise history. Kirkland was also remarkably durable, one of the most durable Steelers ever, never missing a game in his nine-year Pittsburgh career.
But all good things come to an end. Kirkland’s time in Pittsburgh came to an abrupt and unceremonious end. He did not find out that he would be released after the 2000 season by the team or his agent. Instead, the news was brought to him by a journalist.
“I got a phone call from Ed Bouchette telling me they were thinking of getting rid of me or thinking of waving me.”
In a cost-cutting measure, Kirkland was one of several Steelers’ veterans released that year. It was hard news to digest after nine years with the team when he thought he would end his career there. It was doubly hard knowing how close the team was to making another run.
“I knew that next year we would be really good. And I even told the team, ‘let’s prepare, because next year we’re going to run’.”
Kirkland was right. Pittsburgh got back on track in 2001 and advanced to the AFC title game before falling to the New England Patriots. Kirkland found a home out west, signing and starting all 16 games with Seattle. He moved to Philadelphia in 2002 and again played all 16 games before his career ended.
These days, Kirkland still follows the Steelers and considers himself a fan, though not a die-hard. He remains close to Clemson football and hosts a podcast covering the Tigers.
Although he played in an era where football looked and was covered very differently, without the 24/7 scrutiny, fantasy football wasn’t nearly as popular and sports betting only existed in dark corners of casinos, Kirkland understands and accepts the evolution of game. But he warns NFL defenses not to sacrifice size and run defense at inside linebacker just to play someone who can cover.
“Believe me, if you can’t play the run, I don’t care what era it is. It’s tough. If you can’t stop the run, it’s physically demoralizing. I don’t think you could just put a guy who was a safety, and say, ‘hey, why don’t you play linebacker?’ I think it’s got to be a guy that has a combination of both. Who can really play the run, but also be able to be effective in the passing game.”
Overshadowed by legends like Jack Lambert and Jack Ham, Kirkland was one of the NFL’s best linebackers in the 90s. Although he could not finish his career with the team he started with, he loved playing in and for Pittsburgh.
“I just love playing in Pittsburgh because the fans really understood the game. They were savvy fans, they got behind us. It was a culture. It was something from the ’70s growing up as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. They probably had a onesie that had the Steelers on or a football or a horrible towel. They really took the game seriously and they bought into the culture because the culture was also Pittsburgh.”