Levon Kirkland may never be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have wonderful NFL career. And that doesn’t mean that he can’t be honored. In fact, the former Pittsburgh Steelers second-round draft pick is among the finalists for enshrinement into the College Football Hall of Fame, along with Antwaan Randle El and Ted Peterson.
“It blew me away”, he told Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on the Breakfast with Benz podcast recently, on learning of the news. “I was stunned. I was looking at Twitter and that’s how I found out”, he added. “I’ll be honest with you, I definitely want to be on [the ballot]”.
Drafted in 1992, Kirkland did not play much at all during his rookie year, but he would develop into a starter in 1993, and would become a top linebacker, making the All-Pro list in both the 1996 and 1997 seasons. He would finish his Steelers career of nine years with 849 tackles with 18.5 sacks, 11 interceptions, and 14 forced fumbles, with one touchdown, and would go on to play two more seasons, one each for the Seattle Seahawks and the Philadelphia Eagles, before retiring.
But, of course, he’s up for the College Football Hall of Fame, not the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he was a dominant player at Clemson, where Benz writes that he accumulated 273 tackles with 40 for lost yardage, and 19 sacks. He noted that he was an outside linebacker, “more of what Kevin Greene played”, before arriving in Pittsburgh.
The finalists for this year’s class list out to 78 candidates. Not all of them will make it, at least not on the first ballot. But he believes that his football career, taken in totality between college and the pros, certainly merits distinction.
Yet he perhaps only barely even made it to Clemson. He told Benz that he was a sparsely-recruited player coming out of high school, and that when scouts did come to watch his team, they were there for other players. “Not me”, he said. “I just happened to have a great game”. He soon got a recruitment letter from South Carolina, and then Clemson followed.
More subjectively, Kirkland was a fan favorite, and not just for the rarity of watching a man of his size play the linebacker position with such athleticism. It was frustrating for many fans when they did not retain him in 2001 as he moved on to Seattle.
He remains a popular alumnus with the team, as one of their greatest players of the 1990s, and was rightly acknowledged as part of the 1990s NFL All-Decade Team (second team), one of many Steelers on that list.
The first-team All-Decade team included center Dermontti Dawson, outside linebacker Kevin Greene, and cornerback Rod Woodson, all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with linebacker Hardy Nickerson, defensive back Carnell Lake, and kicker Gary Anderson joining him on the second team.