Keeping up the defense Steelers: Linebacker Levon nTC Kirkland was one player the team felt it couldn't lose. He got the contract to prove it.

August 10, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

When the Pittsburgh Steelers went to the Super Bowl after the 1995 season, Levon Kirkland was just another face in the crowd on their intimidating defensive unit.

He was overshadowed by Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown and even Rod Woodson, who was returning for the Super Bowl after tearing a knee ligament in the season opener that year.

During Super Bowl XXX, though, it was Kirkland who did the overshadowing.

He made 10 tackles, sacked Troy Aikman and helped the Steelers hold Emmitt Smith to 49 yards.

The Steelers still lost to the Dallas Cowboys, 27-17, but Kirkland started making a name for himself that day.

Kirkland, 29, is no longer a face in the crowd on the defense. He has outlasted his more celebrated teammates.

Three years later, Greene and Lloyd are in Carolina, Brown is in Seattle and Woodson is in Baltimore.

Kirkland, who used to be replaced on third down, has become the heart of the Steelers defense. He has a new, five-year, $25.3 million contract to prove it.

It was not only the best linebacker deal ever, but it also was the best Steelers deal ever.

The Steelers are not noted for throwing money around and have lost a lot of free agents over the years, but Kirkland was one they felt they couldn't let get away.

"Levon has really been someone special, and we really wanted him," said Steelers president Dan Rooney. "We feel he's been important for us, not only as a great player, but as a great person. That's why we really wanted to step up and get it done."

Kirkland said: "I feel like I worked hard and paid my dues in the past. I don't feel bad about getting the money, let's put it that way."

Kirkland was the third member of last year's Steelers to become the highest-paid player at his position in NFL history.

The other two, wide receiver Yancey Thigpen, who got a deal averaging $4.2 million from Tennessee, and offensive tackle John Jackson, who got a deal averaging $4.4 million from San Diego, had to leave Pittsburgh for the big money.

Kirkland, though, points out that all the attention given to the players who leave Pittsburgh obscures the fact that the Steelers have kept the nucleus of their team together, including Jerome Bettis, Kordell Stewart, Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake.

"A lot of people don't understand that even though it looks like we're losing this guy and that guy, if you look at the team and see how we've been doing the last couple of years, there's

definitely a strategy there and definitely a great plan that's been working," he said.

Coach Bill Cowher seconded that motion.

"In this system, when you win, it's hard to keep everybody together because everybody kind of comes after your guys," Cowher said. "We've been fortunate enough to keep the number of people we've been able to keep our core."

Now that Kirkland's been identified as a key member of that core, there will be pressure to live up to the contact.

"I'm just trying to be Levon, and if Levon's a leader, then Levon's a leader," Kirkland said. "Maybe other people look at me that way, but I'm just trying to be myself. I'm not trying to be something I'm not."

Kirkland calls playing inside linebacker "a dirty job, but someone has to do it. With outside linebackers, sacks are glamorized. Lawrence Taylor did a great job of making it a marketable thing."

He said he doesn't even concentrate on big hits.

"I don't really think I'm a vicious linebacker," he said. "I guess we're supposed to be, but I just try to get the job done. If I get a nice hit, cool. Some guys try to cultivate the tough-guy image. I'm just not that kind of a guy."

Kirkland, though, does concede he's starting to earn recognition to rank with the best of Steelers linebackers over the years.

"You talk about the Steelers, you think about Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene. I think I'm right in there, but I think those are guys you're going to think of first," he said.

Success and money aren't expected to spoil a player who still goes home in the off-season to Lamar, S.C., and reclaims his bedroom in his parents' home.

His father, Levern, a retired custodian, barber and pastor of the ,, Lamar Church of God on Sundays, ran a tight ship. Kirkland always had to ask to stay after school for football practice. His father always said yes, but he had to ask.

Kirkland has never missed a game in high school, college or the pros.

Kirkland was a second-round pick out of Clemson in Cowher's first draft class in 1991. He became a starter in 1993 after Hardy Nickerson left as a free agent and David Little was cut.

He's big enough to be a lineman at 6 feet 1 and 275 pounds, but he's quick enough to rush the passer and drop in coverage.

"He's a freak," Steelers director of football operations Tom Donahoe said. "It's not like you look at the guy and say he's heavy or fat. He's big, thick and can run. Physically, he's awesome. To be that big and that fast and the explosion he has -- he can just blow up plays."

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