One of the most dominant and unique members in franchise history is taking the necessary steps to return to professional football.
The academy was formed to prepare former players for the transition to coaching, as well as instructing coaches of all levels on how to progress their careers. Varley spoke with two former Steelers who have attended the academy, and developed a passion for coaching - Willie Parker and Levon Kirkland.
Parker caught the coaching bug after spending a season interning with the West Virginia Weslyan coaching staff, working with the tight ends. Parker pointed out the benefits of attending the academy for any former player interested in following a similar path. He is uncertain where his career will take him next, but he is certain he wants to be coaching.
Kirkland, an intimidating specimen during his playing days, made a name for himself as an inside linebacker with the Steelers under former head coach Bill Cowher. Kirkland was a one of a kind player who possessed elite speed, strength and size. Current Steelers LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds and Jonathan Dwyer have been ridiculed at different times for their girth; but Kirkland dwarfed them all, in stature and skill.
In the present, Kirkland finds himself as the head coach of Shannon Forest Christian School in Greenville, SC; after starting out working with the linebackers and then the defensive coordinator. Kirkland expressed a desire to learn and grow his new-found passion, with a "sky's the limit" outlook.
"I want to take it to the highest level. I want to help younger athletes, but I also want to coach at the highest level. I am going to keep working on it and one day I will be there, whether it’s a head coach in college or the NFL, at one of those levels I am looking forward to that. I understand there is a process and I have to gain as much knowledge as I can.
"I am really enjoying coaching. I took some time away from football for a little while after playing, but the love came back and I wanted to get back into it. It’s a marvelous thing and I really enjoy it."
With recent coaching changes in Pittsburgh, players like Hines Ward and Charlie Batch have found themselves nominated by the team's fan-base to jump into the coaching ranks immediately, with no specific training or previous experience. Parker and Kirkland prove the transition from player to coach requires much more than a solid playing career and a charismatic smile. Coaching requires dues which cannot be paid with cash. It takes hard work, persistence and dedication; but above all, it takes a real desire to make such a personal investment.
Kirkland and Parker may never return to the sidelines in Pittsburgh as Steelers coaches. They may never return to the NFL at all. However, no matter where they do end up, guaranteed they will be doing what they love - developing young people and players.