Steelers Heroes of the Past: Levon Kirkland played big in more ways than one

While some joked his weight was more reminiscent of a perfect game in bowling, Kirkland powered his way to an outstanding career in Pittsburgh, earning a spot in Steelers history.

Howard Griffith remembers Levon Kirkland.

Howard, the Denver Broncos two-time Super Bowl winning fullback, had perhaps his most humbling moment as a pro when he faced Kirkland- the Steelers middle linebacker from 1992-2000- in 1997.

As told on the America's Game: the 1997 Denver Broncos documentary, Griffith recalled being flattened by Kirkland after the two collided during a run by Terrell Davis. The Steelers won the Week 15 contest, 35-24.

Griffith made sure his outcome with Kirkland would be different when the teams clashed again five weeks later in the AFC Championship game. This time, Griffith received help blocking Kirkland from running back Terrell Davis, with the duo double-teaming the massive linebacker in pass protection to give quarterback John Elway time to throw in Denver's eventual 24-21 victory.

"Hey man, why are you chop blocking," Howard said Kirkland asked him in the documentary. Griffith's response: "Hey man, why are you 300 pounds?"

While he was listed at 6-1 and 270 pounds, teammates, members of the media, and apparently opposing players kidded about Kirkland weighing closer to the number of a perfect game in bowling.

Regardless of how much he weighed, his impact on the Steelers was far bigger than any number Kirkland could post on the scale. His combination mixed of athleticism and size made him one of the best linebackers in the 1990s. That athleticism was showcased during Kirkland's collegiate days at Clemson. A native of Lamar, South Carolina, Kirkland stayed home for college and starred as a tight end.

After playing only sparingly as a rookie in 1992, Kirkland cracked Pittsburgh's starting lineup in 1993.For the next eight seasons, Kirkland started 124 of a possible 128 games, and between 1995-'00, he didn't miss a start.

Kirkland collaborated with fellow All-Pros to form arguably the most terrifying linebacker unit in the 90s. With Kirkland patrolling the middle, fellow linebackers Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene were free to roam free, rushing the passer with unrelenting, brute force. Green and Lloyd earned a total of six Pro Bowl and four All-Pro selections in their three years playing alongside Kirkland in the mid ‘90s.

The unit's success had a direct impact on the team's success. Pittsburgh made the playoffs each season from 1993-‘95, advanced to the AFC Championship Game twice and earned a trip to one Super Bowl. With defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau employing a 3-4 defense, the trio of Kirkland, Lloyd, and Greene were often on the field together, and were joined by either Chad Brown or Jason Gildon, who would both earn Pro Bowl honors for the Steelers. Add in reserve Jerry Olsavsky's competitive fire, and the birth of "Blitzburgh" was complete.

The cliché "good things come to those who wait" could have summarized Kirkland's tenure in Pittsburgh. Despite not being named a Pro Bowler in his first three years as a starter, his best performance during the early years of his career came on the biggest stage.

Pittsburgh was literally pushed around in the early stages of Super Bowl XXX. The heavily favored Dallas Cowboys, boasting the heaviest line in the NFL, were having their way with the lighter Steelers defense. Kirkland, the biggest of the Steelers, pushed back.

After the Steelers dodged a major bullet after Michael Irvin's touchdown catch was called back midway through the second quarter, Kirkland stonewalled Emmitt Smith in the backfield on third and a short. Instead of taking a commanding 17-0 lead, Dallas had to settle for a field goal. Pittsburgh parlayed Kirkland's momentum swinging tackle into points before the half as the deficit was trimmed to six points.

Kirkland and Smith met again on Dallas' first possession of the second half. The result was the same, as Kirkland snagged Smith from behind again to stymie another Cowboys drive. Led by Kirkland, the NFL's all-time leading rusher was held to nine rushing yards in the second half and just 49 yards for the game.

With the Cowboys seemingly on the ropes with their lead trimmed to three points late in the game, Kirkland knocked Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman to the canvas by sacking the Hall-of-Fame passer. It was fitting to see Kirkland, an underdog of sorts even on his own team, dominate the seemingly unstoppable Cowboys offense.

Pittsburgh's passing game was the only thing that stopped Kirkland on this day from earning the game's MVP award, as a costly interception after his sack of Aikman sealed Dallas' 27-17 win. He finished with a team-high eight tackles to go with his sack.

No. 99's Super Bowl success carried over to the following season. With Greene dealt to Carolina and Lloyd out 15 games with an injury, Kirkland would assume the role as the leader of the defense. He didn't disappoint, posting 113 total tackles while showcasing his collegiate pass catching skills by pulling down four interceptions (starting a run of picking off at least one pass in each of the next five seasons). As he had done with Lloyd and Greene, Kirkland also cleared room for Brown to tally a career-best 13 sacks on his way to All-Pro status.

Kirkland led a dominant defensive effort in a rematch of the 1995 AFC Championship game when Pittsburgh hosted Indianapolis in the '96 AFC Wild Card round. His second half pick of Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh helped pilot the Steelers to a 42-14 victory.

Nicknamed "the good reverend doctor" because of his father's work as a reverend, Kirkland continued to preside over one of the NFL's best defenses. Pittsburgh led the NFL in rush defense in 1997 (while expanding on their streak of not allowing a rushing touchdown at home to 60 quarters), as Kirkland earned All-Pro honors.

Individual accolades are normally related to team success. Unfortunately for Kirkland, too many free agent departures and the team's offensive woes sent the Steelers into mediocrity in 1998 and '99, thus ending his run of Pro Bowl selections. He was one of the team's lone bright spots during that time, totaling over 100 tackles for a fourth straight year in '98 while forcing four fumbles and recovering two more in '99.

Though still a productive player in his ninth season, the Steelers parted ways with Kirkland following the 2000 season. He played his final year with the Eagles in 2002; starting 15 games and helping Philadelphia reach the NFC Championship game.

While attending the 2008 BCS National Championship Game as a student reporter at Ohio State, I spotted Griffith on the field before the game prepping for his broadcast as an on the Big 10 Network. I asked him if he remembered what he once said about the challenged of taking on the Steelers and one of the best linebackers in the ‘90s.

Griffith smiled and shook his head, seemingly going into a mental time warp back to Three Rivers Stadium a decade earlier. "We had some battles against those guys," he said. "(Kirkland) was always at the center of the action. I definitely remember him."

Steelers fans that watched the team during that time certainly do, too.

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