EXCLUSIVE: Kirkland begins coaching career

GREENVILLE, S.C. - Topics of conversation between parents and high school football coaches are usually limited to one thing: junior's playing time.

But it's been a little bit different around Greenville's Wade Hampton HS this season.

There probably aren't too many places around the country where mom and dad want a picture and an autograph too.

Then again, not too many have a member of the NFL 1990's All-Decade Team on staff.
Just imagine the reaction from the Wade Hampton football team when they heard a two-time NFL Pro Bowler and former All-American at Clemson would be coaching linebackers.

The name Levon Kirkland isn't one that was all too familiar to a bunch of kids who weren't even born when he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992. Wade Hampton Coach Ken Haltiwanger said a few players recognized the name, but not many.

"Most of the kids had to go Google him to find out who he was," he said. "Their parents know him…he was a little bit before the kids' time."

It was the parents and two coaches on staff from Pittsburgh who were the most excited.

"Some of our parents were coming in—I think the first day—they were bringing balls for him to autograph," Haltiwanger said. "He was really good about it, taking pictures with them."

Kirkland finished his degree at Clemson in Aug. 2004 and has worked in various capacities for the school since.
He and Kirkland met through a mutual friend. After a few months of getting things squared away at the school district office, Haltiwanger hired Kirkland as an adjunct assistant.

Work at camps over the years began to spark Kirkland's interest in coaching although there was a time when he never would have imagined himself doing so.

"I never really thought I wanted to coach, to be honest," Kirkland said. "Once I started to see the way the kids responded, I thought, ‘Why keep all that knowledge to yourself?'"

Haltiwanger, who coached in Hilton Head before arriving at Wade Hampton, has a lot of experience with former NFL players lending their time to high school teams. The situations didn't always turn out for the best.

"We would have some guys come and help us and they weren't very reliable," Haltiwanger said. "You'd plan stuff for them to do and they wouldn't show up. Then when you didn't plan something they would show up.

"They would say, ‘You don't want me here? You know I played in the NFL?'"

Kirkland is another story.

He drives everyday to practice from Clemson, where he works in the admissions department. Usually in time for the end of the offense's practice, Kirkland's there when he's really needed, Haltiwanger said— to coach linebackers and to help out in the defense's team drills.

Every Friday, Kirkland will be under the lights with the Generals somewhere in Greenville County. On the weekends, he'll spend time with the coaches to break down film and plan for the following week.

Kirkland was a three-time All-ACC selection and a two-time All-American at Clemson during his career that spanned 1988-91. He went on to an 11-year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers (10 years) and the Philadelphia Eagles (one year) before he retired prior to the 2003 season. An All-Pro selection in 1996 and 1997, he was inducted into the Clemson Athletic Hall of Fame in 2001.
"The whole gamut— he has to be here or he doesn't get paid, like he needs the money," Haltiwanger said with a laugh.

"He's actually out there getting with it and getting it done. That's where (the kids) are getting their excitement from."

Kirkland said coaching at the high school level is a good place to start. With hopes of one day moving up the coaching ladder, he's learning a lot.

"For right now, I'm happy with where I'm at," he said. "I'm a competitor. I like to achieve and see what I can do."

Coaching football at Wade Hampton isn't all about Levon Kirkland, of course. Though he finds enjoyment in teaching and seeing kids respond to him, when the opportunity to get into the profession presented itself, he didn't accept it for the wrong reasons.

If anything, he just wanted to be a part of a team again.

"This isn't about me. I'm just sharing knowledge. Actually, I'm learning a lot too," Kirkland said. "This is a great way to do it."

From a good home with a loving mom and dad, Kirkland said his upbringing in Lamar was far from tough. The one thing he lacked was a mentor who had been to highest level of football, where he wanted to go. Now, he sees himself in those shoes for aspiring for football beyond high school.

"I really didn't have anybody to go to who experienced it before me. I think it's important for me to bring that lesson back," Kirkland said.

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