Levon Kirkland's Key to Success

by - Correspondent -

CENTRAL -- Former Clemson linebacker Levon Kirkland spent 11 years in the NFL, nine with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Although he enjoyed a successful career, complete with All-Pro honors and a Super Bowl appearance, Kirkland considers himself one of the lucky ones.

Kirkland recently told a group of R.C. Edwards Middle School students that the career of most professional sports athletes, particularly those who play football on Sundays, is relatively short. In fact, he said the average NFL career is only three years.

With exceptions such as Peyton Manning and Terrell Owens notwithstanding, Kirkland also said the salary of most NFL players pales in comparison to their professional baseball, basketball and even hockey brethren. Unlike the other professional sports, he said the NFL does not guarantee contracts, meaning that the bulk of a player's pay must come in his signing bonus since that is the only money guaranteed.

"If you have a $4 million signing bonus, you can count on receiving about $2.5 million," he said. "Half of that amount will be taken in taxes unless you like in states such as Texas and Florida." Kirkland said the purpose of his talk was not to scare, or even discourage, students from seeking a professional sports career, especially in the NFL.

However, Kirkland, who retired in 2003 and now works as minority recruitment coordinator at Clemson University, said students need to first complete their education.

"If you want to play football, I want you to play football," he said. "I had a great time, but there are sacrifices and some issues you have to look at very carefully." While millions of dollars is a lot of money, Kirkland said the money can quickly evaporate through the extravagant lifestyles that often accompany such fortune.

"Even though you may play pro ball for a long time, if you have a $2 million house, there's insurance and property taxes which are going to be sky high," he said. "There are often times a wife and children to support and a college education in the future, the average cost of which is $18,000, which will only become more expensive." Kirkland said many pro football players find the life of luxury changes in a hurry when a team hands them their walking papers.

"That's why you've got to understand that falling back on your education is the key," he said. "Before football or anything else, get your degree. They can never take that away from you." Not only do players lose vast amounts of money when cut, Kirkland said players often experience financial difficulties even while playing because they spend money foolishly.

The former linebacker, who earned all-smerican and all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors while at Clemson from 1988-91, said football has many positive attributes, the most important being that it unites various races and cultures. He said another positive is the discipline that is taught, where players are encouraged to never give up, but rather to keep fighting for the team.

However, Kirkland said playing football comes with a price - chief among those being good grades.

"I don't care how talented you are, if you try to take part in college football, it's going to be hard if you don't do good on your SAT," he said.

Though he was once the highest paid linebacker in the NFL, Kirkland said he also received a hard dose of reality when cut by the Steelers in 2001.

Although he played two more seasons with other NFL teams, Kirkland pointed out that having received his degree from Clemson University enabled him to transition into the everyday working world of which he is now a part of.

"Do your best in school," he said. "That's the real key (to success)."

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