Sunday, May 20, 2007

Wayne Simmons and Levon kirkland

Both pro-ballers. Both lived lives many of us can only dream about. Both began their journeys at almost the same starting point, but their paths some how took them in much different directions.

I knew both these guys. Not very well, but I do remember my first impressions of them. I went to Clemson University in August, 1988. Levon was an upper classman, and Wayne was a freshman. I had a class with each of them, but during different semesters. Math with Levon, and I believe Sociology with Wayne. Both these guys were incredibly handsome with beautifully well defined bodies. And both of them were destined for greatness. Little did I know.

So like I said, I didn't know them well, but you know that feeling you get when you're around someone for the first time? Well, it really is the most important clue into who they really are. Levon was quiet and had a soft, demure, almost child-like honesty about him. He was nice and courteous, and it was obvious just in his presence and how he carried himself. He wasn't the stereotypical college football player. You could tell that it wasn't his plan to bed as many girls as possible. Nor did he use his position in sports as any kind of leverage, except for his own personal dreams and career goals. He was a man on a mission, and his intentions were good.
I remember, he walked me home one night just because it was dark. No other reason than that. And he didn't even attempt to come in. Levon was always the gentleman.

Wayne was a nice guy too, but much different from Levon. His demeanor automatically made the people around him take notice. He was funny, out going, and out spoken. I can hardly remember seeing him without a smile on his face. I remember once, Wayne came over to our place with a friend. It was the first time I'd ever met him. Within an hour, he'd eaten some frosted mini wheats and showed us the new dance he was trying to perfect. The cereal, he said was, "kinda nasty, but one side was good as hell!" The sweet side of course. And the dance, it was so animated and contrived. Like he'd just gotten the basic steps, but not quite sure how to really put it all together. We were laughing hysterically.

But Wayne, like Levon, was at Clemson to play football. He was there to create his destiny. But what I didn't know then was just how bright he was. When I read about his childhood, it was so hard to believe that hidden beneath the smile I remembered, was a little boy who'd gone through so much to be there in that place back then. So he was also on a mission. A mission to make his life better, but also to fulfill a promise to his mom, who'd struggled all of her young life to provide for her children. When he was young, he'd found his mom crying. She told him she was going to have to put him up for adoption, because she couldn't afford to take care of him. She was working three jobs at that time. He asked her to please allow him to stay, and made a promise to her that if she did, he would make sure that one day she would never have to worry about money again.

Which brings me to my blog. I knew both these guys had made it to the pros, but I never kept up with them or their careers. I'm not a fan of football, and so I didn't know which teams they played for or how big they'd gotten. About a month ago, I decided to google them. What I found was that my initial impressions of them still rang true. Their personalities and talents had taken them both to wondrous heights.

Levon Kirkland was an all-pro linebacker in the NFL. A second-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992, he went on to play 11 years in the NFL including 9 seasons with the Steelers, and one each for the Seattle Seahawks and the Philadelphia Eagles. He became a starter at inside linebacker for the Steelers in his second season, 1993, replacing Pro Bowler David Little. By 1995, he was recognized as one of the top inside linebackers in the league, and had a stellar performance in Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys at the end of the season. In a surprise move, the Steelers waived Kirkland just before the 2001 season due to salary cap pressure. That year many star players were waived due the salary cap including John Randle, Troy Aikman, Jerry Rice and many others. Kirkland went to the Seattle Seahawks where he became a leader on the defense and had over 100 tackles. The next year he played his final season for the Eagles, becoming the veteran leader of a defense that ranked 7th in the league and advanced to the NFC Championship game before losing to the Rams. He finished his NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2002. The latest information I found on Levon, who'd earned a bachelor's degree in Sociology, stated he'd gone back to Clemson in 2005 after being named coordinator of minority recruitment initiatives.


But when I googled Wayne, I was stunned and puzzled. I got a picture with an article and a epitaphial-like date (December 15, 1969 - August 23, 2002). I knew what a date like that usually meant, but it had to mean something else this time. He couldn't be dead. I felt such a sense of loss. And I couldn't explain why, but I did. I hadn't known him well, nor did he probably even remember me. I thought of the famous story by Hemingway and asked myself, For Whom Does the Bell Toll? I felt like I finally understood how someone could conceive that when someone dies, a little piece of everyone dies with him.

Wayne had been a linebacker in the NFL, who was drafted in the first round of the 1993 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. He signed a 3.2 million dollar contract and earned a Super Bowl ring in 1996 with them. He later played a year with the Kansas City Chiefs, and one with the Buffalo Bills. Wayne retired from football in February 1999. {Simmons was the 15th pick of the first round by the Packers in 1993 and went on to play six seasons and 90 games in the National Football League.}

He was young and he had lived some big dreams. He'd been a successful ball player. He'd gotten a Superbowl ring, which some of the credit was due largely to him as a player. He'd kept his promise to his mother and had gotten her way out of the path of poverty. He'd opened up a trendy restaurant in Kansas City called, 50/50 on Main. From all the information I've been able to dig up, it seems that he lived a fast, and sometimes very loud life. But his character still remained true to the person I met at Clemson. He had still been the life of the party, and his sense of humor had remained just as infectious as ever to everyone around him, except of course for those he was making fun of. Wayne was just Wayne. And I really think that's the best way to be.

Of course he had his share of drama in his last few years. Some of it, his own doing. He was who he was, and apparently some people were not okay with that. I read a article, and a man very close to Wayne for most of his life, said that Wayne had told him that he was going to enjoy his life, because he was going to die early anyway. I wondered if he really knew this, or if it was just one of those off-handed comments we sometimes make when we're trying to answer some really hard questions or trying to rationalize our own realities to ourselves.

Wayne had some career set backs following his team's Superbowl victory. He and his coaches didn't get along well, which inevitably led to a downward spiral that ended in death. Wayne died in a one car collision in Independence, Missouri. Gone at 32. Damn!

In an instant I was forced to face my own feelings about my own mortality. Once I got over the initial shock and had done some self reflection, I left the experience feeling blessed to be able to appreciate where I was at that very point in my personal and spiritual journey. I felt overjoyed that my creative and industrious spirit had returned. I felt invigorated. I felt inspired. And it's all because I decided to google a couple of almost perfect strangers. But their lives (and in Wayne's case - his death) have touched me in a profound way. And I believe they will continue to touch all those who are open and receptive enough to understand the lessons.

So what did I learn from them?

Live like today is your last. Dream like you have forever. Work your passion until you're no longer able to. Work on Fulfilling your promises to yourself and whomever else you truly care about (you'll be surprised at just how many you accomplish). And when your time comes, you'll leave not just an epitaph, but also a legacy. And...even in death, you will continue to inspire others.

-- Vee Jefferson (Jowaje Philosophy)