Earned, not given: Kirksey leads Hawkeyes from the pregame huddle to the field

Senior linebacker has teammates' respect across the board

Marc Morehouse
Published: October 24 2013 | 7:19 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:21 pm in
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IOWA CITY -- Here's how Christian Kirksey became the Hawkeye to lead the team huddle in the end zone during pregame:

"I talked to him about it," fellow senior and linebacker James Morris said. "He said, 'You want to do it?' I said, 'No.' He wanted to do it. He did, and he does a great job."

Yes, it was a really complex ritual. Something out of the "Game of Thrones," with swords, oaths and laurels.

"It was just one of those things, James and Anthony [also a senior linebacker] are leaders," Kirksey said. "They just said, 'Chris, you do it,' and I said, 'OK.'"

C'mon, Christian. We're trying to make this a big, dramatic production.

"I knew it would probably be one of the linebackers," defensive tackle Carl Davis said. "I wondered who would show up. It happened to be Chris and he got us going. He gets us going for every game."

Yes, senior outside linebacker Christian Kirksey just walked into the middle of the huddle and started screaming to teammates when Iowa opened the season back in August. It's just that easy.

It's not just that easy.

Kirksey arrived at Iowa in the summer of 2010 as a 190-pound linebacker prospect. He played two years at Hazelwood East (Mo.) High School for coach Mike Jones, the former St. Louis Ram linebacker.

When Kirksey started playing at East, the school was on the verge of a state title. In his junior season, he  joined a veteran team with a few college prospects. He checked his ego and learned.

"He had to basically earn his stripes with those guys," Jones said. "He kept his mouth shut and he knew what to do. And he just kept getting better and better and better."

Kirksey played as a true freshman for the Hawkeyes. This was 2010 and Iowa was short on special teams players. He made six special teams tackles and was just happy to contribute. The next season was his first as a starting linebacker. He led the Hawkeyes with 110 tackles.

Kirksey, now a 6-2, 230-pounder, obviously grew greatly from his freshman to sophomore year. "I was 190, so I knew I probably wasn't physically ready to play linebacker in the Big Ten," he said, "but I kept a mindset, I could play football, I could play football. You can't survive as a 190-pound linebacker in the Big Ten, but I knew I could play somewhere."

Kirksey needed physical growth. The mental foundation already was there. He had a rogue wave hit him when he first stepped on campus in July 2010. His father, Elmer, died of a heart attack three weeks before his son's first camp in Iowa City. Elmer and his wife, Patrice, had seven children. Christian, the youngest, was the sixth to attend college.

Kirksey, who has a tattoo of his dad on his right shoulder, was just 17 and living away from home for the first time.

"My dad has been a motor for me," Kirksey said. "I dedicate my life to him, I dedicate games to him. Anthony Hitchens told me one time that everything happens for a reason. I use that. I try to have fun and make my dad proud. That's one of the things I try to do, just make him proud."

At that time, Kirksey was surrounded by a lot of the teammates he'll run onto the field with today at Kinnick Stadium. That includes Hitchens (weakside linebacker), Morris (middle linebacker) and wide receiver Don Shumpert, a teammate of Kirksey's at Hazelwood East who happened to know Kirksey's dad.

“The team and the coaches basically pulled me in as family,” Kirksey said.“They were always here for me when I needed them. I give credit to the team for being there and giving me a family atmosphere. It helped so much to have friends who supported me."

Going into the Hawkeyes (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) game today against Northwestern (4-3, 0-3), Kirksey has made 32 consecutive starts. He's third on the team with 49 tackles this season. He has four career interceptions and three defensive TDs, including a 52-yard fumble return for a score in the opener against Northern Illinois.

"[Outside linebacker] is a position that is invisible in our defense," coach Kirk Ferentz said, "but we don’t play very well if we don’t have a good player at that position. Chris is as talented of a guy as we’ve had at that position since I’ve been here. Tremendous young man, unbelievable attitude."

Kirksey was voted a permanent team captain after the 2012 season. He's been team captain every week this season. And, yes, he's led the psyche-up huddle.

"Christian holds everything in," said Davis, a junior who's been close with Kirksey since they began their careers. "He's a reserved-type guy, he's really laid-back. When game day comes, he turns on that light switch. He just gets going. He's always been a fighter. He's a really tough guy, strong guy."

The screamer role does seem to go against Kirksey's nature. He plays the drums and loves music. He's been behind a drum set since he was 7-years-old. He's never taken a lesson and, no, he doesn't use the drums to smash stress out in his life.

"Playing the drums is kind of set aside from playing football and set aside from a lot of stuff," Kirksey said with a gentle smile, downplaying the fact that the drums came to him naturally.

This doesn't sound like someone who tries to channel the emotional focus for an entire football team.

"A lot of what we are here is this presentation for the media -- modest, humble, quiet, soft spoken," Morris said. "Christian is all those things in certain aspects of his life. He is a leader and when something needs to be said, he's certainly going to say it. There's no question that he's the right guy to lead the pow-wow in the end zone."

This role isn't one that's taken lightly. Here are some names who've filled it in the last few seasons -- defensive tackle Mitch King, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, defensive tackle Mike Daniels and center James Ferentz.

"It's leadership and being a team player," Kirksey said. "You don't have to be the person who makes the most plays or the person who talks the most or does the most, it has to be a person who loves the game and cherishes his teammates. That fits a lot of guys on the team."

So, no, it's not just that easy to lead your teammates in the pregame huddle. The choice has to be authentic and the players always seem to know who it should be.

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