Interviews

Christian Kirksey’s Workout-warrior Mentality Has Transformed Him Into a Top-tier NFL Linebacker

Being true to the gym and to himself has helped this standout become one of the best linebackers in the NFL, and the anchor for this season’s rejuvenated Cleveland Browns defense.

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For Cleveland Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey, 2017 may be the year he sheds the “Tiny Titan” label and gets recognized as a true NFL superstar. 

It was a glitch in the programming of the video game Madden ‘15 that transformed the Browns 6’2”, 230-lb third-round draft pick—who had, indeed, once been considered by draft scouting reports too physically undersized to ever be an impact linebacker—into a 15-inch, ankle-biting defender who became known as the “Tiny Titan”. It went viral—even finding its way to the late-night talk show circuit. “Everybody got a laugh,” Kirksey recalls. “I even made Conan O’Brien.”

But now it’s Kirksey chance to laugh—all the way to the bank. This July, following a career-best season in which he was third in the NFL in tackles (148) and led all NFL linebackers in defensive stops (63), the former Iowa Hawkeye inked a four-year, $38 million contract with the Browns, with $20 million guaranteed.

Aside from solidifying Kirksey’s status as one of the rising stars of the league, the contract, put together by Sportstars agents Brian Mackler and Jon Perzley, sets in stone the desire of the struggling Browns—who haven’t had a winning season since 2007, and won just four games in the past two years—to make him the cornerstone of their efforts to become something other than the laughing stock of the league.

It’s a responsibility that Kirskey, now the NFL’s fourth-highest-paid inside linebacker (behind All-Pros Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner, and NaVorro Bowman), doesn’t take lightly.

“For me, getting that contract just made me want to grind more, man,” he says. “I don’t look at it as, ‘Oh, I’ve made it. This is a stopping point.’ No. Now that they gave me this reward and this opportunity to play for Cleveland for a long time, I gotta make it happen. I want them to know they paid the right guy.” 

Of course, Kirksey won’t be out there fighting alone on the field when the team hosts the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 10 to open the season. He’ll be flanked by fellow inside linebacker Jamie Collins and a talented crop of rookies led by No.1 overall pick Myles Garrett and first-rounder Jabrill Peppers. The team even has a new defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, bringing a new aggressive energy to this defense that should vastly improve from its next-to-last ranking from a year ago. Translation: The Browns D is going to be solid.

“We’re building a bond, a brotherhood,” Kirksey says. “We’re trying to create something special. With the rookies coming in, we have a lot of talent in the room. And Gregg is our leader—with the tone and culture he’s setting, guys are ready to go out there and ball out. I’m excited.”

To that end, this past summer he underwent a vigorous off-season training program designed to elevate his game to an even higher level—a punishing six-day-a-week MMA-style regimen put together by trainer Rich Power at San Diego’s Victory MMA gym. Kirksey’s willingness to adapt to a new style of training and put in the work has paid off. “He doesn’t look at himself like he’s a $38 million guy,” says Power. "He looks at it like, 'Man, somebody just invested a lot of money into me. I need to make this work and I need to be better than I was before.' Guys like that are dangerous.”

Andrew Weber / Stringer / Getty Images 

The mindset behind Power’s bodyweight-centric routine goal was to leave Kirksey gasping in the gym to leave him fresh and agile on the field. “An average football play lasts about 19 seconds,” Power says. “As fighters, we’re stuck in the ring from three to five minutes. So that’s how we train our football players—keeping their energy levels at around 80% in the fourth quarter while everyone else is teetering off.”

It’s the third summer Power and Kirksey have teamed up. The linebacker admitted to having to adjust to a learning curve on the mats which featured creative moves like plate planks—a punishing twist on the traditional plank in which your hands are holding onto a 45-lb plate on its end. Power’s killer conditioning program was a far cry from the bench presses and squats he was accustomed to. But for Kirksey, he equates the change in routine to learning Williams’ playbook.

“I wasn’t used to being on the mat along with all the things that come with MMA,” Kirksey says. "I was a little bit behind, but as a competitor, you don’t want to be getting beat in training, so it was a little frustrating. But it takes repetition until you get into that groove.”

It wasn’t long before Kirksey began dominating on the mat, which not coincidentally, carried over to last year’s breakout season. Yet as impressed as Power is with Kirksey in the gym, it pales in comparison with how he rates him out in the real world.

“Christian is an even better man than he is a football player—which is scary to say, because he’s one bad player on the field,” he says.

For example, Powers cites an incident in 2016, when he was hosting a charity prom for kids with cancer, and a celebrity backed out at the last moment. “I said, Christian, you need to get your ass down here right now,” he says with a laugh. “Not only did he fly in, but he brought his mother and his aunt, too.” 

And Kirksey didn’t just stop after an hour’s worth of hand-shaking and picture-taking, Power says. “I told him, ‘Look, man, your job is done, you can leave.' But he stayed all night long, dancing with all the kids, having a great time. It was just so cool.”

It’s staying humble and approachable that’s helped earn Kirksey—who grew up in St. Louis and spent his youth discovering his fashion style through thrift stores, and teaching himself drums so he could play at his family’s church—a reputation as one of the league’s true gentlemen, though you probably won’t hear that from him. Kirksey is active in the Cleveland and St. Louis communities, recently hosting a football camp in his hometown.

“Nobody wants to hang around a guy who just talks about himself,” Kirksey says. “I’m the same guy from when I got drafted to now. I’m just a person with a good job.”

His good-guy image off the field carries over into the locker room, where Kirksey is also excited about the opportunity to share the knowledge he’s gained as a league veteran with his new, less-seasoned teammates. “You try to put yourself in a rookie’s shoes when you see him not knowing too much,” he says. “You remind yourself that you were once that guy, and try to help out as much as possible. Now, going into year four, I feel comfortable being in that leadership role."

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