Josh Kirkland left the rolling hills and cornfields of Paxico, KS for the busy streets and frigid weather of Syracuse. Over that time, the junior 6-foot-3, 205-pound linebacker, who transferred from Butler Community College, learned about overcoming adversity.
Kirkland was the first freshman at his high school to start as a linebacker. He made 2009 second-team all-state and first-team All-Mid-East League honoree along with 2010 All-Kansas and All-Mid-East League selection. At Butler, he led his team to the 2012 NJCCA National Championship game.
Despite all his accomplishments, Kirkland took a long route to Division I football.
He tore his ACL sophomore year of high school, one of many injuries, and it left him questioning his ability to continue playing. Kirkland was most successful in high school with football and basketball, making it to state championships in both sports.
Eventually, injuries led him to take a break from sports after high school. He had been playing football since third grade, but he enrolled at Wichita State, which has no football program.
While at Wichita State, Kirkland dedicated his time to rehabbing his injuries and began practicing with the track team. Eventually, a friend at Wichita State brought up the idea of playing football again.
Kirkland’s friend didn’t think he could play at a school like Butler. “Aim lower,” the friend said. Kirkland refused, thinking to himself, “I’m going to aim higher.”
But Kirkland was once again faced with adversity. Though he had plenty of athleticism, he was undersized for a typical college football player.
“People told me I was too small but I said, ‘I’ve got to do it for myself,’” Kirkland said.
And he did, making the team at Butler.
Unfortunately, more injuries were coming his way. While playing, Josh tore his meniscus and lost 15 pounds. Already an undersized linebacker, Kirkland had to work even harder to gain playing time at Butler.
He went through intense months of rehab and finally was healthy going into junior year. When he returned to Butler in the fall he did not have a starting spot, and the linebacker core had plenty of depth. But Kirkland worked his way into a big role, and he, along with three other linebackers, is now playing Division 1 football.
Kirkland transferred to Syracuse during the spring semester of junior year and gained head coach Scott Shafer’s attention. He came in weighing 193 pounds but so far has gained more than 12 pounds and is continuing to add more muscle.
“For a linebacker, he is small, but we expect his role to expand as we go,” Syracuse linebackers coach Clark Lea said. “We will certainly need to count on him this year.”
And they have.
Kirkland is fourth on the team in tackles with 19.
Still, Kirkland has had to overcome more than just his size and his injuries to get to Syracuse.
Other than his coaches, Kirkland attributes most of what he has accomplished to the family he has now. Both his biological mother and father died when Kirkland was young.
He grew up with a mother who was abused and constantly struggled to get help. He even sports a tattoo of a poem he wrote, in memory of his mother.
To this day, he is unsure of who is biological father is.
The name Kirkland is on his birth certificate, given to him by the man believed to be his father, but he is a Decker at heart. His aunt, Ruth Ann Decker as well as his new father Martin, took him in. He views his aunt and uncle as his parents.
Kirkland’s father recently underwent open-heart surgery. Not being able to see his father has been agonizing.
“My dad is my best friend,” Kirkland said.
He constantly calls his mom checking in, “Mom, you need to get dad stronger.”
Unfortunately, his parents have not been able to make it to Syracuse to see him play, but it has become a family affair to watch Kirkland’s games from Kansas. The family gathers at each other’s houses to watch him play. The usual weekend consists of around 20 people huddled around the TV cheering on their uncle, brother, son and friend.
Dad was the fun parent who went fishing and practiced football with Kirkland, so mom had to be the disciplinarian. Academics have always come first.
“It did not matter if you were good at sports because homework and school was the most important thing,” she said. “Josh has done well because he always strived to do the best he could, no matter the outcome.”
Kirkland has certainly heeded her advice. He completed his first semester at Syracuse with a 3.89 GPA.
He is in the School of Education and hopes to get his masters in public administration. If football doesn’t work out for him, he wants to work his way up to become a school principal.
Josh also grew up with five brothers and three sisters. Not all of them are his biological siblings, but that didn’t change anything.
He grew up with football close to his heart, playing since third grade and watching his brothers play. As the youngest, he was the little brother who was always being carried around on people’s shoulders at his brothers’ football games. Josh was the little boy who was too young to play, but who you could always find playing on the field at halftime.
All of his brothers stopped playing football and ended up graduating from Kansas State, but Kirkland had a different calling. Injuries prevented them from getting back into football, and Kirkland was the only brother to make it to a Division 1 school.
Kirkland’s transition was difficult at first, but his family, friends and coaches have been rooting for him.
“It must have been rough for Josh to be pushed into the new football schedule suddenly junior year, but he works very hard,” junior linebacker Cameron Lynch said. “He wears his heart on his sleeve and everything he does is 100 percent.”
Said Lea: “What he did as a freshman, how he worked his way up to find his way make it to a D-1 program is amazing. Coming in in January and absorbing the defense, giving himself the chance physically and making good impressions, that’s more than most guys do in their career.”Michelle Sagan @michelle_sagan