COVINGTON, Ga. — For Rod Kirkland, it’s the play that stands out among all others, not just for his 2017 senior season, but for all three years of his time on the football field for Newton.
It was against No. 2 Archer. Last time Newton played such a highly ranked team was three weeks prior when it traveled to Lowndes to absorb a 57-0 beat down.
Kirkland remembers having a particular edge about him for the Archer game, though. Probably because he recalls too many people trying to forecast the Rams’ performance in that game based on what happened in Valdosta.
“Everybody thought we were about to get dragged by like 40-plus points again,” Kirkland said. “But our coaches told us (Archer) can’t do anything more than we allow them to do.”
Then there was a special appeal to the defense, of which Kirkland, a cornerback, was a part.
“They told us right before we went out to go out there and get the ball,” Kirkland said. “And that’s what we did.”
On Archer’s second play from scrimmage, Kirkland stepped in front of a pass, picked it off and returned it about 30 yards to set up Newton in prime scoring position. The Rams would punch it in and actually would lead Archer 12-0 before losing a 20-19 heartbreaker.
But for Kirkland, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound DB who led Newton with four interceptions in 2017, that play was like the microcosm of his senior season — and a flash of the kind of excellence he says he could’ve enjoyed more often had he been as attentive to coaching and the classroom as a sophomore and junior as he was this past year.
“If I was consistent back then, I’d have had a higher GPA, better test scores, maybe better offers,” Kirkland acknowledges.
But that doesn’t mean he’s taking lightly the ones he received — including the school he pledged his services to on Tuesday afternoon.
Kirkland took to Twitter Tuesday to announce he was committing to Bluefield College. And when asked the reason why he chose the Virginia NAIA school over such offers as LaGrange College, Shorter, St. Andrews and Cumberland, he says it had a lot to do with the opportunity Bluefield offered to get on the field early and make plays like the one he did against Archer.
“The coaches at Bluefield opened up a lot of opportunities for me to come compete on the team and get a lot of valuable playing time as a freshman,” Kirkland said. “And even more than that, they were just the ones showing me the most love. It was a hard decision.”
But now that it’s made, Kirkland said he’s relieved. Like several others across the county, the Newton senior didn’t mind foregoing the instant gratification inherent in February’s National Signing Day to make sure he was making the right selection.
Now with the college decision behind him and a couple of weeks of testing being the last major hurdle between him and high school graduation, Kirkland’s ready to pin his ears back and work on getting his body college football ready.
“I’m gonna be trying to hit the weight room hard,” he said. “I’m in track season now, but right after I’m going to eat, eat, eat and get in the weight room. I want to be about 170 pounds when I get to college.”
He’ll seek to do so without losing the speed that caused Newton track coach Kevin Barnes to lure him onto the Rams’ relay teams in the first place.
“He saw the speed on the football field,” Kirkland said. “When he asked me, I figured I’d try it.”
It’s been something that has helped him stay in shape during the offseason athletically.
But Kirkland is quick to tell you that if hadn’t been for people like head football coach Terrance Banks or assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Josh Skelton, he’s not sure if he’d have been able to pull things together well enough mentally to be where he is now.
“To be honest, coach Skelton kept my head straight,” Kirkland said. “We went through a couple of arguments during my freshman and sophomore year. That’s during my inconsistent times. But through all of that, he made sure I stayed on my feet. He helped me go through what I had to in order get through the hard times. All the coaches, really, they helped motivate and push me.”
Maybe that’s why Kirkland says he wants to major in psychology when he gets to Bluefield. He said he’s interested in helping people navigate through life’s difficulties.
“I like to talk a lot, and talk to people a lot, with or without problems,” he said. “But I like the idea of trying to read people’s body language or see how I can help them based on what they say and all that.”
Kirkland said he’d sign his official letter of intent “sometime this week.” It’ll signal the closing of one of his most developmental chapters in his young life — one that he says has prepared him for next-level success.
“Being at Newton helped me to know and work through the circumstances of being successful,” he said. “It accelerated me to be the best person I can be. All the coaches, man, they all taught me a lot about growing from childhood and what it takes to not just be a football player, but a man.”