After their Saturday meetings, Christian Kirksey and Garret Wallow left the team hotel in Jersey City and went for a walk. The Texans linebackers could see all the buildings of Lower Manhattan from across the Hudson River. There’s something about a skyline, especially the looming gray colossus that is New York City’s, that makes it easier for vulnerabilities to come unwound, as if inward insecurities can be made tiny by bringing them out in front of giants.
It was a serene walk, Wallow recalls, a 45-minute venture in which they talked about their past experiences and what they wanted to get out of life. Of course, they spoke about the state of their 1-7-1 football team and their place within it. But they talked about family, too. About God. About everything.
“But that’s all the time,” says Wallow, a 2021 fifth-round pick who joined the Texans at the same time as Kirksey, a nine-year veteran. “He’s always the guy I can have conversations with and just kind of come to when I need some advice or need somebody to pick me up.”
That’s who Kirksey was signed to be. General manager Nick Caserio knew he needed dependable veterans to maintain stability through his roster overhaul. Kirksey fulfilled that role on a one-year deal in 2021, and he was rewarded with a two-year, $10 million contract that only pays him realistically within Phase 2 of Houston’s slow crawl back to competitiveness.
Anything beyond that timeline is just hope, faith and uncertainty. So, there’s a cost associated with wearing the “C” that’s on Kirksey’s chest on gameday, a captainship that requires that the middle linebacker symbolize strength when the team is at its weakest, to absorb the negative and somehow produce the positive. It can be taxing when a team’s overall record is as murky as the Hudson for a second straight season.
Kirksey, 30, has only played on one winning team. The 2014 third-round pick spent six seasons in Cleveland before he started at middle linebacker for the Packers in their 2021 NFC Championship loss to the eventual Super Bowl-winning Buccaneers. He became one of Green Bay’s subsequent salary cap casualties, and he joined the Texans as a tenured defender who provided an increasingly younger locker room a credible voice.
Texans coach Lovie Smith said Wednesday that Kirksey has “provided great leadership,” that “all those things you expect from a captain is exactly who he is.” Still, Kirksey has taken most of the proverbial beating on a defense that’s surrendering 21 more rushing yards on average than any other team. Myriad factors contribute to the defense’s deficiencies, but Kirksey adopts accountability even when considering he’s only two tackles away from 700, a milestone only 185 other players in NFL history have reached.
“What good is it if you’re making tackles and you’re not winning?” Kirksey says. “For me, where I can really excel in my game is the big plays, the takeaways, the game-changing plays. That’s what I’m concerned about. It is a milestone, and you never want to overlook anything, any type of success you have. I give it up to God, and (I’m) thankful to play a long time to get to that milestone. I’m more worried about winning games and seeing where I could be the best fit to help my team.”
Captains need encouragement too, Wallow says. Maybe on rebuilding teams they need it more. Sometimes after practice, the two linebackers will stick around in the locker room and chat. Sometimes Wallow will remind Kirksey, “Look man, you’ve been in this game for a long time. Go out there and play like you always have.”
“Everything falls back on him,” nickel safety Tavierre Thomas says of Kirksey. “You’ve got to keep his spirits high because we haven’t been getting a lot of wins this year so far, and I know he’s taking all the pressure on himself. In reality, it should be everybody. But I know how he is, the type of guy he is. He’s taking it on himself. We’ve just got to keep encouraging him, keep letting him know that we got his back.”
Thomas first met Kirksey when he joined the Browns as an undrafted free agent out of Division II Ferris State in 2018. Kirksey was the one who took Thomas “under his wing,” the defensive back says. When Kirksey bought a Bentley truck, Thomas bought one, too. By the time Thomas ditched the truck and its high maintenance cost, he rejoined Kirksey in Houston and saw the linebacker had a Mercedes-Benz “G-Wagon.” Thomas now drives a G-Wagon, too.
“That’s my dog, man,” Thomas says.
Kirksey learned how to tend to people from his late father, Elmer, who was a pastor in hometown St. Louis. On days Kirksey wasn’t at school, he’d hop in his dad’s car and ride along to the church or other pastoral care. Elmer’s phone would often ring, Kirksey recalls, and they’d soon be visiting with people who needed either his counsel or help.
“As a kid, you’re sitting there watching it, and you’re like, ‘My dad’s really a super hero,’ ” says Kirksey, whose father died of a heart attack in 2010. “He’s able to be Dad, but to other people, he’s the pastor. You always have got to put people in front of yourself.”
Kirksey keeps memories of their rented church in West St. Louis. He began playing drums for the services at age 7. But soon after, they moved into an older building that the congregation purchased to renovate. Kirksey grew up watching one side of the church get closed off for construction, get completed, then open up as the builders moved on to another section.
“I just seen a lot of work being put in,” Kirksey says. “So as a kid, when you see the work get put in, you understand that’s how you’ve got to live, that’s what you’ve got to do.”
Kirksey is at the center of the Texans and their rebuild. He’s seen the franchise close off sections for renovations, then move on to the next. A defense that surrendered the third-highest rate of explosive pass plays in 2021 has tightened since No. 3 overall pick Derek Stingley Jr. and veteran cornerback Steven Nelson were acquired.
Houston’s defensive front is now under the tarp. Kirksey has become the daily mentor of third-round linebacker Christian Harris, who is now four games into his NFL career. The defensive line has been infused by seven new free agents and rookies. Kirksey is positioned in the middle, where he’s expected to watch the present develop, take a step forward and charge.
“You’ve got to stay consistent in everything that you do,” Kirksey says. “This game has a bunch of highs and lows. You have times when you’re winning, and everything is going good. You want to pat yourself on the back, everybody loves you. You’ve got times when you’re doing bad where things are not going well for you. It’s frustration, everything else is upside down. You just got to stay level-headed and just keep chipping away, keep chopping that wood, and brighter days will come ahead.”
Brooks Kubena, a Houston native, joined the Chronicle in 2021 to cover the Texans and the NFL after reporting on LSU football for The Advocate | Times-Picayune in Baton Rouge for three years. Kubena received APSE National Top 10 honors six times for his reporting, including his investigative work into LSU’s mishandling of Title IX cases and a secret settlement involving Les Miles and a former student. Kubena also contributed to the AP Top 25 poll and held a Heisman Trophy vote.
A graduate of the University of Texas and Clear Lake High School, he’s too young to remember the Oilers but old enough to remember a parking lot was once AstroWorld.