I am from Prince George’s County (PGC), Maryland. It’s pretty much crab cakes and football. A lot of NFL players with name recognition have come from that region. The competition is concentrated, and it breeds excellence. Every 5 years, as waves of kids come of age, someone in each pool makes it and plays a professional sport. Usama Young, my friend since childhood, and my mentor Madieu Williams are prime examples. In PGC, if you have any drive at all, you’ll strive to be that next professional athlete.
My story is one of growing. Literally. I was 5’3’’ in 10th grade – that was the year I decided to be a professional football player. I was a late bloomer, but I always had the heart. Football was my ticket to having options, a way to pay for college. My parents always supported my goals. I was a tiny kid with my eye on the NFL. If they worried about my ability to achieve, they didn’t show it.
Looking back, it was a blessing to be small for so long. I learned determination first hand. Coaches at football camps would say, “Raise your hand if you think you’ll make it to the NFL.” Some kids were scared. I was never scared. The coaches would say to me, “Kid, you’re way smaller than everyone else, what are you doing with your hand up?” But I was going to the NFL no matter what.
I started growing in 11th grade. In my senior year, I began to really stand out. Scouts were like, “Who is this dude?” By the end of my freshman year in college, I was 6’1” and 210 pounds. I transferred to Kent State, a Division 1 school, and I walked on to the football team. As I approached college graduation, I didn’t get drafted. But after the draft, three teams called me: The Rams, Chiefs, and Vikings. I was a priority free agent, and I was able to choose which team to play for. I chose the St. Louis Rams.
During the NFL pre-season, the Rams started off with 90 guys. After each game, they cut and cut to ultimately trim down to a team of 53 players. I made it through all the cuts, but in the last pre-season game, I sustained a career-ending knee injury.
I had leaned toward law enforcement if football didn’t work out. I’ve always had an instinct to protect others. It goes back to being that little 5’3” guy. I knew what it felt like to be targeted or picked on, even though I was a jock and y’know, fairly handsome (laughs). I hated to see anyone take advantage of a position of power through resources, station, or standing to bully a weaker individual. Let’s level the playing field and see if you still have the same attitude. Bullies back down when the odds are even.
After I got injured, one of my buddies reached out. He had also played for the Rams and then had started working for the Secret Service. He helped me get a start as a Secret Service Officer. A year in, I was on post at the White House, and an African American Navy SEAL came to give a briefing. I pulled him aside and asked about his experience. It turned out that he had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He said, “I recommend it man, if you make it through training, you’ll be a part of an elite brotherhood.”
I was hooked. The only problem was that I didn’t know how to swim. In fact, I had always hated the ocean. There is a picture of me at 5 years old, standing next to my mom and sister in ankle deep water and I am bawling because I can’t see my feet. Until the moment I decided to become a SEAL, I was afraid of open water – the vastness of it, the fact that I was not the apex predator. But I had to shed that fear.
I started getting after it. I looked up YouTube videos and went to the 25-meter community pool for 2 hours every day. Swimming back and forth, until I worked up to a mile and a half or more. It was miserable, I hated it, but I wanted to be a SEAL and that’s what I had to do.
In 2006, SEAL (SO) became a rating, and a direct pipeline was established. It gave me a shot to try out right away, rather than after years of service. I made it through boot camp, and then to a pre-BUDS training where they prepare progressively for the swimming and running that will be expected of you. First, you swim one mile in the pool and then you ramp to two miles. A coach pulled me aside. He said, “Your technique is like a snow plow. You’re wasting so much energy.” I replied, “I’m just getting there the only way I know how.”
The great equalizer came from the ocean. I was no more efficient, but we had to wear wetsuits, and I became more buoyant. I was able to plane my body out a bit more. Also, in a pool, you just stay in your lane and go straight. In the ocean, you have to guide: to pick something in the distance, swim a few strokes, look up make sure you’re still on that track, and start the process again. The bad guiders would swim in an “S.” I became one of the best guiders. I just went straight, the quickest path from point to point.
I earned my Trident. In the SEAL teams, being a new guy is rough. You don’t get any respect until you complete that first deployment, which can take up to 3-4 years. It takes 1.5 years just to get through training, another 1.5 years to get attached to a team and to get deployment ready, followed by a 6-8-month deployment. You’re the lowest of the low that whole time. But after you come back from the first deployment, you’re now mentoring the next batch of new guys coming in. I finally knew a little something, but I was never complacent. There is always something to make you better at your craft. As the SEAL Ethos states, ” My training is never complete.”
I had planned to stay in the military for 20 years, but being a SEAL takes a toll on your body. Wearing body armor, getting deployed, being away from home 250 days out of the year. It wreaks havoc on your personal life too. I wanted a family someday, and I wanted to dial back the physicality of my work in favor of the next cognitive challenge.
I found out about BreakLine, and liked their focus on excellence. I have always been part of elite organizations. I can’t do mediocrity. I don’t know how to do it, sometimes to my detriment. In college, after losing a game of Madden, which was rare (laughs), I made my friend play again. He said, “Dude – tone it down, it’s not that serious. It’s just a game.” To which I replied, “Yea, it can go back to being a game when I beat you (laughs).”
When I reached out to BreakLine, the team said, “It’s wonderful that you’ve done all of this stuff, Mr. Kirkland. You’ll still have to apply, go through interviews, and then we’ll see if there is a spot.” They challenged me. I loved it! Applying to the program was one of the best decisions I ever made.
The preparation from BreakLine was so good that real job interviews felt less challenging. In particular, I can still hear Lauren (Faul) saying, “Nope, you can do better.” (Laughs). It reminded me of a saying in the SEALs: you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall back on your training. People have this grandiose idea – I’m just going to walk in and dazzle. That never happens – just stop it right now. I would rather fail 1000 times in practice and crush the real event than go in unprepared.
I was lucky to receive multiple offers, and I opted to go with BMC Software. They recognized my potential, and they are aligned with the vision I have for my career. Beyond that, it’s about fit and feel. Bill Miller, Jonathan Adams, and Joan Lundholm are great examples. Bill runs the entire division – thousands of people. If I see him in the hallway, he’ll say, “Hey Will – how are you doing?” Like Bill, everyone is kind, helpful, and patient. It’s a great place to be.
My mom and I have a favorite movie, an urban film called The Five Heartbeats. We like a quote from it: “You always have to prove your love.” For the majority of us, nothing of value will be handed out for free. So go into it with a level of work ethic and dedication to prove you love what you’re doing. In every team I have been on, I was all in all the time. In the SEAL teams, we didn’t ever do something half speed. That equaled death. That intensity and rigor translates to any profession. In tech, law enforcement, education – whatever. You have to be dedicated. Be all in, and that’s when you see the fruits of your labor.