From the moment he first strapped on a helmet, Christian Kirk has had visions of becoming a professional football player.
"I started playing when I was 5 and I instantly fell in love with it. I watched football constantly, 24/7 while I was growing up. I knew very early that being an NFL player was what I wanted to do," Kirk told STACK.
But, then again, so do a lot of kids. What set Kirk apart is that his actions reflected his wish. His training, his mindset, his work ethic—they've always been in another stratosphere compared to his peers. Reaching the NFL wasn't just some far-fetched goal—it was his purpose. Now that he's on the verge of realizing that dream, the same principles that carried him this far could help him become a transcendent talent at the next level.
As a boy, Kirk spent his summers helping his father, Evan Kirk, grow his auto detailing company. Washing cars underneath the scorching Arizona sun quickly taught Christian about the connection between hard work and success.
"I've seen my parents work for everything they've got today, and we didn't have much when I was growing up. They had to work for every penny they had and everything we got growing up," says Kirk, who's mother, Melissa, has climbed the corporate ladder to become a vice president at a payment solutions company. "That just taught me, if I wanted something, I had to go work for it…I could never go to them and tell them I wanted something and expect them to (hand it) to me. There was always something I had to do to work for it."
He spent Sundays watching his father's favorite team—the Indianapolis Colts. As he watched talents like Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison make spectacular plays, he couldn't help but envision himself one day doing the same. Christian played running back in his early days, and Evan often pointed out great running backs when they'd appear on TV so his son could emulate them.
"Specifically, I remember watching a Walter Payton documentary and watching him run. To me, he's the greatest running back of all time. Just being able to see what he was able to do, it really helped me visualize how I wanted to play. Then I went to practice later that day, and no one could really tackle me," Kirk says.
Payton, who went to nine Pro Bowls as a member of the Chicago Bears, was listed at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds during his playing days. Coincidentally, Kirk will enter the NFL at the exact same size—give or take a pound.
Kirk wasn't kidding about no one being able to tackle him during youth football, either. As a 9-year-old, he joined a team in Scottsdale called the Argonauts. The team's coach, Jason Mohns, would later serve as Kirk's coach at Saguaro High School. From the moment Mohns saw Kirk touch a football, he knew the kid was an outlier.
"He was playing against kids that were two years older than him, and you could tell back then that he was just different," Mohns told AZCardinals.com. "His instincts and his vision, and obviously, his athleticism, it was just off the charts. It was funny seeing a kid that small, that young, doing the things he was doing."
In middle school, Kirk was still small for his age. That fact was his initial inspiration to get inside the weight room.
"A lot of kids had hit their growth spurts earlier than I had, so I had to find another way to get on the same level as they were and then continue to separate myself," Kirk says. How many times do you hear an eighth grader talk about separating themselves from their competition? Yet Kirk has always been goal-oriented. As he prepared to enter Saguaro High School, he made it his mission to get on the field as a freshman. And he didn't just want to play—he wanted to start on varsity.
"(Heading into my) freshman year, I got the opportunity to go to camp with the varsity team and show a little bit of what I can do. So they really just wanted to see if I was able to hang with the older guys. I did everything well—I ran my routes well, I caught the ball, I made plays. Just the one thing I was lacking was blocking," Kirk recalls. "I went home after that camp and honestly went online and found little ways and little videos of blocking and I even sat in my mirror and just practiced the technique. When it came (time) for practices before the season opener, I went out there and executed it. I showed them I could block. At first, they told me I wouldn't get on the field as a freshman. They said I might get in at the end of a game and play a lot of JV, but I was determined to start as a freshman on varsity."
Kirk was too good to ignore, leaving his coaches no option but to play him. He went on to become the first player in Saguaro history to start immediately as a freshman. He caught 34 passes for 589 yards and nine touchdowns to help Saguaro win the Division III state championship. After the season, Kirk was named to MaxPreps Freshman All-American team.
By February of his freshman year, Kirk held offers from UCLA and Arizona State. That summer, he scored a top-10 SPARQ score in the nation among wide receivers, in part thanks to a 4.62 40-Yard Dash—a blazing result for a rising sophomore. Anytime a new player transferred to Saguaro, they found themselves paired up with Kirk during workouts. That was no accident.
"A lot of them came from teams that didn't win as much. There were plenty of guys who had all the talent in the world, but the work ethic wasn't there." Kirk says. "My job, whenever coach Jason would send them to me, was to get their mindset right and show them why we won championships. If they want to play at the next level, (I showed) them how they need to approach the game on and off the field. I'd just try to take them under my wing and try to get their mindset right and show them how to work. It happened with plenty of guys, and they're all special to me. To be able to impact their lives meant a lot to me, then (when they'd) go out on the field and be successful, that was awesome."
"Christian was the first player I ever described as a professional in high school," Mohns told NFL.com. By the end of his senior season at Saguaro, Kirk had solidified himself as an Arizona high school football legend. He helped guide the Sabercats to three state championships during his time there and set a new state record with 103 career touchdowns. He also earned Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year honors after totaling over 3,000 all-purpose yards as a senior.
During the back stretch of his high school career, Kirk formulated a plan. While he wasn't yet sure where he would attend college, he knew one thing—he wanted to contribute as a true freshman. He knew that graduating from high school early would be a key part of that goal. It took a lot of extra studying, but Kirk was set to graduate after the first semester of his senior year. Graduating early and enrolling early means you can't wait until National Signing Day in February to announce your commitment. As the top-ranked recruit in Arizona, Kirk had options—37 schools offered him, per 24/7Sports. He whittled that down to a top five of Arizona State, Auburn, Ohio State, Texas A&M and UCLA.
But just two days before he was to set to announce his choice, Kirk still didn't know where he'd be headed. As he weighed his options, Texas A&M continued to separate itself. Not only did Kirk have a great connection with the Aggie coaching staff, but the team also played in the hyper-competitive SEC. Kirk announced his commitment to Texas A&M on December 17, 2014. He was quick to cite the level of competition as a key factor in his decision. "I believe the SEC is the best conference," Kirk told AZCentral.com. "I love to work for what I get, and it's a great challenge for me to go show I can play against the best."
Kirk also knew he'd have immediate opportunity at Texas A&M, and it didn't take long for him to make an impression on his teammates and coaches after arriving in College Station. By the end of spring ball, Kirk had made it crystal clear he would be playing as a true freshman. He was simply too good to ignore.
"Kirk has been a revelation ever since he arrived on campus. He carries himself like an upperclassman and physically he looks like one too. He's impressed everyone around the program with his work ethic and attention to detail," wrote Jeff Tarpley of 24/7Sports. "He's learned how to use his athleticism to get separation (he's got astoundingly quick feet) and work over linebackers and safeties on the inside."
Many true freshman feel they're invincible, yet Kirk was already taking care of his body like a 10-year NFL veteran. Jake Spavital, the team's offensive coordinator at the time, said Kirk watched as much film as he did. "All the work I was doing off the field that people weren't seeing—in the film room, extra stretching and flexibility (work), taking care of my body—it all made sense. Everything I put in, I was getting out on the field," Kirk said.
While Kirk always aimed high, he outperformed even his own expectations during the 2015 season opener against Arizona State. "I just wanted to go out there and contribute and make a couple catches, and I ended up having one of the biggest games of my career," Kirk says. "It all took off from there."
Kirk totaled 106 receiving yards and a touchdown to lead A&M to a 38-17 victory and never looked back. That season, he totaled 1,009 receiving yards (third-most in the SEC) and 7 touchdowns. He also chipped in one kickoff return touchdown and one punt return touchdown. He earned first-team All-SEC honors as an all-purpose player and was named the SEC Freshman of the Year. Those honors could've led a lesser player to rest on his laurels and bask in the limelight, but Kirk quickly began dissecting his freshman game film in search of weaknesses. It's a characteristic he's had his entire football career, and one he believes has proved pivotal in his continual improvement.
"If you're not self-aware, if you're kinda blind to your deficiencies, then you're not going to get any better. I think that's one of my strongest traits, is to be able to criticize myself. After every game, I'm going back and picking apart the film and just seeing what I can do better. I say it a lot—never being satisfied with my performance has been one of the best things for me," Kirk says. "I think especially after my freshman year, I was able to go back and look at where I was at at the top of my routes, my press release. Then identifying coverages—as a freshman, the speed of the game is still really fast and you're not really seeing things as fast as you should. So going into my sophomore and junior year, I was able to really see the game slow down and identify coverages."
Kirk's insatiable work ethic and strong on-field production established him as a leader on the Aggies' roster. As he grew into that role, Kirk prioritized finding out what made each of his teammates tick.
"Each guy, you have to know how to lead them. I took that upon myself during offseason workouts and summer workouts to really see how each guy reacts to leadership and what's the best way to lead them. Do you kinda have to get on them, or do you just pull them to the side and talk to them? You gotta find how each guy responds to leadership," Kirk says.
As a sophomore, Kirk again played an instrumental role in the offense, hauling in 83 receptions for 928 yards and 9 touchdowns to go along with 3 punt return TDs.
Entering last offseason, Kirk knew 2017 would likely be his final year in College Station. That fact inspired him to take his already obsessive training and nutrition habits to new heights. Every day, he caught 200 balls outside of mandatory team activities. He began adding beef liver to his post-workout smoothies as the B vitamins and iron greatly aid in recovery—a trick he stole from boxing great Andre Ward.
"Our Director of Player Development at A&M, Mikado Hinson, he approached me one day and said 'Hey, there's this world class boxer, his name is Andre Ward, best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He really reminds me of you. I think you should start following him and seeing the stuff he does and the way he approaches his training and his fights.' Little by little, I read up on him. Then an article came out about the way he approaches his nutrition, (and) one of the things was this liver smoothie in the morning. And it talked about how it helped with his recovery and all the vitamins and nutrients that are in liver, so I decided to add it in my fruit smoothies with some spinach, and it became a big part of my recovery," Kirk says.
Kirk had another spectacular season in 2017, totaling 919 receiving yards and 12 total touchdowns despite constant double-teams. He earned first-team All-SEC honors at three different positions. With his stock never higher, Kirk declared for the 2018 NFL Draft.
To help Kirk prepare for the most important workout of his life, he turned to EXOS in Phoenix, Arizona. Kirk specifically selected EXOS because of their renowned 40-Yard Dash training program. "Everybody had non-stop great things to say about their 40 program and their strength program and the coaches and staff here," Kirk says. "I definitely came here for (my 40), and it's improved a lot."
Although Kirk has long prepared like a professional, EXOS took his game to another level. "My body is night and day (different) from freshman year to what it is now," Kirk says. "You're out here to attack each day."
Kirk had a sublime showing at the NFL Combine. His 4.47 40-Yard Dash matched the explosiveness he showed on film, but that wasn't the only event he excelled in. His 20 reps on the Bench Press were the fourth-most among all receivers, and his hands measured in at 9 7/8 inches, which is massive for a player his size. He also received rave reviews for his performance in the field drills, where he didn't drop a single pass.
The secret to Kirk's success has always been setting his goals high and training like the player he wants to become, and he won't be changing that anytime soon. "I don't want to do anything to be average," Kirk recently told AZCentral.com. "Didn't want to go to college and just be another guy, another college football player. I wanted to be one of the top guys. I worked my way to the top and I have the same plan going into the league. When they talk about top receivers, I want my name to be mentioned."
And when Christian Kirk wants something, he usually takes it.
Photo Credit: Sabercatfootball.com, Icon Sportswire/Getty Images, Scott Halleran/Getty Images