INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts on Saturday traded up into the fourth round, sending their two fourth-round (129th- and 135th-overall) selections to the Oakland Raiders and selecting safety Khari Willis with the 109th-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Willis — who stands at 5-foot-11 and weighs 213 pounds — is a two-time honorable mention All-Big Ten honoree out of Michigan State, and last season as a senior he collected 84 total tackles, two interceptions and 10 passes defensed; in 2017, he had 71 tackles (5.5 for a loss) with four sacks, two picks and three passes defensed.
JACKSON – It’s late Saturday morning and cars are starting to line up on the street outside a brick ranch house on West Addison Street in Jackson.
Flames shoot from the grill on the backyard deck, food is being prepared and the home is buzzing with anticipation.
A little after noon, Khari Willis takes a seat on a black leather couch in the basement of his parents’ home. The former Michigan State safety, whose No. 27 jerseys are displayed on the walls, is staring at the TV as if it holds the answer to his future, and that’s not far off.
This is the final day of the NFL draft.
The previous night, Khari, and a crowd packed wall to wall in the basement, spent more than five hours watching 70 names called in the second and third rounds but his was not among them. Although there’s hope in the room that the final day won’t drag on painfully long before he is picked, it isn’t needed.
About 20 minutes into the third day of the draft, Khari’s phone rings showing an unknown number with a 317 Indianapolis area code. It’s Colts’ general manager Chris Ballard, who says the organization is trading up to select him in the fourth round.
This is the moment Khari has trained for nearly his entire life.
He barely acknowledges the call to those around him as he continues to stare at the TV, waiting to confirm it’s real. Almost five minutes go by before it’s announced: “Khari Willis, Michigan State.” And the room goes wild.
The man his teammates called “Cap” before he was even named a captain, whose steady demeanor is fitting of the leadership title, finally reveals what the moment means to him. Khari hugs his older brother, Xavier, then buries his face in his left arm as the tears flow. Then come the hugs from his parents, John and Mary, and nearly everyone else in the room.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Khari said. “You can look at what other people do, only dream of what you do but when it hits you, you never know.”
This is a scene that plays out across the country every year during the NFL draft. The phone call, the announcement, the emotion.
So, what makes Khari unique? Why does his story stand out?
Because Khari Willis beat the odds. This is his dream and his path to the NFL was different than any of the other 253 players who were selected this year.
HERE FOR A REASON
1:15 p.m., Saturday: There are warming trays in the basement filled with ribs, fried chicken, meatballs, sweet potatoes and just about everything imaginable to feed a large group. It has been 45 minutes since Khari was drafted and nobody can find him but it’s time to eat. So, John blesses the food with a prayer while everyone in the basement bows their heads.
Khari is the seventh of 10 children but his number in his father’s phone is just listed as “Big Guy,” a long-standing nickname for the man who almost didn’t make it to his first birthday. He was just seven months old when, on Thanksgiving, he was running a high fever and then went limp. John and Mary rushed him to the hospital in Jackson and he was then airlifted to the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.
Doctors determined Khari was suffering from adenovirus, an infection John said had reached the lining around his brain. After three days in intensive care and receiving antibiotics, he was back to normal as if nothing happened.
“That was a nightmare,” Mary said. “The Lord kept him here and I always told him that you’re here for a reason. I didn’t know this would be part of the reason but it’s a good feeling. I’m very proud of him.”
Khari was born into a big family and competition was infused into nearly every aspect of his life – from the breakfast table to full-court 2-on-2 basketball to “kill the man football” in the backyard. His oldest brothers, twins Terrell and Terrence, were both standout athletes and pushed him. Terrell played football at Toledo and Terrence played basketball at Jackson College, where John coached.
At an early age, Khari realized he would have to be tough, especially trying to go toe-to-toe with kids nearly a decade older than him. The result was talent and athleticism that was impossible to ignore by the time he arrived at Jackson Lumen Christi as a freshman.
“You could see he had rare ability as soon as we got ahold of him,” said Herb Brogan, who has won nine state titles since taking over as Lumen Christi’s head coach in 1980.
The potential was obvious but could be wasted without direction, and guidance was never lacking in his home. John, the longtime director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Jackson, will tell as many kids that will listen “show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.”
Despite a strong family support structure, the opportunity to stray was not far away. Growing up around drugs, gangs and violence, Khari had friends who wound up behind bars. He, however, played the long game. That meant avoiding the traps others around him succumbed to and committing fully to his future.
More hours training, hitting the books and doing whatever it required to be exceptional – that was the path Khari took. Last July, he wore a tuxedo and stepped onto the stage in the grand ballroom on the seventh floor of the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile. In front of a crowd of about 1,400 people, he delivered a speech on behalf of all student-athletes during the Big Ten media days annual luncheon. He shared his story, urged his peers to give back to their communities and received a standing ovation.
“Khari’s the one that listened to everything,” Terrence said. “Grades, sports – he put it all together.”
There are about 40 people packed into the basement and in one corner is a table with his Michigan State helmet surrounded by poster boards taped up with newspaper clippings documenting Khari’s high school achievements. About half of them feature him with a basketball in his hands.
Khari was a standout point guard and played on the Michigan Mustangs AAU team that included future Spartan and NBA draft lottery pick Miles Bridges. He was being recruited by schools across the country and had about a dozen Division I scholarship offers. That triggered an out-clause John had for his children to allow them to focus on just one sport.
For Khari, it was basketball and that meant quitting football. Then, just before Lumen Christi began football practice the summer of his junior year, he changed his mind and told his father he needed a new pair of cleats.
About six years after continuing with football, Khari thought about that decision while he was at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
“Change your life,” he said. “Change your life.”
Wearing No. 7 for the Titans – a nod to his being the seventh child in his family – Khari was almost unstoppable with the ball in his hands. With a combination of speed, power and vision, he routinely racked up gaudy numbers that led to blowouts with him spending the second half on the bench. He went on to shatter the single-game, single-season and career rushing numbers at Lumen Christi.
“We were obviously thrilled when he changed his mind,” Brogan said of Khari sticking with football, “and it worked out really well for us and it worked out really well for him too.”
While most schools recruited Khari as a running back, Michigan State offered him as a safety – a position he never played before. Making the transition to defense and playing for a team that would go on to win the Big Ten and reach the College Football Playoff in 2015, Khari seemed destined to redshirt.
Instead, he cracked the lineup, and midway through the season, called his dad to deliver a secret that couldn’t be shared with anyone else – he would make his first college start when the Spartans traveled to Ann Arbor to face Michigan in front of more than 111,000 fans. Khari played well and helped block as Jalen Watts-Jackson returned a fumbled punt attempt for the game-winning touchdown as time expired in one of the wildest plays in college football history.
Khari broke his foot late that season and missed the Big Ten championship game win against Iowa and CFP semifinal loss to Alabama. He struggled at times the following year, but went on to start the final 26 games of his career, playing his best as a senior last season with 84 tackles, two interceptions and 10 pass break-ups.
From the moment Khari committed to Michigan State, John thought it was unlikely he would see the field as a true freshman. Now he laughs thinking back to how his son proved him and many others wrong by adapting quickly.
“It’s funny with Khari, he likes challenges,” John said. “When he went to the Michigan State (summer prospects) camp, he didn’t like what he ran in his time, he didn’t like what he did in the tests and felt he could do better. I could see him, he was seething that whole camp because there were kids that had ran these drills and were doing better than him. After that, he said ‘I’m playing football, I’m going here.’ That’s a crazy way to make a decision but he did.”
“This is his life,” Chunky says of Khari. “It’s crazy.”
Khari rushed for 2,800 yards as a senior at Lumen Christi, which is the fourth-highest total in state history, but the season ended with a one-point loss to eventual state champion Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central in a regional championship. Although he had 50 rushes for 412 yards while putting the Titans on his back, he fumbled for the first time of his career on his last carry while attempting to lead a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter and was crushed.
Four months later, Khari’s basketball career ended in similarly-heartbreaking fashion. A controversial call in the final seconds led to a two-point loss to Hanover-Horton in a district semifinal matchup between a pair of top-10 teams and he was furious immediately after the defeat.
Those were rare moments when Khari displayed raw emotion in public. Those around him are used to his even-keeled demeanor, but Mary could see the anxiety on her son’s face leading up to the draft.
Khari admitted he had trouble sleeping Friday night and woke up Saturday morning fully expecting to be drafted but knew there was a chance it wouldn’t happen. The countless hours spent training from a young age, the four-year grind of Big Ten football while graduating in December as a three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree, the Senior Bowl, the combine, pro day – they all led up to one moment and Khari let it all go after he was drafted by the Colts with the seventh pick in the fourth round (No. 109 overall) on Saturday.
“It’s crazy,” Khari said. “It’s what you dream for, it’s what you work for – moments like these, to be able to share them with the people you love. I’m ready, I’ve been ready for this so long, I’m just ready to get going. I thank God. It’s just a tremendous blessing to have this opportunity, especially with such a great organization. It’s rare so I’m thankful for it.”
The Colts traded a pair of fourth-round picks to the Oakland Raiders to move up 20 spots and get Khari. He is now headed to the same franchise his cousin, wide receiver Bill Brooks, was picked by in the fourth round of the 1986 draft and spent the first seven seasons of his 11-year NFL career.
Mary said in her prayer circle she hoped her son didn’t end up too far away and he’s now headed just a four-hour drive from home. It also means John, who conquered his fear of air travel with his first flight in 32 years to see Khari’s final game with Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl loss to Oregon in Santa Clara, Calif., in December, can stay behind the wheel to get to Colts’ home games.
The fulfillment of a dream will also come with a big paycheck. As a comparison, the No. 109 pick in last year’s draft, safety Troy Apke, signed a four-year contract for $3.1 million with a $703,000 signing bonus, according to spotrac.com, with Washington. Khari, who already hired a financial advisor, has full trust in his agent, but doesn’t plan on staying on the sideline while the deal is negotiated.
“That’s something I’m going to have my hands on for sure because it’s a job and it’s a business now,” he said. “I try to handle everything in a professional, business-like manner and my agent does a great job with keeping me in the loop and letting me know what to expect.”
Khari will be in Indianapolis later this week for the Colts’ mini-camp and his first taste of life as an NFL player. He plans on maintaining the “walk-on” mentality he took with him to Michigan State and fighting for a spot as if he was an undrafted free agent. Most of his nearly 23 years on Earth were dedicated to becoming extraordinary and that won’t change in the NFL.
“I feel like I’ve been preparing for each step,” Khari said, “and a now it’s time for me to go play ball.”