Western Illinois defensive tackle Khalen Saunders has gone from a player with no FBS scholarship offers to a potential early-round NFL draft pick.
AURORA, Ill. — Khalen Saunders is ready to make a prediction.
It’s not about where he’ll be selected in next week’s NFL draft (ESPN’s Mel Kiper pegs the defensive tackle from Western Illinois as a second-round pick). It’s not about becoming the next Aaron Donald, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year who has eased anxiety about drafting short linemen. Saunders’ prediction isn’t even about football. It’s about basketball.
“After a few years in the NFL, I’m getting in one of those [celebrity] all-star games,” he said, “and I guarantee you I will be the MVP.”
Saunders is sitting on a couch inside the townhome of his in-laws, about 30 miles west of Chicago. It’s a rare quiet afternoon for a man whose life has been in fifth gear since January, and who will pass another milestone when his name — pronounced “Colin,” as noted by his Twitter handle, @khalenNOTkaylen — is called at the draft.
As Saunders recounts the past three months — the backflip video that went viral after an Adam Schefter tweet; the Senior Bowl week that brought both personal joy (his daughter, Kambridge, was born on the first practice day) and professional headway; a validating performance at the NFL combine — as well as the past 22 years, he speaks with both pride and humility. The journey isn’t lost on someone who received no FBS scholarship offers and only one from an FCS team.
But there are moments when the swagger appears. Like when he’s reminded of his brilliance on the basketball courts of Western Illinois’ student rec center, where the legend of “Fat Kyrie” was born.
“I’m mad at myself because I should have recorded [those pickup games],” he said. “I could have a hoop mixtape right now, not even exaggerating. I made people do the splits off a crossover. I made people run into each other.”
The mixtape will have to wait — Saunders vows to dunk on camera in the future — but there’s already enough footage of the 6-foot, 320-pound athlete doing … things. There are the backflips, which Saunders taught himself to do at a young age. There’s him hurdling defenders as a 285-pound high school running back. There’s his senior highlight tape from WIU, titled “The Aaron Donald of the FCS,” in which Saunders smothers ball carriers with quickness and strength — and even catches a touchdown pass. And there are clips from the Senior Bowl and the combine, where Saunders showed off a 30-inch vertical and ran the 40 in 5.01 seconds.
Once told he was too short to play major college football, Khalen Saunders now stands alongside others in one of the NFL draft’s deepest defensive line classes — perhaps not quite shoulder to shoulder, but finally on level ground.
“Before the Senior Bowl, it was more that skepticism, ‘He’s from Western Illinois, he was just more athletic than everybody, he needs more technique,'” Saunders said. “At the end of the combine, I proved to everybody that it’s not a fluke.
“I’m not here by accident.”
Dude, you’re a beast, you’re a freak.
Saunders heard it throughout his high school career at Parkway Central, in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield, Missouri. Opposing coaches would tell him he’d have a long NFL career. In addition to defensive line, Saunders played fullback, and not as a gadget guy.
He and fellow big man Michael Slater — who went on to play defensive line at Iowa — formed the backfield tandem known as the Beef Boys, the Thunder Package or simply “580,” as in 580 combined pounds.
“Other teams would just cringe,” Parkway Central coach Mark Goldenberg said.
According to Goldenberg, Saunders had the best hands on the team. He played up-back on punt returns and executed special-teams fakes, both runs and passes. He’d even punt in a pinch. Offense became his reward if Saunders excelled on defense.
Saunders did it all, helping Parkway Central to the state championship game as a senior, but top colleges stayed away. Missouri recruited him for shot put and discus but didn’t want to offer a football scholarship. He received two Division II offers — one for defensive line, the other for running back. The lone FCS opportunity came from Western Illinois.
“I’ve been a high school football coach for 29 years, and I still don’t understand sometimes what they’re looking for,” Goldenberg said. “I know that they can lose their job if they don’t get what they need to get, so I don’t begrudge them. But it’s silly that sometimes they’ll look at a kid because he’s 6-3, versus a kid that is making every tackle on the field at 6-foot. There was nothing that he couldn’t do, so it had to be measurables.”
Added Saunders: “It was 100 percent the height.”
Saunders briefly doubted whether he could keep playing. He knew nothing about Western Illinois. Couldn’t find Macomb, Illinois, on a map. Thanks to encouragement from a small group of childhood friends he still has to this day, Saunders signed with the Leathernecks.
“It made Khalen play with a chip on his shoulder,” said Kim Hamilton, Saunders’ mother. “He wanted to show folks, ‘You passed on me and I’m going to make you regret it.'”
Saunders became a ubiquitous presence at WIU, just as he was at Parkway Central. An unblockable lineman, he consistently beat double-teams to record 14 sacks, 25 tackles for loss, 4 forced fumbles, 9 quarterback pressures and 129 tackles the past two seasons. Last season, he earned second-team AP All-America honors.
He also played situational fullback and rushed for a touchdown while catching another. At practice, Saunders would pick up the ball and punt it 55 yards. His weight-room displays were mythical.
“You felt like you had every 45-pound plate in the weight room on the bar,” WIU coach Jared Elliott said. “On the field, there’s so many things he does that wow you. We would stand him up at outside defensive end at 320 pounds — no one does that — and Khalen would beat people off the edge. He’s got a unique skill set with such athleticism in a big man’s body, combined with elite strength.”
Saunders’ popularity grew off the field. The WIU football team holds a talent show before each season, and players vote on the master of ceremonies. Saunders was picked every year. “The Khalen Saunders show,” Elliott said, “like an hour of straight comedy.” Saunders also entertained on the piano, another skill he taught himself, playing John Legend’s “Ordinary People” and Alicia Keys songs.
WIU’s coaches play noon basketball at a campus gym, and one day last summer, Saunders dropped by. He ran the point and brought the moves.
“He would jump up and pump it to one side and take it to the other side, the old Michael Jordan up and under,” defensive line coach John Haneline said. “I would call him ‘The Fat Kyrie.’ The D-line room, we’ve got ‘The Fat Kyrie.’ He was on our team.”
Every NFL scout who came through Macomb last season heard the same thing from Haneline: If you want to see what Khalen is, invite him to the Senior Bowl. Haneline had unique perspective. Before WIU, he spent two stints on the defensive staff at Mississippi State, working mostly with the line. He had seen Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons, two likely first-round picks this year, and Chris Jones, a second-round pick in 2016.
Scouts often asked where Saunders would have fit in at Mississippi State.
“He could have been the fourth starter inside, next to Jeffery,” Haneline said. “Khalen’s not 6-4 or 6-6, but he gets up underneath guys, so when he plays at that 0 [nose tackle], he does an unbelievable job of playing with leverage. He can play with power and really control two gaps.
“He had flashes … of things I saw Jeffery Simmons do.”
Saunders became WIU’s first-ever Senior Bowl participant. No player at the NFL’s premier pre-draft all-star game had a week quite as wild as his.
Kambridge wasn’t due until Jan. 31, five days after the game. Saunders and his fiancée, Ayanna Hall, had heard the first child is often born after the due date. But as Saunders arrived in Mobile, Alabama, it became clear Kambridge wouldn’t wait.
After practice Jan. 22, Saunders performed a backflip for his teammates. Then, his agent informed him Hall’s water had broken. Saunders ran to the locker room, grabbed his phone and saw a video sent by her mother of Hall on a gurney, headed to the delivery room.
While he was on the bus back to the players’ hotel, another picture appeared on his phone: She’s here. He told the other players, men he barely knew, who congratulated him and told him he’d be a great father.
“Just that feeling of euphoria,” Saunders said. “Everyone was happy, and it made me happy, even though I wasn’t around.”
To be clear, Saunders was ready to fly back to Illinois. But Hall had insisted he stay in Mobile, telling him, “Finish the process.”
Saunders and Hall met at WIU. She graduated last spring, but rather than going home, she stayed in town for Saunders’ final season and took a job at a local high school. He proposed to her after a home game, still in full pads. They recently obtained their marriage license but won’t set a wedding date until they know where Saunders will be playing.
“I missed the birth. Obviously, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but the Senior Bowl’s also a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Saunders said. “I get to be around for my daughter’s life, but the Senior Bowl’s one of those things where if you can take advantage of it, you can help yourself tremendously. [Ayanna] knew that.”
“I’m not going to miss no more of them.”
“One of the most exciting weeks of my life,” said Hamilton, who drove nine hours to Mobile with Saunders’ father, Kenton, and godmother. “I was so overwhelmed, happy and humbled.”
Next came the combine. Coaches who met with Saunders brought up Donald, who at the 2014 combine measured 6-foot-1 but was so dominant that the Rams drafted him No. 13 overall.
“They told me, ‘You’re the shortest D-lineman here, but the shortest D-lineman in the NFL is the best D-lineman,'” Saunders said.
Donald is Saunders’ favorite defensive lineman. He wears the same number, 99. Although Saunders says he doesn’t model his game after anyone, he studies Donald’s rush moves and draws inspiration from him.
“Teams, they don’t really compare me to him, but they say height doesn’t matter because of him,” said Saunders, who likely will play between 315 and 320 pounds in the NFL. “It’s almost beneficial to be [shorter] at D-line because you can get underneath people. I might possibly be able to be an Aaron Donald-caliber player one day.
“That’s a goal and a dream, for sure.”
Alongside family and close friends, Khalen Saunders will watch the draft from St. Louis.
“I rep that place,” he said. “That’s home.”
Saunders loves St. Louis, but he also has been hardened by it. He notices St. Louis on almost every list of most dangerous U.S. cities. And he has lived it. Two brick pillars once stood on both corners of his street in the Walnut Park neighborhood. Both were knocked down in police chases. He witnessed a shootout in front of his home. A friend recently had his door kicked in during a robbery.
When Saunders was in high school, two men with guns robbed his older brother, Kameron, just feet from the family’s home.
“I ran in the house and I was crying and upset and yelling, and the next thing I know, Khalen was out the door,” Kameron said. “He had on no shirt, he had on no shoes, he was running up the street, looking for these guys. My concern was no longer me or what I’d lost. Khalen is a very, very large guy. You see him coming at you, you’re going to shoot him. At that point, I was petrified for his life.”
Fortunately, Kameron reached Khalen in time.
Khalen once dreamed of playing for his hometown NFL team. Now he’s glad the Rams left because he doesn’t want the option of playing at home.
“St. Louis is one of those places, I love it for what it’s taught me,” Khalen said, “but it’s a real rough place.”
The turmoil outside didn’t infiltrate the loving home where Khalen and Kameron lived with their mother and grandmother Barbara, nicknamed Bingo.
“It was me and my mom and my babies against the world,” Kim Hamilton said, laughing.
Hamilton had two rules for her sons: No fighting and no lying. Khalen and Kameron had only one fight, over the TV remote. It didn’t last long.
“I came in there like ‘The Matrix,'” Hamilton said. “I was whipping belts. Then I made them write letters about why they love each other.”
Hamilton worked hard at different jobs, and now serves as a driving instructor for the city’s MetroBus service. She took out a loan so the boys could visit Disney World. She made sure both of her sons attended high schools that could vault them to college. She also has a fun side, even trying stand-up comedy in recent years.
“My mother is one of the most resourceful women I know,” Kameron said. “There was one time we didn’t have stable transportation, so we would have to catch the bus. In order to make it seem like we weren’t struggling, she would tell us we would go on these hiking adventures. So from bus stop to bus stop, she would find these woods near highways and tell us we were looking for buried treasure, or tell us don’t step on these rocks or the creatures might come out.”
The boys’ father also was involved. Kenton introduced Khalen to football and kept him in it, despite Hamilton’s objections (“If it was up to me, I would have pulled him out,” she says). Because Khalen went to high school in the suburbs, he would often stay at Kenton’s place.
Khalen and Kameron have four older brothers from their father’s side, but the two grew up together and are extremely close, despite different interests. Kameron tried sports but found his passion in dance and now works as a choreographer and educator. Last summer, he earned a fellowship to the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts.
“Khalen, he doesn’t dance, but if he’s there, he’ll be at all my concerts,” Kameron said. “I was at all of his games, and instead of paying attention like I should have, I was concerned with the cheerleaders because I thought they were terrible. So I would go to his games obviously to support him, but I would work with the captain of the cheerleading team.”
When they were younger, Kameron joked that once Khalen made the NFL, he could send his big brother to graduate school. Except Khalen took it seriously. He even researched master’s programs in choreography. Kameron still plans to go to grad school but doesn’t want Khalen to finance it.
Khalen also plans to take care of his mom. Kim will be joining Khalen, Ayanna and Kambridge in their soon-to-be-determined next home, continuing the family tradition of live-in grandmothers.
“I don’t want her to stay there much longer, especially in the area she lives,” Khalen said. “A lot of guys buy their moms houses. This is my version, having a house that’s big enough to where she can live there. I want her to be able to live carefree.”
The free babysitting is an added perk.
Since January, Khalen Saunders’ life has had “a whirlwind type of vibe.” Every month has brought significant events. Another arrives next week, when a guy who used to be overlooked can stand up as an NFL player.
“A lot of times people, especially in this generation, are focused on other people to validate their success,” Saunders said. “Believe in yourself. Take opportunities.
“They may come few and far between, but I took mine from Western, and now I’m here.”