With the 84th pick overall in the NFL Draft, the Kansas City Chiefs selected defensive tackle and former Western Illinois starter, Khalen Saunders. The 6-foot, 324-pound senior was the Chiefs final pick in the third round of the draft on Friday night.
Sanders became the first player from Western to be drafted since 2009 when Jason Williams was drafted as the sixth pick of the third round to the Dallas Cowboys.
During his time as a Leatherneck, Saunders played in 47 games completing 204 tackles, 72 of those coming in his senior year. He also recorded 18 sacks over the course of four seasons and added 13 TFL’s for 57 yards lost his final season, which ranked him fifth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. He recorded a career high 11 tackles against the reigning MVFC Champions back on Oct. 13. Though he ended his career as a Leatherneck in a frustrating 15-13 loss on Senior Day, he has so much more to look forward to now.
Saunders raised eyebrows in the NFL Combine with a 5.01 40-yard dash, one of the fastest times for a defensive tackle. He also took on 27 reps in the bench press and had a 30.5-inch vertical jump.
He put up a phenomenal performance in the combine, raising many eyebrows and attracting a lot of attention. But it was what was going on off the field that really put him in the limelight.
It was a video of him doing a backflip that went viral that really changed his life forever. Sure, he had some good stats and a stellar combine performance, but it was that video that got him trending in the right direction. There were multiple videos of him back flipping, but it wasn’t until ESPN’s Adam Schefter shared it that it really gained popularity.
Not only will Saunders be playing in the NFL, but also he’ll be playing for his home state team. That’s right; Saunders is a St. Louis native and a graduate from Parkway Central High School. With the departure of the St. Louis Rams most Missourians transitioned into becoming Chiefs fans, including Saunders’ parents. That’s because STL is only about a three and a half hour drive to Arrowhead Stadium, so surely his family will be in attendance for most of the home games.
Speaking of Saunders’ family, he recently had a new addition when he welcomed his daughter into the world. One day after practice, Khalen was notified that his fiancé was going into labor. He wasn’t able to make it in person because he was down in Mobile, Ala. competing in the Senior Bowl. Oh yeah, he was also the first Leatherneck to even get an invite to that game as well.
Between viral backflips, becoming a father and getting drafted into the NFL, Saunders has had one crazy year, a year he’ll never forget. Come October, I’m excited to see the number of students walking around campus with a red Kansas City Chiefs No. 99 jersey. The whole school will be rooting for him no doubt, as Saunders looks to take his talent to the next level and continue making a name for himself.
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.
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.”
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.