MOBILE, Ala. — As NFL prospects wind through the pre-draft process, they’re all asked some version of the same question: How much do you love football?
At the Senior Bowl this week, NFL teams don’t have to bother asking Western Illinois defensive tackle Khalen Saunders. After finding out on Monday night that his fiancée is on the cusp of going into labor with their first child, he made the business decision to stay at the Senior Bowl to showcase his talents to NFL scouts.
The decision to choose a once-in-a-lifetime professional opportunity over a once-in-a-lifetime personal one made Saunders, a projected mid-round pick, the unlikely star of Senior Bowl media day on Tuesday. He handled the spotlight with aplomb and a warm genuineness, explaining how much the exposure to NFL scouts at the Senior Bowl means to a small-school prospect.
“There’s no doubt,” Saunders said, “if I love this game or not.”
Back in Naperville, Illinois, his fiancee, Ayanna Hall, is preparing to give birth, perhaps in the next 24 hours. He said she’s taking the medicine Pitocin, which speeds up contractions, and said he FaceTimed with her last night when he saw on Snapchat she was in scrubs at the hospital.
How close is their baby daughter Kambridge to being born? When asked if she’d been born yet, Saunders said at the end of his media session on Tuesday: “I don’t think so.” That elicited a strong laugh from the assembled media. He added: “It can come any day from today to tomorrow.”
Hall is on board with her fiance’s business decision. She called Saunders’ agent, Kyle McCarthy with Athletes First, with an explicit message: “I’m going to the hospital. Don’t let him come back here.”
McCarthy chuckled before adding: “She was adamant he stays down here and takes care of business.”
Saunders has done his part on the field, which led to his invite from Western Illinois. (The school’s most famous football alum is former NFL star Rodney Harrison.) At 6-foot and 320 pounds, Saunders proved a consummate disruptor at nose tackle, as he finished the season third on the team in tackles (72) and had 6.5 sacks and 13 TFLs. He also registered both a rushing and receiving touchdown in his career. Despite his athleticism, his height held back his football recruitment, as he got offers from Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Missouri to throw the shot put.
Western Illinois defensive line coach John Haneline came there from Mississippi State, where he was a quality control assistant. He said that Saunders would have been able to start on State’s stacked defensive line this year and summed up his FCS dominance this way: “He changed every game.”
Until his big decision this week, Saunders may have been best known in the draft process for a viral video in which he does a cartwheel into a backflip and also a standing backflip. ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted it out, and Saunders got so many mentions on Twitter he had to turn off the feature on his phone. (His Twitter handle — @KhalenNOTKaylen — doubles as a handy pronunciation guide, as his name sounds like “Colin”.) But he’s determined to be more than a viral sensation.
“I don’t want to be known as a gymnast,” he said. “I want to be known as an exceptional football player.”
He added later that he learned to do flips around age 8 and would perform them in “hood talent shows” in his inner-city St. Louis neighborhood. “It’s like riding a bike,” he said of the array of flips. “Once you learn how to do it, you don’t forget how to do it.”
The flip is some insight into his outgoing personality, as Western Illinois head coach Jared Elliott said in a phone interview on Tuesday that Saunders would play the piano to entertain recruits and their families on official visits. He also acted as Master of Ceremony in the football team’s annual talent show, and that charisma that charmed the media on Tuesday has been a regular glow within the Western Illinois program the past four seasons.
“He’s one of the most respected young men to ever walk through our program,” Elliott said. “That’s not because he’s a great player. He’s a tremendous teammate and extremely selfless. He’s not a flashy kid; he’s had to work and earn everything he’s gotten.”
And with that work leading him to showcase his skills at the Senior Bowl this week, Saunders chose to stick around to fully exploit the opportunity.
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