East Lansing — You’d be hard-pressed to find a college football player in the country with more of a reason to skip his team’s bowl game than Kenny Willekes.
The Michigan State senior defensive end has had as decorated a career as any walk-on could expect, and should be a mid-round pick in the spring’s NFL Draft.
Plus, Willekes broke his leg last season as the Spartans closed their season in a non-marquee bowl game.
But despite the contrary ideas of some friends and family members, the Rockford native will suit up one more time for the Spartans on Dec. 27 in the Pinstripe Bowl.
“Obviously it’s something that crossed my mind, and a lot of people told me I shouldn’t play in it,” Willekes said. “But I want to play in it, play in one last game. So barring injury and the Lord’s plan, I plan on playing in this bowl game.”
Michigan State (6-6) will close the season against Wake Forest (8-4) at Yankee Stadium in New York in the first meeting between the teams.
It’ll be the last game for Willekes, who recovered from last season’s setback for another strong season, winning team MVP for the second straight year and earning All-Big Ten honors again.
Then, last week he topped it off with the Burlsworth Trophy as the nation’s top former walk-on.
Willekes said he drew inspiration from learning about the award’s namesake, Brandon Burlsworth, who arrived at Arkansas with no Division I scholarship offers in 1994, but became All-SEC and the school’s only football player to earn a master’s degree before playing his last game.
Indianapolis picked him in the third round of the 1999 draft and the offensive lineman impressed at mini-camp. However, 11 days after the draft, Burlsworth was killed in an automobile accident.
“To be able to carry on his legacy, carry on his name is a pretty cool opportunity for me,” Willekes said.
Willekes has set the tone for a team that will have every healthy player suited up, unlike last season when defensive back Justin Layne sat out the Redbox Bowl and then was drafted in the third round by Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, Willekes played in the 7-6 loss to Oregon last season despite his name garnering NFL attention.
He said he knew immediately when he broke his leg last season that he’d return to East Lansing, despite leaning the other way before the injury.
Willekes has a team-leading nine sacks for Michigan State, which qualified for a bowl for the 12th time in coach Mark Dantonio’s 13 seasons.
It wasn’t looking good not that long ago, as a five-game losing streak forced wins against Rutgers and Maryland to become bowl eligible. Willekes had 2 1/2 sacks and 4 1/2 tackles for a loss in those games.
Senior quarterback Brian Lewerke said Willekes set a tone for the Spartans that the Pinstripe Bowl was a game worth fighting for.
“It definitely sends a message when he’s playing, it means he cares about it,” Lewerke said. “The seniors care about it. We want to be able to leave this place with a win.”
Despite the past, Willekes will be out there in New York City next week for the Spartans, who have won five of their last seven bowl games.
“It’s not really setting a tone, it’s more just my teammates, my brothers voted me a captain, they voted me a leader,” Willekes said. “They wanted me to lead them so I’m not going to abandon them for one last game.
“I want to be out there. I want to play.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.
Michigan State vs. Wake Forest
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 3:20 p.m., Yankee Stadium, New York
Records: Michigan State 6-6, Wake Forest 8-4
Line: Michigan State by 4 1/2