Former Michigan State star Kenny Willekes says hard work will pave his way to NFL

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — Kenny Willekes was engaging and funny, sharing stories from his childhood playing on 10 acres in west Michigan with his seven siblings and the many times he required stitches.

Oh, and the fact he can do the splits thanks to all those gymnastics classes he took when he was younger.

Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes won the Burlsworth Trophy as the top college football player who began his career as a walk-on.

The former Michigan State defensive end is the Spartans’ all-time leader in tackles for loss with 51, was the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2018 and the Burlsworth Trophy winner last year given to the best FBS player who began his career as a walk-on. He has had an accomplished career, and regaled about a dozen reporters during his interview session on Thursday at the NFL Combine.

To his right at the next podium was Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, projected to be one of the top picks in the upcoming NFL Draft. The crowd for Young’s interview was enormous.

“It doesn’t really bother me,” Willekes said Thursday when asked about being stationed next to Young. “I don’t really care about the hype. I do what I do. I show up each and every day and put the work in and I can be the last pick of the draft, I can be undrafted, I’m still going to show up and put the work in and you’ll see that come to fruition on Sundays.”

Willekes added some weight while training for the combine and feels he can comfortably play at 265 to 270 pounds. He said NFL teams have talked to him about playing defensive end or outside linebacker.

Scouts know his story, how he was a walk-on who became a fearsome defensive lineman and leader for the Spartans, a captain and the team MVP last season. Those are the types of players whose work ethic is obvious to anyone who knows the game.

“I’m a worker,” Willekes said when asked what he wants teams to understand about him. “I show up every day, I put the work in. I’m relentless, I’m nonstop. It’s not just what you see on-the-field effort — that’s a byproduct of what I do. In the film room, the weight room, the training room, conditioning, practice, it doesn’t matter, 7 a.m., 4 a.m., 3 a.m., I promise you I’ll be the hardest-working one there.”

He studies a lot of NFL players, but singled out Frank Clark and Khalil Mack because of their physical style and that they’re three-down players.

“They’re not out there just rushing the quarterback, they’re stopping the run,” he said. “I love stopping the run. I used to honestly love stopping the run way more than even pass rush when I started playing defensive end.”

While explaining how he developed his pass-rush moves, Willekes said that came from watching mixed-martial arts fighting when he was younger. He tied that in with doing the splits.

“I did a lot of gymnastics growing up, so I can do the full splits,” Willekes said, drawing laughs. “They called me Rubber Band Man at Michigan State. I’m as flexible as they come. I think I have a little different playing style than some other people. I played (middle) linebacker growing up.

"Honestly a lot of my pass-rush moves, a lot of the stuff that I do, I got from watching videos. Growing up, I wanted to be an MMA fighter, so I used to watch all the videos on YouTube and study them. A lot of that hand fighting me and my brothers used to do, we used to wrestle all the time. I have three brothers and we used to wrestle and fight each other all the time, and I feel like I carried a lot of that over to the trenches, knowing how to use my body weight.”

He laughed when asked if he still wants to be an MMA fighter.

“I do not,” he said. “I want to be an NFL player.”

He also wants to continue his work with the Healthy Kids, Smart Kids program at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital where his sister works in Grand Rapids. He has been seeking pledges for every bench press rep he does at the combine, and the money raised will go to that program.

Willekes said Thursday he’s concerned there isn’t enough access to health care for underprivileged children. In contrast, while growing up, he was rambunctious playing with his siblings and often his father, Charles, a doctor, would take care of his injuries at home.

“I was blessed. My father’s a doctor, so I never had to go to the hospital. He just stitched me up on the couch,” Willekes said, drawing laughs before adding that because of how fortunate he was, he wants to help children who don’t have that benefit.

He then, to the great enjoyment of the media, shared a number of his scars and the stories behind them.

“When I was like 10, I was jumping on my bed, and I went back and split my head open, so he sewed up the back of my head on the couch. I’ve got a scar back here,” Willekes said, gesturing to the back of his head. “The fat was hanging out of my finger one time after a game, so he cut that off and sewed it up.”

Did his father ever numb the area before sewing it?

“No, he just did it,” he said, later adding that playing football is less painful than playing around as a kid.

He pointed to a small scar on his forehead, the product of an incident while he and his brothers were building a fort in the woods. Willekes wanted his “special” log returned, so that’s what his brother did.

“I was trying to get it back, and he just chucked it at me,” he said, laughing.

These are the types of things that made Willekes into the type of player he’s become. He believes there are no accidents, and the fact he was hurt in the Redbox Bowl before the 2019 season was the reason he returned to play one more year. Had he been healthy he said “most likely” he would have left for the NFL.

“I think God has a plan for everything,” Willekes said. “I’m glad I came back to Michigan State for my senior year. Had the ability to graduate, get a degree. I was voted a captain by my teammates and I was able to play my senior year with my brothers.”

Twitter: @chengelis