Growing up, former Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes and his seven other siblings were competitive in everything they did.
“It didn’t really matter what it was. We did all types of things: snowboarding, gymnastics, who could climb the highest tree, who could jump their bike the farthest, who could do the most backflips, who could eat the most food, it didn’t matter,” said Willekes. “Pretty much everything we did growing up, it was a competition. All my siblings are fiercely competitive like I am, so it was kind of just the way it was growing up. I think you can see that in my game and everything I do. I’m very competitive.”
Willekes and his seven siblings grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While Grand Rapids is a relatively large city of around 160,000 people, the Willekes family called their 10 acres home. His mother was a stay-at-home mom, his father a surgeon.
“I had seven siblings, mother, and father. Mother is a stay-at-home mom, took care of the kids. Couldn’t ask for anything more out of a mother, you know, loving, caring. My father is a cardiothoracic surgeon, the hardest worker I’ve ever met, and he kind of instilled that in us growing up,” Willekes said. “You have seven siblings around, there’s always something to do. There’s always something going on. All my seven siblings are just as competitive as I am, so there was a lot going on. It was a crazy, fun-filled household growing up.”
For most of his early life, Willekes was homeschooled. Despite the acreage that he grew up on, he didn’t begin playing organized football until middle school, when he was finally able to convince his parents to let him play.
“I was actually homeschooled in fifth grade and my parents wanted me to homeschool another year. I wanted to go back to school, but we made an agreement – I could play tackle football, organized not just in the yard with my siblings or friends like we did so often,” Willekes said. “Didn’t really know much about football back then, didn’t have a TV growing up, so I didn’t watch a lot of football back then, but kind of knew a little bit.”
Under-Recruited Despite Success
Willekes attended NorthPointe Christian High School in Grand Rapids, playing both rugby and football. On the football field, Willekes shined as both a linebacker and a running back. He finished his high school career with 423 career tackles and nine fumble recoveries, including two scoop-and-scores. In 2014, his first season as a running back, Willekes finished with 1,400 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
That same year, the Michigan Associated Press named Willekes to the Divison 5-6 First Team as a linebacker. With Willekes playing, NorthPointe earned an 11-2 record and a trip to the Division 6 Semifinals, the deepest run in the program’s history. Despite the successful high school career, Willekes received no Division 1 scholarship offers. Although Willekes held Division 2 offers, Wiles chose to attend Michigan State without a scholarship.
“I believed in myself. I knew if I went to Michigan State and did the right things, stay disciplined, put the work in, I would have the opportunity to play,” Willekes said. “You see all the success stories of walk-ons before me: Blair White, Jack Conklin, Kyler Elsworth. I knew that walk-ons were able to play on the field if they showed the ability and I thought I had that ability and I knew I was going to go there and I wanted to prove myself.”
Life as a Walk-on
Walking on at a major university can be difficult, but Willekes embraced the opportunity to play college football at the next level. Even if it did not come with a promise to suit up in Michigan State’s green and walk onto the Spartan Stadium field.
Willekes knew “it’s going to be hard, it was going to be a lot of work,” he said. “I was going to be a dummy, a scout team dummy – I had those expectations coming in and I think when you’re mentally ready, mentally prepared, it’s easier,” Willekes continued. “I was just doing the work, I enjoyed practice, I enjoyed working out, I enjoyed those things, so I was just showing up every day, doing the work.” While Willekes was a walk-on, the former inside linebacker began to transition to defensive end, which can be difficult for many. For Willekes, his experiences growing up helped make that transition easier.
“I would say it wasn’t too difficult. I had to get used to, obviously, having my hand in the dirt, which was a little weird for me, a little awkward at first,” Willekes said. “A lot of the [defensive line] play in the trenches is a lot of that wrestling type of body control, hand fighting type of stuff that growing up with [seven] siblings, we did that type of stuff all the time. So, I felt like defensive end was a lot better fit for me once I got down there.”
Despite the switch to defensive end, Willekes still played multiple positions on both sides of the football, including his familiar inside linebacker position on defense, and both tight end and fullback on offense.
Despite playing time in just one game, a 49-0 win over Rutgers, in his first two seasons, Willekes kept working his way up the depth chart. Eventually, before the start of the 2017 season, he earned his scholarship.
“It was one of the greatest feelings in the world, honestly. Something you’ve been working for for so long, so many years and you finally see it all pay off, you see it come to fruition,” Willekes recalled. “Coach [Mark Dantonio] did it in front of all my teammates, all my best friends. They were cheering for me, going crazy for me. It was one of the greatest feelings in the world, something I’ll never forget.”
Also worth noting from #MSU depth chart is GR native Kenny Willekes starting at DE. The former walk-on earned a scholarship in April
— Joey Ellis (@Jellis1016) August 29, 2017
In his first full season as a defensive end, Willekes saw immediate success in the trenches. The undersized Willekes finished with 73 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 7 sacks. Willekes’ performance earned him a spot on the All-Big Ten third-team. He also landed on the final watch list of the Ted Hendricks Award, given annually to the nation’s best defensive end.
“The first season, I go back and watch it and laugh all the time,” Willekes said about 2017. “My techniques were terrible, I stepped with the wrong foot half the time. I was just out there playing, trying to get a feel for things.” Despite being undersized, Willekes found his success because of his competitive nature, something that has helped carry him this far.
“I go back to my competitive nature, I was just out there competing, trying to make plays. That’s what I do, I get around the ball, I make plays,” said Willekes. “I go back and look now, I was 235 pounds, fighting for every inch out there. It was a learning experience, I felt like a learned a ton each and every game, and continued to get better and learn the position of [defensive end].”
“I was kind of in shock, in disbelief. I didn’t believe that it happened.”
In 2018, Willekes saw increases in every important stat, finishing with 78 total tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. The Athletic also named him a first team All-American. Willekes also won the Governor’s Award, Michigan State’s team MVP. He was the first defensive end the award.
Despite the dominating performance, Willekes’ season ended abruptly. Late in the third quarter of the Redbox Bowl against Oregon, Willekes suffered a broken fibula while rushing the quarterback. The injury not only ended his season, but it also prompted a long recovery during a critical off-season.
“It was hard for me. You see people get hurt all the time but you never expect it to be you until it happens,” said Willekes. “You kind of have to have that mindset that you’re invincible when you’re playing football. I was kind of in shock. In disbelief.”
Holding off on Declaring
Prior to the injury, Willekes was leaning towards declaring for the NFL Draft and foregoing his final season. But the injury put a brief hold on those dreams.
“I was definitely leaning towards leaving – I was planning on leaving. I believe that everything happens for a reason,” explained Willekes. “Came back for my senior year, didn’t have the year I wanted, but I’m still glad I came back. I was able to get my degree, be a captain on the team. That’s something that means a lot to me, and play that final senior year with my brothers. I’m glad it happened to me and I’m a better man for it.”
Despite finishing the season with 16 tackles for loss and a career-high 10.5 sacks, Willekes struggled to return to form. Despite the struggles that came with coming back from a major injury, Willekes was able to take positives from a rough Michigan State season that finished with just seven wins.
“The biggest positive, I felt I grew a lot as a man and a leader. I was able to mature a lot this season. I thought it was going be a lot easier coming back from my ankle. Like I said, I think sometimes I’m more invincible than I am. I came back a little early for summer workouts. I wanted to be with my teammates, but it was a little harder to come back than I anticipated.
Willekes was awarded the Bulsworth Trophy following his senior season. The holy grail for walk-ons, the trophy is awarded to the nation’s best former walk-on. Willekes won the award over California safety Ashtyn Davis and Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship.
The 2019 @BurlsworthTrust Trophy Winner… from Michigan State… Kenny Willekes!
— Michigan State Football (@MSU_Football) December 9, 2019
“Brandon Burlsworth is at the top of the list when it comes to walk-ons,” Willekes said. “He’s one of the greatest walk-ons of all time and his story is truly inspiring, so to be listed in that, added to his legacy is something I’m very proud of. It speaks to all the hard work and hopefully other people can use it as motivation.”
“He gave me a chance to chase my dreams.”
The conclusion of the 2019 season also saw the departure of Michigan State’s head coach Mark Dantonio, who abruptly retired in February. Willekes credits Dantonio, who coached Michigan State for 14 years, with giving him a chance to live out his dreams of playing football.
“Coach [Dantonio] impacted my life tremendously. First of all, he gave me a chance to chase my dreams,” Willekes said. “He gave a unknown walk-on from West Michigan an opportunity to chase the dream of a lifetime. Best five years of my life, so I can’t thank him enough for that.”
To all Spartans: Thank you for everything. You have truly helped my dreams come true. pic.twitter.com/uKkubvp1cW
— Mark Dantonio (@DantonioMark) February 4, 2020
As Willekes explains, Dantonio’s impact went further than the football field.
“He taught me a lot of football, a lot about football. He helped me become a great football player, but it was much more than that, off the field especially,” Willekes said. “I remember being a walk-on and the transition to college was a little hard for me coming in. He took time out of his day to talk to me about life, talk to me about faith, talk to me about being a man. A lot of head coaches wouldn’t even take the time, I feel like, to sit with their players, nonetheless a walk-on in his first year. We talked on multiple nights during my freshman year for hours up in his office.”
Preparation for the NFL Draft
Kenny Willekes’ dominating final season put his name in some of the top NFL Draft showcase games, including the Senior Bowl. Although Willekes was not named to the initial roster, Willekes earned a late invite to the Senior Bowl, where he had two sacks.
“I appreciate [Senior Bowl Executive Director] Jim Nagy for the invite, and Reese’s, just everyone that helped out down there. I thought it was a really cool opportunity to be able to go down there and learn from a bunch of the best in the nation,” said Willekes. “You’re down there with a lot of the best players in the nation, so to be able to go down there and practice with them, learn from them. I tried to learn from as many guys as I can about pass rush and having the opportunity to work with the [Detroit] Lions’ coach staff.
— Chase Goodbread (@ChaseGoodbread) January 22, 2020
The Senior Bowl was the first opportunity for NFL scouts to see what Willekes could offer. While some teams may want Willekes, who measured at 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds at the Senior Bowl, to play in a 3-4, Willekes said he feels most comfortable in a 4-3 defensive end role. This allows the former linebacker to put his hand in the dirt more often.
“I’m most comfortable with my hand in the dirt now. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career, 4-3 defensive end. I feel like that’s where I would excel the most. I’m the most comfortable there,” Willekes said. “But if I got to stand up and play on two feet, I can. My times bending the edge were much faster out of a two-point, so maybe once I get comfortable with that, I’ll like it even better. You never know.”
Willekes was also one of seven Spartans invited to the NFL Draft Combine in Indianapolis. The combine provides Willekes the biggest possible stage to showcase his skills in front of every NFL team.
“Giving back is something that has always been important to me. My mom taught me, ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.’ That’s kind of the way I live my life. I feel like I’ve been blessed a lot, so I’m required to give back, help out others,” said Willekes. “Working with kids, helping out with kids is something I’m passionate about. I feel like childhood in a kid is what really shapes [their] life, really shapes who that kid becomes as a person.
While at Indianapolis, Willekes will be raising money for the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. To donate or read more about this cause, click here.