A Study in Perseverence

Kenny Willekes battles his way through a life of football adversity

Adversity, meet Kenny Willekes.

Once the brightest light along Big Ten defensive lines, Willekes is attempting to resurrect his football career six years later in the United Football League with the Michigan Panthers.

“I’ve always been an underdog and always will be,” said Willekes after practice the other day at the team’s training base in suburban Dallas.

His story starts in high school. Although an all-state selection at linebacker at NorthPointe Christian in Grand Rapids, the Power 5 schools showed no interest in Willekes. So he walked on at Michigan State. He redshirted his first season and played a total of four snaps in his second year. But he started 12 games as a redshirt sophomore and led the Spartans with seven sacks. That earned him a spot on the watch list for the Ted Hendricks Award, given annually to the nation’s top defensive end.

Willekes followed that up with an All-America season as a junior in 2018. He led the team with 8 ½ sacks, led the Big Ten with 20 ½ tackles for loss and led the NCAA with 23 quarterback hits. He became the first defensive end in school history named the team MVP and won the award as the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year. That put him in the company of Joey and Nick Bosa, Chase Young and Aidan Hutchinson — other winners and all first-round draft picks. The 2023 winner, Jer’Zhan Newton of Illinois, projects as a first-round draft pick as well.

Willekes planned on declaring for the draft after Michigan State’s appearance in the Redbox Bowl against Oregon that season. The feedback from NFL talent evaluators was favorable.

“I was hearing second or third round, possibly middle rounds,” Willekes said. “But by the end of that season, there was some momentum building. They say go when you’re hot.”

But he never got the chance. Willekes suffered a broken ankle in the bowl game, which put his NFL dream on hold. It was back to campus to rehabilitate his injury and play a final season at Michigan State.

“It was a blessing because I became a captain and earned my degree,” Willekes said.

Willekes earned more than his degree in chemistry. He earned first-team All-Big Ten acclaim for the second consecutive season and was named team MVP a second time. He collected a career-high 10 ½ sacks and won the Burlsworth Award as the nation’s top walk-on.

“That was my first major injury and it was hard for me to battle back,” Willekes said. “When I looked at myself on tape, I didn’t look the same as I did my junior year. It took me a bit to get back and by the end of the season, well, we were 7-6 and it wasn’t a great year for us. I’m not sure how all that impacted my draft status.”

But it did. Willekes slid all the way to the seventh round where the Minnesota Vikings claimed him. Historically, less than half of the NFL’s seventh-round draft picks make rosters their rookie seasons. But Willekes was beating the odds – until he suffered torn knee ligaments in a team scrimmage a week before the start of the regular season. That landed him on injured reserve for the year.

Willekes returned in 2021 and earned a spot on the team’s practice squad, then was activated in October. He played five games the rest of the way and showed promise as a pass rusher, collecting 11 tackles, 2 ½ sacks and seven pressures in limited playing time. He finished strong with two sacks in the season finale against the Chicago Bears. He could see his future as an NFLer materializing.

But adversity again struck when Willekes suffered another brutal leg injury that offseason. That again landed him on injured reserve for the season.

“I tore all three of my hamstrings off the bone, severing the nerves,” Willekes said. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to come back from.”

But he did, returning the following offseason to the Vikings. But his stay was short. Willekes was cut in May.

“My leg just wasn’t ready,” Willekes said. “There was a lot of mind-to-muscle connection and it took me a very long time to be able to get running back to normal and being able to move as myself. So I took a year away from football and just worked on myself. I tried to become both a better person and a better football player. I sat back and took a look at my whole life, where I can improve, where I can get healthy. It’s been a constant battle to get back out here.

“I’m very blessed and grateful for the Michigan Panthers to give me this opportunity. And I’m proud of myself for being back out here. Battling through all that was a lot mentally and physically.”

Willekes worked out for six NFL teams during this offseason. All told him the same thing – get some tape, show us you are healthy and can compete again at the level you showed at Michigan State and in the final month of the 2021 season with the Vikings. Willekes believes that player is still there.

“This is the healthiest I’ve felt in years,” Willekes said. “Taking that year off was good for me. It gave my body and mind time to rejuvenate. Mentally and physically I was able to reset. I was able to get stronger in a lot of areas I needed to get stronger. I feel quicker off the edge. I’m moving and flowing better than I ever have. That was my focus – find my flow instead of running non-stop and banging my head into the wall. I needed to control the chaos and be more flow smooth on the field, play with more awareness.”

Perseverance, meet Kenny Willekes. The Panthers open the season Saturday against the St. Louis Battlehawks.

“This is just another day for me,” Willekes said. “As a walk-on, I had to earn my spot and earn my respect. As a late-round draft pick, I finally get my spot on the team and start playing. Now here I am again. It’s kind of the way it goes for me.  Nothing comes easy.

“But I’m grateful for (this path). It builds more character. The more adversity I go through the tougher I get and the more I learn. If I would have gone to the NFL straight out of college and gone crazy I’d have been a completely different man. There are so many lessons that I’ve learned now, so many ways that I’ve grown up and matured. I’m grateful for each of these setbacks. I grow from them. I’m so used to them at this point. They are just part of my life.”

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