NFL draft: Western Illinois NT Khalen Saunders backflips into fatherhood
MOBILE, Ala. — You want Day 1 winners from the Senior Bowl? Can’t make that list without starting with Western Illinois defensive tackle Khalen Saunders.
Did he play well in Tuesday’s North Team practice? Sure, we saw him flash a few times. He’s an interesting football player — we’ll get to all that in just a bit.
But it’s what happened after practice that stole the show the first day down here.
As the 50-plus players gathered around midfield following the conclusion of practice, media and scouts hovered around the group as Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said some final words to the team. Then they started forming a circle ... what exactly was going on here?
Here was Saunders, being egged on by his new teammates and coaches for the week, all strangers until a few days ago, perfecting a textbook round-off into a back flip.
Everyone went wild. It was a Senior Bowl moment unlike any other in recent memory.
Uhh, did we mention that Saunders is a shade under 6-foot-1 and 320 pounds?!
And that his gymnastics maneuver was the second-best moment of his da y is saying something. Shortly after the end of practice, Saunders sent out the news he had spent much of Senior Bowl Media Day gushing about and waiting for ...
Now, that’s a way to make a name for yourself.
Actually, Saunders has been a bit of an internet celebrity for a bit now, with ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeting out Saunders’ back-flip prowess a little less than a week ago. Since then, his phone has been blowing up non-stop.
“I actually had to silence my mentions on my phone,” he said Tuesday morning. “I was getting like 20 at a time.”
Saunders had fun with the back-flip stuff before indicating he’s “not a flashy guy.” He wanted to talk about his football prowess, which is what got him to Mobile. Saunders finished his career with the I-AA Leathernecks with 18 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss, including 6.5 and 13, respectively, this past season.
He even ran for a 2-yard TD as a junior and caught a 1-yard TD pass (“over the shoulder and everything,” he said) this past season. Saunders said that since he started playing football growing up in an impoverished part of St. Louis as a kid, he’s played “basically every position on the football field except for center and cornerback,” which certainly speaks as much to his athleticism as the gymnastics do.
“I don’t want to be known as a gymnast,” he said. “I want to be known as an exceptional football player.”
But more than anything else, he beamed when talking about the impending birth of his daughter.
More than 900 miles north in Naperville, Illinois, his fiancée, Ayanna Hall, was sitting in a hospital bed while Saunders was talking about his decision to come down to Mobile for what could be the biggest career test on his way to the NFL. The couple decided it was best for Saunders to make the trip and show scouts what he could do before figuring out what their next move would be.
“I’m coming from a smaller school and I know that,” Saunders said. “That’s ultimately the reason I made the decision to stay because I’m not afforded the luxury to just think that I’m going go in the draft. I’ve got to earn everything I get. Being from a small school, this is the perfect opportunity for me. I get to play against the top competition in the nation, play against some of the most talented guys in the world really. It’s a huge opportunity, man.”
And if anyone questions his devotion to football?
“There’s no doubt if I love this game or not,” Saunders said.
The baby was due Jan. 31, but Ayanna had been feeling lightheaded and was taken in as a precaution. It proved to be a smart move, and they started her on the drug Pitocin, which helps speed up contractions. And some time right around Saunders’ back flip, Kambridge Vonyea Saunders was welcomed into the world. He got the news shortly after leaving the practice field.
It appears he will be heading back to the Chicago area sometime prior to Saturday’s game, and Saunders indicated that most of the NFL scouts he had spoken to were well aware of his situation. There didn’t appear to be any resistance to that decision.
Saunders is making quite the impression as a Renaissance Man down here. Do-it-all football player. Gymnast. And now you can add father to the list.