By Larry Jacobson, JTV Sports
From a pure numbers perspective, the ‘nuts and bolts’ of Khari Willis – Lumen Christi’s standout senior running back and one of four finalists for the state’s Player of the Year – are staggering. Consider this year’s totals, which rank as one of the greatest single-season rushing marks in state history:
- 2,800 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns.
- 11.6 yards per carry and 233 yards per game.
- 50 carries and 412 yards in the season-ending playoff loss to Monroe St. Mary’s.
But this is the best part about knowing the young man: He’s an even better person than he is a football player.
When asked who he turns to for advice or guidance, on or off the playing field, Khari motioned to his father, John, sitting a few feet away from him.
“My dad’s never forced me into anything,” Khari said. “He’s always let me choose what it is I want to do, and then he helps me get better at it. But he’s always let me take that first step.”
“I’ve always told my kids that I don’t care what they do, I just want them to do it well,” John Willis said. “Once they’ve made the decision to do something, I want them to work as hard as they can at it.”
And working hard is something that Khari also does well.
“I’ll have a list of things I want to get done during a typical day,” said John, the Director of the Martin Luther King Center in Jackson. “But sometimes I’ll just get started and Khari will come in and say ‘Pop, I need another workout,’ and off we go. He’s a very hard worker and he’s always pushing himself to get better. At the same time it’s allowed us to spend a lot of time together and to bond as father and son. I’m very thankful for that.”
Khari is a pretty quiet person – sticking mostly to himself and those he’s closest to, like family and his teammates. And he’s very careful with social media.
“I try to stay away from that stuff,” he said. “It’s mostly negative and you’ll just end up in trouble if you get too involved in it. I tell people, if you want to talk to me that badly, call me.”
And dad’s influence is there, too.
“I’ve tried to communicate with all the kids the dangers of social media,” John said. “They need to understand that anything they do – any comment, any picture, any tweet – is out there forever. And there are people out there just waiting to pounce on any little thing.”
As for his Lumen Christi career, it’s been a heck of a journey.
“The thing I’ll remember the most from high school is the relationships I built with my teammates,” he said. “I came out of my shell a little bit and I developed relationships and became friends with a lot of people I probably wouldn’t have had it not been for football. It’s allowed me to work on my leadership skills and to gain that confidence. I always wanted to get better and better, to work harder and harder, and be the type of person that got out front and said ‘follow me.’” He smiled when reflecting on the 2014 Titans, who came a single point from advancing to the state semifinals. “I remember the team getting together back in the summer and we all sort of looked at each other like ‘okay, here we go.’ Our offensive line just got better and better as the season went on.”
Of that season-ending crusher, the 27-26 loss in the Regional Final, he could only shake his head.
“Tough loss,” he said – and he let that sort of hang there for a moment.
There were other nuggets gleaned from our conversation, such as…
What would you like for Christmas?
“I have everything I need, really, as long as my family’s around me. Some new clothes would be nice, though.”
What video game system to you prefer?
“Definitely the X-Box One,” he said. “And I like the sports games. NCAA football and NBA basketball. Devin (Edwards – his teammate and friend) thinks he can beat me but he really can’t. I beat him all the time.”
- Note: We’ll discuss that with Devin at a later time!
On teasing from his brother, Terrell:
“He gets on me pretty good, but I’m used to it. He said if he’d been allowed to carry the ball as much as I did, he would have run for over 3,000 yards in a season.” (Khari finished 2014 with 2,800.)
On who will win the college football national championship this year when I suggested Ohio State:
“I don’t think Jameis Winston will allow Florida State to lose. I mean, he makes some bone-headed decisions off the field, but on the field he’s a tough competitor.”
After high school, Khari will head north to Lansing to play football for Michigan State, although he’s not sure yet which position he’ll play. Despite all of his success and accolades on offense in high school, he wouldn’t mind a switch to defense.
“Football is football and I just love to play it,” he said. “I’d play offensive line if I could. But it might be more fun to hit guys for a change rather than being the target.”
To this, his father smiled and nodded.
“As a dad, it’s hard seeing your kid get hit so hard all the time,” John said. “I try not to think about it too much, but it can be hard to watch.”
In the long term, Khari envisions attending law school and becoming a defense attorney, and he has the smarts and the moxie to make a good one. But before any of that – before graduation and MSU and more football – there’s the upcoming basketball season to consider.
“We’re going to be really good,” he said of this year’s Titans. “We have a target on our backs, and that’s a good thing. We want that. We want the expectations to be high.”
The college and high school recruiting services (such as Rivals, Scout & ESPN.com) use a 1-to-5 star system to classify the best and the brightest. They watch video tape and measure statistics like size and speed. But I wonder if they ever spend time with these young men. I wonder if they ever get to know them.
Rivals and Scout, two of the largest recruiting services, give Khari Willis three or four stars, but I’m going to disagree with them.
This young man, on and off the field, is five star all the way.