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Khari Willis delivers the Keynote Address at the Jackson College Martin Luther King, Jr. Dinner and Celebration at Victor Cuiss Fieldhouse.  Photo by Brooke Morse, JTV.

By Jeff Steers
JTV Sports

Some may think that Indianapolis Colts football player and former Lumen Christi Catholic High School and Michigan State University standout Khari Willis has it made.

He signed a reported $3.2 million four-year contract with the Colts.

By the end of the season, he was the starting strong safety for the NFL team.

And he is living the dream as an NFL player.

But Willis dropped a bomb on most people at the annual 2020 Martin Luther King dinner celebration on Saturday night. The 23-year-old has twin sons that spent all of his rookie season in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

“Adversity and hard times are going to come,” Willis told the crowd of more than 500 at Jackson College. “I learned to control what I can.”

Willis was the keynote speaker at the annual MLK dinner. Councilwoman Arlene Robinson earned the King Medal of Service at the celebration. Both are Jackson natives who have been influenced by their surroundings.

Willis told his story about coming from the south side of Jackson, playing at LCCHS, attending Michigan State University, then being drafted by the Colts in the fourth round.

Willis grew up at the MLK Community Center in Jackson. It was there at he met friends and learned about leadership.

“I saw a lot of leaders from Jackson come down there for various events,” Willis said. “Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership and vision in equality are unequaled.”

Willis said his first love was basketball, but learned to love football later in life. He earned a scholarship to play football at Michigan State University.

Coaches planned to redshirt Willis his freshman season as the all-state running back was transitioning to defense as a safety.

But Willis picked up the position quickly and was a starter by the end of his freshman season.

Injuries and poor play put the Jackson native back on the bench.

During his sophomore season, the Spartans struggled for wins and Willis was not playing as much.

He decided to take on a leadership roll the next two seasons and was named as a team captain. Willis said lessons learned throughout his life led him to become a leader.

He delivered a speech at the Big 10 Conference meetings prior to his senior season. MSU was going through adversity with the Larry Nassar scandal and incidents involving MSU football players and one coach.

“Coach D (Dantonio) mentioned he was going to nominate me as a speaker,” Willis said. “I practiced the speech on my teammates and it prepared me for nights like this (the MLK dinner).

“I have learned to speak from the heart.”

Willis was drafted by the Colts in the fourth round last spring. The rookie said his welcome to the NFL moment came when he matched up with Colt’s receiver T.Y. Hilton.

“I had a 10-yard start and he still ran past me,” Willis said.

But Willis overcame and finished the season as starter for the Colts. Indianapolis stats note that Willis finished with more than 70 tackles at the strong safety position.

Willis said there were many lessons learned in Jackson that prepared him for the challenge of playing in the NFL and life in general. He noted using resources to succeed, being a man of principles, doing the little things that make athletes successful, controlling what you can, and learning from others.

Willis noted his two sons came home from the NICU on Friday and are finally healthy.

“During this time, I had to be a man of principles and not let my emotions get the best of me,” Willis said. “I still went to work early and stayed late.”

During the hard times, help from his family and church members got Willis and his girlfriend through the situation.

He has learned to live life at an even keel.

“Dr. King had a dream and so do I,” Willis said.

Willis said like Dr. King’s movement, he moves forward every day.

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