With hours looming until the first preseason game, the Western Illinois’ football team will be eager to watch the Kansas City Chiefs’ first preseason game.
It’s not to watch the pros or give them something to do in between preseason camp practices. It’s to watch a former teammate live out his — and probably their own — dream of playing football in the NFL.
Defensive tackle Khalen (pronounced KAH-len) Saunders was drafted in April in the third round by the Chiefs. As a player who had no FBS offers, Saunders knows where putting in hard work will get him — and the coaches over his career have seen that from him
“Khalen’s a special player just off his God-given talents alone and his athleticism for his size,” Western Illinois head coach Jared Elliott said. “He’s one of the most athletic big men I’ve ever seen and been around for being a 320-pound player. He just brought so many physical tools that a lot of people don’t naturally possess.
“On top of that, Khalen has all of the intangibles you look for in any player: He played the game the right way, he played the game with effort, and he was a hard worker. He took a lot of pride in how he did things — the small things. Khalen’s just a complete package.”
Saunders became the second Leatheerneck to be drafted by Kansas City, according to the Chiefs’ website, after E Jack Atcheson who was the first Chiefs (then Dallas Texans) draft pick in franchise history.
Saunders is the fourth Western Illinois player to play for the Chiefs. E Jack Atcheson was the first, followed by Frank Winters 1990-91 and J.R. Niklos in 2006.
Western Illinois has a rich history within the NFL, having 17 Super Bowl championships from former players and coaches.
Elliott said Saunders is carrying that tradition and couldn’t think of a better player to pass that tradition on to the next player.
“There have been so many great players to come out of here,” Elliott said. “Khalen now adds to that tradition. The torch was passed to him and now hopefully he’ll be able to pass it on to some other guys.”
Western Illinois is in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, a conference Elliott describes as the most elite FCS conferences in the country. MVFC opponents like Missouri State quarterback Peyton Huslig remember Saunders as a guy you didn’t want to play against.
“That guy was an animal,” Huslig said. “He was just an absolute freak athlete. He worked hard. … That kind of shows in where he’s at now.”
Elliott said Saunders’ impact on the program was beyond the field when it came to his teammates, and he said he hopes those teammates learn from Kahlen as he continues to grow as a person and a player.
“He made an impact on our program — not just the type of player he was but the type of man he was,” Elliott said.
Elliott said he knows Saunders’ “brothers” still at Western Illinois are going to sit and watch that first Chiefs preseason games in hopes of seeing Saunders’ dream become a reality.
“It’s no surprise to us that Kahlen got drafted — that Kahlen’s really going to be in a position to make an impact at this level,” Elliott said.