JACKSON, Mich. — Jackson native Khari Willis worked his way up the sports ladder all the way to being a starter in the National Football League. But now, he’s found his calling.
“I got into football at a young age,” Willis said. “I grew up in a big family…10 kids with seven boys. In a neighborhood with football and basketball the two primary sports. My dad [city of Jackson Chief Equity Officer John Willis] coached in a lot of sports and my older brothers play, so I kind of grew up around that so that’s what made me get into it.”
Growing up in the city’s south side, the former Jackson Lumen Christi Catholic School Titan was on the varsity football team for two and a half years after he was moved up in the middle of his sophomore season. He primarily played running back.
Willis also played basketball. He was all-state in both sports, made all-academic teams and was part of the National Honor Society.
Willis set single game, single-season and career rushing records as a senior capped off by a school-record 421 yards in a regional final game against Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central High School.
He said he started getting attention from colleges early on in high school for basketball and knew that, if he just continued to develop and get better, he would have a chance at the next level.
“Then football kind of came out of the blue, out of nowhere,” he said. “My junior year is when I really began to take off. I began to get some local and national notoriety and then things just kind of spiraled up from there.”
Former Michigan State University Head Coach Mark Dantonio got a hold of his tape, was interested and saw him workout.
“The rest is history,” Willis said.
He played safety for the Michigan State Spartans from 2015 to 2018 playing in 46 games and starting the last 26. He was voted team captain his senior year and was a three-time academic all-Big Ten selection. He would finish his college career with 196 tackles, four sacks and four interceptions.
“I remember man, just a brotherhood, a big group, big family, learned a lot,” he said. “Real tough place. A lot of hardcore coaching, hardcore teaching, like a lot of shaping and molding. I remember that a lot as well as a great environment.”
Willis said after his junior year he knew he had an opportunity to go and play in the NFL. Willis was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2019 NFL Draft’s fourth round. He would go on to start in 33 games. But, at the age of 26 he decided to retire from the NFL to pursue a career in ministry.
“I come to understand and come to learn there was something far greater than playing football that was available for me,” he said. “I felt that in order for me to truly tap into that I had to unreservedly give myself to God, and I knew through prayer, through counsel and through much deliberation that this is exactly where my life was headed. There was a much greater call on my life with much more purpose. With that in mind, I decided to step away.”
Willis finished his NFL career with 224 tackles, three and a half sacks, and four interceptions.
“I’m pursuing what my purpose is, working within the body of Christ pursuing what that looks like,” he said. “Whether that’s going out and helping different souls, speaking to young people in prisons, jails, youth centers, whatever that looks like, however God shapes me, that’s what I’m pursuing as opposed to necessarily a minister or preaching. That may come further down the road, but God hasn’t shown me all of that yet.”
As he writes the next chapter of his life, Willis said he is taking things slow and is planning on doing public speaking engagements throughout the country.
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