MOBILE, Ala. — NFL teams can’t question the commitment to football of Western Illinois defensive tackle Khalen Saunders.
Saunders chose to stay at the Senior Bowl this week rather than return to Illinois after finding out his fiancée was going into labor. Saunders practiced Tuesday and then found out a few hours later that his daughter had been born.
The due date was not until Jan. 31, but his fiancée informed him after he arrived in Alabama that she was going into labor. They decided he should stay here and try to improve his draft stock.
“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 gonna go in the draft. I gotta 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.”
Saunders said he likely will not stay to play in the game on Saturday. He can go through practices during the week and then return home to see his child. Very few NFL people actually stay for Saturday’s game. Most of the scouting is done at the practices Tuesday-Thursday.
“I obviously would love to be there with my baby girl,” Saunders said. “I really wish I could. All of this is for her. All of this is for my fiancée and my mom and for my family. That’s the biggest reason I wanted to stay.”
Previously, the 320-pound Saunders was best known for a video that went viral of him doing a cartwheel into a back flip and then a standing flip. ESPN reporter Adam Schefter tweeted it out and Saunders said he had to turn off his Twitter mentions because he got so many.
This week, Saunders hopes to prove to teams that he can make highlight films on the football field.
“I don’t want to be known as a gymnast,” he said. “I want to be known as an exceptional football player.”