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Khari Willis Delivers Inspirational Keynote Speech at Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon

Speaking as the Big Ten player representative, senior MSU safety and Jackson, Michigan, native Khari Willis took the stage before a crowd of more than 1,300 at the Chicago Marriott Downtown on July 24 and delivered an inspirational speech calling on his fellow Big Ten players to make a difference in their communities. Courtesy of Michigan State University Athletics, here is audio of Khari's address. You can watch it here.

"Thank you. Good afternoon. It is truly a privilege and truly an honor to be here, to be able to speak on behalf of not only myself and my family but also my schools, my teammates and my fellow athletes. When Coach D initially told me that I was speaking, I was kind of nervous, not going to lie. But he told me it was an opportunity for me to tell my story. So I want to accomplish two things, I wanted to tell my story, but I also wanted to tell a story that a lot of other fellow student athletes can relate to and other people are going through at home.

So, a little bit about me. I grew up in a small town about 35 minutes away from East Lansing called Jackson, Michigan. There I grew up on the south side, where my mother and father had 10 kids. That is a lot, but yeah, it was 10 of us. I had a lot of older brothers so I grew up fighting for breakfast and things like that. My mother always made a point to us that faith was very important. She taught us to trust God, she taught us to fear God, and to honor God. She taught us to trust in His divine plan. She told us to trust in ourselves and those around us and in Him. By doing that He will be able to open doors for us and help us along our journey. Although my father did install those same qualities into us, he made sure that we went out and did things in the community. He made sure that we were involved in activities. I personally think it was his way of kicking us out of the house, but he definitely made sure that we did that.

One of those things for me was college football. Every Saturday my brothers and I after we got done fighting for breakfast we huddled around the TV. We would go watch Braxton Miller, we watched Darqueze Dennard, Denard Robinson, Kirk Cousins, and all the great players that came before us in this conference. What that inspired for me was a sense of just a dream. It inspired me to dream that maybe one day I could part take in those activities and thankfully I was able to.

Another thing that I noticed at a young age on Saturdays was the sacrifice that I saw by not only the players, but all of the communities and all of the people coming together and putting everything aside to honor these gifts that my mother had said we got from God. On these Saturdays I noticed that it was something special going on, it was something different. It was multiple different people from multiple different races. Multiple different people from multiple different backgrounds, different schools, different flags, different political affiliations, different religions all coming together to celebrate these gifts.

It inspired me to dream, and fast forward a few years, I was able to have an opportunity, so I came on to Michigan State's campus as a freshman. I have to come in and learn a new position. We have some success, we're coming off a 2014 Cotton Bowl championship year. The next year I come on and we go on to win the Big Ten Championship. I have some success early on, I was able to play as a true freshman and ended up starting a few games. I also learned that when you are a starter and you don't play that well you get benched, so I get benched as well. I am going and learning and experiencing the highs and lows of college football. I am experiencing what it is like to go home and for people to want to talk to you all the time. I am experiencing what it is like to conduct yourself out in public, and the very next year, we come in and we drop the ball. We go 3-9 as a team, which was one of the worst seasons in school history and the absolute worst season in the coach Mark Dantonio era here at Michigan State. During that time, our team was hit with a lot of adversity both on and off the field. We kind of struggled throughout that season but in the offseason we kind of based our bounce back off of a term that our head strength and conditioning coach used with us. That term is reaffirmation. Reaffirmation is the reassertion or confirmation of a fact or belief. So what we literally had to do was go back to the drawing board and draw up our moral values, draw up the things that had got us to the Big Ten Championship, draw up the foundation that our program was built on and re-invent it because we were a new group.

As I look on for our season both of the things that we experienced on and off the field, I noticed there was a sense of struggle going on for that whole entire year. It was a rough offseason. It was a rough season and I thought about the struggle that not only myself but a lot of other student-athletes within our conference have been through in their lives. A lot of us grow up coming from inner cities, there is an everyday struggle for some, survival. Others battle poverty, some battle peer pressure and decision making. Others battle crime and violence within a home, drug addiction and drug use. Others are faced with gang related activities that surround them. I noticed that we all coming from these areas, we all kind of have and grow up in an area where there is a lack of hope. Maybe sometimes a lack of resources and maybe sometimes a lack of guidance. I have noticed that we were all faced with the same decision, with the same challenge. That challenge was decision making. We all have to make decisions and my father told me, he used to always tell me that no matter what problem you face there is a solution and no matter what choice you face there is opportunity to make the right choice. At the university, Coach D always tells us that it is a hard decision making time for young people in the world today. We look on our university and we look at some of the decisions that we make as players, some of the decisions that we make as student-athletes, as sons, as daughters, husbands, coaches. These decisions, some of them are final. I draw back to what my father taught me and that was to always be a part of the solution regardless of what the problems that are going on at your university, within your community, within your family, within your house.

Part of the solution that we were coming up with here at Michigan State is a solution of healing. That solution includes listening, understanding, getting out of your comfort zone, sacrificing, putting your personal goals and personal aspirations aside to make sure that the people next to you are better off and have a better opportunity for success. Part of our solution that we can do as student-athletes is that we can go back to these communities, we can go back to the communities where a kid is dreaming on a Saturday night just like we were a few years ago. We can go back to where that kid is facing the decision making of joining a gang, maybe some drug related violence, activities and things of that nature and we can go back and we can give back. It doesn't necessarily have to be a lot of time, it doesn't necessarily have to be a lot of money. These things that we can do on a day to day basis and I can prove to you that we can be an example for kids for the future kids that come.

As I thought about giving back I kind of thought about my personal life and I reflect on my personal responsibility that I was given from God revealed to by my mother. Jesus said in Matthew five, verses 14 through 16, he said "you are the light of the world, a city that is set on a hill cannot be hid neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel. Instead they put it on a candlestick and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven." That sometimes can be a challenge especially growing up in a society today as student-athletes, we are faced with the peer pressure, we are faced with social media, we are faced with being an example out in public. Representing ourselves the right way, we are faced with parties and all these different peer pressure outlets and if we are not true to ourselves it will sometimes get the best of us. Like Coach D said, "if we are not humble, we will be humbled."

I challenge all the other student athletes here today to go back to our communities. Let's make a difference, let's continue to let our light shine. There is an old saying that my father used to use, he still uses it to this day. That saying is "If you blow my candle out, that won't make your candle shine any brighter." Let's go back and let's light these candles in these communities. Let's impart what we have learned on our college campuses as far as how to dress, as far as how to talk to people with respect, as far as how to treat women, as far as how we communicate with people that are not like us and not from the same areas that we are from. I feel that the rest of the 40 plus players that are here, we have that opportunity, we were chosen for a reason and you all are special. It has been a privilege speaking to you, it has been a privilege competing with you, and I hope that we can all make our communities better by going back and giving back. Thank you very much, God bless you and Go Green."

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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