Former Western Illinois DL Saunders savors his third Super Bowl trip with Kansas City

Former Western Illinois defensive lineman Khalen Saunders will play in his third Super Bowl in four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Feb. 12. (Photo courtesy Khalen Saunders)

By Barry Bottino

When Khalen Saunders takes the field Sunday, Feb. 12 in Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Ariz., he will do so with an expanded role and plenty of appreciation for his alma mater, Western Illinois.

“I always give Western credit for getting me to this level,” said Saunders, a fourth-year defensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs. “They had faith in me. I’m going to forever represent the purple and gold. To represent a school that believed in me is always a great feeling.”

Saunders, whose one Division I offer out of high school in St. Louis was from WIU, enters this year’s Super Bowl against Philadelphia making the biggest contributions of his career.

Khalen Saunders

While playing in 16 games for the AFC champions, Saunders has compiled career highs in sacks (3.5), tackles (48) and snaps played (385). This will be his third Super Bowl appearance with Kansas City, which began in 2019 as a rookie.

“That feeling in 2019 was like no other,” he said. “This one was different because I played a lot more, so it felt gratifying. I was a part of helping us get here. Not saying I wasn’t my rookie year, but I definitely was more of a part this year.”

Going to the Super Bowl again has brought back a familiar feeling.

“It feels amazing, like you just won an award on a game show or something,” he said.

D-line mentors

Saunders’ play has benefited from being part of an experienced defensive line group in Kansas City, which includes seven-year veteran Chris Jones at tackle and eight-year veteran Frank Clark at defensive end. The Chiefs also have 13th-year end Carlos Dunlap and fifth-year tackle Derrick Nnadi in the rotation.

“I’ve been lucky and blessed to be in that room,” Saunders said. “Outside of the skills between the white lines, you’re just learning how to be a professional, learning how to take care of your body. That was one of my biggest things this year.

“That was something that Chris and those guys guide me through,” he said. “I was training a lot in the off-season with Frank. They’ve been doing it a long time at a high level. I just kind of follow suit and get all the pieces of knowledge I can from those guys. I know it will be beneficial in the future.”

Showing off his athleticism

Saunders, who is in the final year of his rookie contract and becomes an unrestricted free agent after the Super Bowl, arrived at Western with plenty of skills.

Khalen Saunders chases down the quarterback against Montana in Western’s 31-27 victory in Macomb in 2018. (Photo by

Despite weighing 295 pounds when he came to Western in 2014, he also played running back at Parkway Central High School. In Macomb, he rushed for a touchdown and caught one in his career.

He credits his father, Kenton, with encouraging him to be as versatile as possible, even as he got older. Throughout his career, his athleticism was evident. At the Senior Bowl all-star game, he did a memorable backflip after a practice.

“The more uses you have, the better,” Saunders said. “I’ve always liked playing multiple positions. Western knew that coming out of high school, then the NFL saw (my contributions at) Western. It adds value, and I want to be a valuable player to my team.”

Late in the regular season, the Chiefs ran a play called “Leatherneck” – in honor of Western Illinois and Saunders – in which he lined up in the backfield as a running back and ran a pass route into the flat.

Could a similar play come in the Super Bowl, thanks to the “big back of tricks” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has shown during his career?

“I’m hoping as much as you that a couple plays end up in his head when we get there,” Saunders joked.

Reviving WIU

This fall, Western was one of only two winless teams in the nation in FCS.

The current situation reminds Saunders of when he arrived in the fall of 2014. The year before, Western was coming off of a 4-8 record.

Khalen Saunders and his teammates went to the FCS playoffs twice during his career in Macomb. (Photo by

“We knew what we were walking in to in 2014, being a team that hadn’t won a lot,” he said. “If we all focus on our individual selves playing good, then we’re going to play good as a team. Those years for Western were pretty good.”

In his five seasons in the program, WIU was 31-29 and earned two trips to the FCS playoffs.

“I love those guys to this day,” Saunders said, highlighting former teammates such as defensive lineman Pete Swenson, quarterback Sean McGuire, linebacker Quentin Moon and defensive back Xavier Rowe. “All of them, I still talk to. (Our record) was a byproduct of that group coming together and saying, ‘Hey man, we’re going to make something special happen at Western.’ And that’s what happened.”

Saunders earned All-MVFC honors three times, including first-team recognition in 2017 and 2018.

Saunders encouraged current and future WIU players to use the chance to play college football to make a name for themselves and their school.

“My biggest word throughout life has been opportunity,” he said. “You’re getting the opportunity to put your resume’ on film. That’s what they’re going to tell you in the NFL, too. Your film is your resume’.”

Saunders said Western’s schedule during his career – which included the rugged Missouri Valley Football Conference, and some big-name FBS teams – provided plenty of opportunities.

“I looked at the (schedules) back in 2014, playing Illinois and Wisconsin and Northwestern,”  he said. “That’s all I needed to see. We’re playing great competition. Take advantage of those opportunities.”

To revive Western’s program, he encouraged today’s Leathernecks to be part of the change as he and his teammates were starting in 2014.

“You never know,” he said. “The class of 2023, the class of 2024, they might be the next to say, ‘Hey, let’s lock arms and make this program get on its feet.’”

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