The Indianapolis Colts have changed considerably under Chris Ballard. There has been a new emphasis placed on building the team through the draft. New perspectives have been allowed into the room to help vet draft prospects — including former Green Beret Brian Decker. The team’s video coverage has expanded considerably to allow fans to get a look “under the hood” as the team goes through this annual process of identifying players who are good fits for the Colts.
It is through the “With the Next Pick” series that fans have learned that some players are “blue card” players. Ballard has explained that a blue card player displays toughness and ability on the field and the mental fortitude and off-field leadership that make them a perfect fit with the organization and particularly likely to succeed in the NFL.
While fans will likely never know for sure, it seems entirely possible that the bluest card Ballard has ever seen on draft day was attached to former Michigan State safety Khari Willis — who the Colts traded up to select in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Before the draft, Stampede Blue’s own Zach Hicks completed an interview with Willis. He was a man of relatively few words but discussed the importance of his community, his father, and the impact of a speech he delivered at the Big Ten Kick Off Luncheon before the 2019 season. Before and after the interview, Hicks identified Willis as an excellent fit for the Colts.
After the draft, I had the chance to complete some of my own in-depth research about the Colts draft picks and wrote an article that included links to some incredible YouTube videos showing Willis in action. I came away impressed with Willis and feeling that he could be one of the best locker room leaders on the team, setting the type of example Ballard consistently looks for while building the team’s culture.
This is why it comes as no surprise to learn that Willis had a productive rookie season on the field, one that saw him earn a starting role on defense, all while dealing with something incredibly challenging off of the field. If you take the time to get to know Willis, you’ll come to understand that one of the most important things to Willis is supporting the community in his hometown, particularly children who are looking for a positive influence in their lives.
When The Athletic’s Zak Keefer wrote a story (PAID) yesterday about Willis quietly spending much of his time off of the field in a hospital as a new father who was desperately pulling for his the lives of his twin baby boys, one could only imagine how difficult that must have been. It’s incredible that it wasn’t a bigger story at the time and speaks to his character. We highly recommend that you visit The Athletic and read Keefer’s story as it is the type of content that justifies paying for a membership, if you can afford it.
From Keefer’s story:
The season crawled forward. One month bled into two, then three, then four, and before long it was December, and the kid out of Michigan State who hit hard and spoke softly was the Colts’ starting strong safety.
What very few saw, and what very few knew: Willis was spending every night of his rookie season sleeping on a pullout sofa at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital.
Keefer’s story goes on to detail that Willis and his girlfriend were faced with the delivery of twin boys thirteen weeks before their due dates. It goes on to talk about the fight the boys faced in intensive care and why Willis was forced to live a double-life, one of a professional football player, a quiet rookie who knows his place, and one of a new father who had to deal with worry that his twin sons would make it through each night.
There is little doubt that Khari Willis has learned a great deal from his own father. One quote from Khari’s father John stands out what one might expect to hear from his son. On the night Khari became a father, John said:
“Don’t flinch,” John Willis told his son over the phone that night. “In the biggest moments of your life, don’t flinch.”
Khari Willis never flinched. Frankly, he never does. He is a blue card player, a man who is fans will root for as much due to who he is off of the field as who is on it. When asked about how he dealt with the pressure, Khari said what one would expect him to say:
“When I was at football, I tried not to stress about everything else,” he says. “When I was at the hospital, I tried not to stress about football.”
What more can a person do? Probably not much. How many would make it through that process with the kind of success Willis was able to have on the field? Not many.
Congratulations to Khari Willis and his girlfriend for making it through what must have been a nightmare together. Thanks to Zak Keefer for telling their story and giving Colts fans a reason to be proud of Khari Willis the player and the Colts organization for emphasizing players with incredible character in their draft process. A lot of very good is still ahead for Willis — on and off of the field.