Nearly a full year after the first time Kenny Willekes stepped on the turf at U.S. Bank Stadium, the 2020 seventh-round pick out of Michigan State helped get the Vikings defense off the field.
Selected as a defensive end, Willekes lined up as an interior rusher in Minnesota's nickel package when Denver faced a third-and-13 and caused disruption up the middle.
The play was one of a dozen on defense for Willekes, who also played four snaps on special teams in the 2021 preseason opener for both teams.
The opportunity was limited and didn't come until the game was well decided, but it was a chance that was a long time coming.
Willekes suffered an injury during Minnesota's practice at U.S. Bank Stadium on Aug. 28, 2020. The session was intended to introduce rookies and veteran newcomers to the venue. The goal was to help establish some familiarity before the 2020 regular season because last year's preseason games were canceled.
A day that started with excitement shifted to a long rehab process.
"You never want to get injured, but I looked at it as an opportunity to kind of take as a redshirt year, like I took one in college, to learn how to be a pro," Willekes said. "I was here for most of the offseason and spent time rehabbing. The trainers are great up here. I had the surgery and then stayed in the building and stayed in the playbook, trying to get myself ready to go this season and learn from the vets that were in the building."
We caught up with Kenny recently for a Water Break, presented by Crown Royal, to learn more about his experiences with the Spartans, where the former walk-on became the school's all-time leader in tackles for loss (51). We also asked what it was like to grow up as the fifth of eight children in a multitalented family.
Q: What lessons did you take from starting your college career as a walk-on?
A: "I think it's just about controlling what you can control, show up every day, trying to get better, trying to do the little things right and trying to consistently bring energy, work hard, and if you do that and bring a good attitude and good energy, things will work out."
Q: You wound up earning the 2018 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and the 2019 Burlsworth Trophy (as the nation's most outstanding player who began as a walk-on). Was there a moment along the way where things really clicked?
A: "My freshman year, I was a scout team player of the week a few times, so that kind of gave me the confidence to keep going. Coach [Mark] Dantonio used to talk to me and tell me to keep going, that my opportunity was going to come, and I'd say that my second year, my second spring once I moved to d-end, that's the year I earned a scholarship and things just kind of started to click. I started to understand how the defense worked. Once I moved to d-end, I think I kind of found a home for myself."
Q: Prior to enrolling at Michigan State, you also attended Kirk Cousins' camp?
A: "I think junior year or senior year of high school, we did a little 7-on-7 tournament there, so that was pretty cool. I got a picture with him and met Kirk back then. Growing up, I was a Michigan State fan. ... Then I ended up going to Michigan State and got to meet him again here at the Vikings, which is pretty cool. He was bigger than me, taller than me at that point."
Q: How was Kirk as a counselor? What was your biggest takeaway from attending that camp?
A: "I'd say he just kind of showed us the path for how to do it. He came from the same area I did, Western Michigan, went to Michigan State and grinded there and then came to the NFL. Kind of the same thing I talk about as being a consummate professional, showing up every day, doing the right things, the little things, putting the work in, and you can see it pay off for him, it was kind of the example for us."
Q: Congrats on completing your degree in chemistry in December 2020. That's not the most common degree for a football player. What drew you to chemistry and how did you balance tough studies and football commitments?
A: "My dad is a surgeon, so sciences always interested me growing up. If I wasn't playing football, I was considering going back to school to get a Master's in forensic science and maybe go the Secret Service route."
Q: What was it like to grow up as the fifth of eight children?
A: "It was crazy. Definitely hectic growing up, four boys, four girls. Every single person was competitive and full of energy, trash talkers, so it was back-and-forth nonstop. It was always something."
Q: Your siblings have very diversified interests, from a champion trampoline gymnast to an attorney to a concert pianist. What enabled those successes?
A: "I think that just comes from my parents and the hard work they instilled in us at a very young age. My dad is one of the hardest-working guys I've ever seen and just works nonstop. My mother stayed at home and took care of all eight of us, which is a job-and-a-half. Just the example they set for us, that everything we do, do it with everything we've got and try to be the best. I think that's played off on a lot of us, even though we went different directions, we were able to succeed. My older siblings are all very successful. Each of the girls were assigned to a boy to kind of look over us and make sure we got to school on time, so I was with my sister Allison (the concert pianist) a lot. She learned hard work from my parents and passed it on to me."
Q: Did you ever try to take up piano after seeing her success?
A: "We used to go to her concerts all the time. We just loved going to those as a family. My mom tried to get me to learn to play piano, but it wasn't for me. I didn't have the patience."