Seizing opportunity gives WIU product chance to help Chiefs win another Lombardi Trophy

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Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Khalen Saunders, a Western Illinois University product, will play in his second Super Bowl this Sunday when the Chiefs face the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII. | Photo courtesy WIU Athletics

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — An opportunity is all Khalen Saunders ever needed.

Western Illinois University provided one. So have the Kansas City Chiefs. Because of those, Saunders is living out a dream yet again this week as he prepares to play in Super Bowl LVII on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.

It is the 6-foot, 324-pound defensive tackle’s third Super Bowl appearance in four years in the NFL, a fact he knows not to take lightly.

“To be able to say I’m lucky enough to have done it this many times is an understatement,” said Saunders, a first-team All-American at WIU as a senior in 2018. “Lucky, blessed, everything. It’s always a good feeling.”

None of it would have been possible without getting an opportunity to showcase his talent, drive and determination.

That became a point of emphasis during a Zoom call Saunders had with media members from throughout West-Central Illinois and Southeast Iowa who cover the Leathernecks. He wants WIU players with a goal of playing in the NFL to learn to embrace every opportunity.

“My biggest word throughout my life — I wouldn’t say the NFL, but throughout college, throughout high school, all of that — is just opportunity,” said Saunders, who was a third-round draft pick of the Chiefs in 2019. “If you’re afforded an opportunity like everybody else is, you just have to take advantage of it. You can’t compare your opportunity to anyone else’s. You can’t compare, ‘Well, this guy is getting this at the other place.’

“That’s where a lot of people fall into a trap. I looked at the (WIU) schedule back in 2014 and we’re playing Illinois and we’re playing Wisconsin and we’re playing Northwestern. That’s all I needed to see. We’re playing good competition and we’re playing at a high level. … You have to take advantage of your opportunities.”

Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders was a first-team All-American his senior season in Macomb, Ill., before being drafted in the third round by the Kansas City Chiefs in the April 2019 NFL Draft. | Photo courtesy WIU Athletics

Seizing the day has led Saunders to moments like he experienced in the AFC Championship.

Saunders was on the field when Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones sacked Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow for a 7-yard loss with 39 seconds remaining in regulation, forcing Cincinnati to punt. Four plays later, Saunders watched Kansas City kicker Harrison Butker boot a 45-yard field goal for a 23-20 victory.

That’s when the celebration commenced.

“The final play, you’ll kind of have the tone of what you will kind of expect to happen,” Saunders said. “If it’s like three seconds left, they’re on the 20 in scoring position and they need a touchdown, it’s a little different compared to if we just scored and there’s three seconds left and all it is a kickoff left. It all depends on what the situation is, what the flavor of the game is.

“That first one, when I went to the Super Bowl in 2019, it was a feeling like no other. It was like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to the Super Bowl.’ This one was different. I played a lot more so it felt more gratifying. It was like, ‘Oh, man, I really helped us get to this point.’ … It feels good knowing what we’re trying to achieve what we have. But we are far from finished.”

Saunders should have a say in whether the Chiefs finish it.

He played 25 snaps in the AFC Championship and has participated in 18 of the Chiefs’ 19 games this season, recording a season-high 36 snaps — that’s 51 percent of the plays — in a 31-13 victory over Las Vegas in the regular-season finale.

It’s considerably more than he played as a rookie in 2019 when he appeared in 12 regular-season games and had just 32 total snaps in three playoff games. But four of those snaps came in the 31-20 victory over the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, where he recorded one solo tackle.

That wouldn’t have happened if Saunders, who was inactive for the 2020 Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay, didn’t seize every opportunity that came his way.

And Sunday is just another opportunity to do something memorable.

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