Kenny Willekes awarded Burlsworth Trophy as nations top former walk-on

Defensive end was named an All-American in 2018, All-Big Ten in both 2018, 2019


Alex McRae

Kenny Willekes lines up against Ohio State during the regular season. Credit: Alex McRae / WDBM

Joe Dandron, Football reporter

EAST LANSING — Kenny Willekes came to Michigan State with a goal in mind: leave a legacy.

Brandon Burlsworth, who the award is named after, started his career at Arkansas as walk-on just like Willekes. Burlsworth went on to become an All-American in 1998 after starting three seasons on the offensive line for the Razorbacks.

The Burlsworth Trophy commemorates the young man, who lost his life just 11 days after being drafted in the 1999 NFL Draft, with the 63rd overall pick to the Indianapolis Colts. It is awarded to the nations top player who began his college football path as a walk-on.

Willekes was named a finalist for the Burlsworth Trophy and then won the award earlier today – beating out California safety and kick returner Ashtyn Davis and Georgia placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship. His legacy is now etched in that trophy.

Gary A. Meek
Kenny Willekes poses with the 2019 Burlsworth Trophy. (Credit: Gary Meek)

“Throughout this journey, I’ve learned many life lessons,” said Willekes during his acceptance speech at the award ceremony on Monday. “But the biggest thing I’ve learned is to persevere through hard times … there’s going to be ups and downs, it’s gonna be a roller coaster but the most important thing is if you’re able to bring the work ethic and bring a positive attitude each and every day: those are the two things that you can control.”

“Being a walk-on is about much more than football. It’s about being a man in your daily life, whether you’re a husband, a coach, a wife, a daughter. It’s going the extra mile above and beyond everything you do in life.”

Willekes has the MSU football record for most career tackles-for-loss with 49.5, was an All-American in 2018, and All-Big Ten first team selection in 2018 and 2019.

“I’m humbled and honored to stand before you today to accept this award” said Willekes. “Brandon (Burlsworth) set the bar of what a walk-on should truly be … not only was he a great football player on the field but he was truly a great football player off the field.” 

Willekes has 14.5 tackles for loss this season, two fumbles recovered – one for a touchdown against Tulsa – and nine sacks as a defensive end.

The Rockford, Michigan-native broke his leg last season during the Redbox Bowl against Oregon. Which kept him out of the draft and back at MSU for his senior year after many expected him to depart for the pros. 

It has not been announced if Willekes will play in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 27 against Wake Forest.

Joe Dandron is a football writer for Impact89FM. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephDandronMI or contact him at [email protected].