EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The gym where Kenny Willekes transformed himself into an unlikely college football player and eventual cog of Michigan State's unexpected revival was originally an auto glass repair business.
The two garage bays and 1,500 square feet of open space in Grand Rapids, Michigan, didn't acquire many frills when Mark Ehnis and the rest of the PowerStrength Training Systems crew converted the shop into a workout space for aspiring athletes. The old tire that sat unattended in the gym for years couldn't have looked terribly out of place.
Nonetheless, every once in a while, someone would point to the tire collecting dust among other unused pieces of equipment in storage and ask why it was there. If Willekes were around -- and he almost always was -- he'd laugh and say, "I kind of messed that one up."
The drill was a simple test of grip and grit. Two guys come to the center of a circle of their peers, grab hold of the tire and start to pull. The first to let go loses. That, of course, assumes that someone is going to let go.
Willekes was a high school sophomore when he first encountered the tire. He was 170 pounds dripping wet, he says, and the future collegiate offensive lineman on the other end of it yanked hard enough to pull Willekes off his feet. He was whipped around and dragged across the ground, but he refused to let go. He started to bleed, and he gripped the rubber a little more tightly.
Ehnis eventually called the bout a draw, and the next day, he retired tire tug-of-war from the list of exercises in the gym's repertoire.
"It's almost like, you know when an animal gets caught in a trap and will gnaw its own arm off to get free?" Ehnis said. "Kenny's like that all the time."
Ferocious desperation was a central part of Michigan State's brand during its recent halcyon days. Head coach Mark Dantonio talked regularly about "fighting for inches" while building a perennial Big Ten title contender with walk-ons and overlooked overachievers.
When it all fell apart last fall in a 3-9 season and a defensive line headlined by pre-crowned NFL darlings and blue-chip prospects failed to slow down opposing offenses, Dantonio said many of his young players were "born on third base," lamenting that a sense of entitlement had crept into their ranks.
"It disappeared a little bit. We thought we were just going to throw our helmets out there and win," Willekes said. "We got complacent, and it hurt us."
Michigan State is back in championship contention again this November. The Spartans are 7-2 and ranked No. 12 as they head to No. 13 Ohio State for a pivotal Big Ten divisional showdown. Willekes, and his path from scout team walk-on to leading the team in sacks (5) and tackles for loss (10.5), is as good an indicator as any that Michigan State has recaptured the attitude that helped the program climb to college football's upper crust.
'You've got one shot at it'
Dr. Charles Willekes was in an operating room in Madison, Wisconsin, when he got word that his wife was going into labor with their fifth of what would eventually be eight children. The well-respected heart surgeon says the boy was born with a stubborn determination to finish what he starts by any means necessary. He says he isn't sure where that trait comes from, then finishes the story in which he hustled to sew up a section of the bypass patient lying in front of him that day 20 years ago before rushing to the maternity ward to witness Kenny's first moments.
All of the Willekes children share a work ethic that has served them well in a variety of ways. Kenny's older brother, Lourens, is a national champion trampoline gymnast and currently training in hopes of making the 2020 U.S. Olympic team. One sister, Holliann, is a successful lawyer who might be headed back to school for a medical degree. Another sister, Allison, is an accomplished concert pianist who was playing with the local symphony orchestra before she finished college. The list goes on.
Football became Kenny Willekes' outlet after he found a home at the gym in Grand Rapids, but being an undersized linebacker from a tiny high school meant that no FBS coaches were filling his mailbox with scholarship offers. Willekes was on his way home from visiting the coaches at Wayne State in Detroit when he and a friend who was also being recruited by smaller schools decided to stop in East Lansing. They met Michigan State assistant coach Mark Staten, and Willekes told him that he was trying to decide whether to take a scholarship to a Division II school or become a walk-on at Minnesota.
"Well, if you're going that route, you're going to do that here," Staten said. Then he handed Willekes a pamphlet about the program with pictures of former walk-ons such as Blair White, Kyler Elsworth and Jack Conklin, who grew into stars at Michigan State.
Willekes returned home and found a permanent home for the pamphlet on his bedroom desk. He looked at it each day before going back to the old auto glass repair shop and working out. Sometimes he'd work until Ehnis or others told him he had to stop so he didn't hurt himself.
His mind was made up. He would go to East Lansing, and his first goal would be to earn a scholarship.
"I think it's just part of his nature," Charles Willekes said. "I still remember driving back from Wayne State, and he had a very favorable time at Wayne State, but he just said, 'Dad, I want to play D-I football,' and I said, 'You've got to try. You've got one shot at it.'"
'I was going to do whatever I had to do to make it'
Kenny Willekes was happy to bounce around different positions on the scout team as a true freshman the following year. The coaches moved him from tight end to fullback to linebacker. When it came time to prepare for the College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama, Willekes played the role of Heisman winner Derrick Henry in practice because he refused to go down easily.
He landed at defensive end the following season but was still stuck on the scout team while younger players stepped into starting roles. He was frustrated. He thought he was ready to play.
"I didn't know when it was going to happen or how it was going to happen," Willekes said. "But I was going to do whatever I had to do to make it."
In the months that followed the 2016 season, the defensive line was shelled by attrition. Malik McDowell left for the NFL. Freshmen Auston Robertson and Josh King were kicked off the team amid allegations of sexual assault. Demetrius Cooper's future -- he's on the roster now -- was unclear as he dealt with legal issues of his own.
Willekes stepped in to fill the void. Staten said he was playing like a man who would "run through his own grandmother to get a sack." (He quickly added that Willekes would then apologize and give her a hug because "that's who he is.")
Midway through spring practice, Willekes had worked his way into the first-team defense. Dantonio asked his coaches during a routine meeting if there were any reason they shouldn't put Willekes on scholarship. The room was silent, and a few days later, Dantonio announced the news to the team.
"A guy like that helps the entire program. It gives guys kind of a light," Staten said. "Now that [scout] team can give you a better look because you say, 'Hey, look what Kenny's done. He is right where I was at a year ago.' It really makes the whole team stronger."
Willekes is more than a good example for a depth chart filled with underclassmen trying to figure out what it takes to win. He has started all but one game this season on a defense that currently ranks third in the country in rushing yards allowed. He had two crucial sacks in a win against rival Michigan a month ago. He had five tackles in a win against Penn State a week ago.
For the second time in three years, Michigan State heads to Ohio State with a chance to upset the Buckeyes and keep its championship hopes alive into the middle of November. That's a far cry from where the Spartans stood a year ago, but they've turned themselves around by remembering to lean on the players who refuse to let go.