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Underdog defensive end Kenny Willekes finishing Michigan State Spartans’ football career on top

Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes takes a break between plays against Michigan on Nov. 16 in Ann Arbor. (AP photo)

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Pinstripe Bowl: Michigan State vs. Wake Forest, 3:15 p.m. Friday; TV: ESPN


By NOAH TRISTER
AP Sports Writer
Almost a year to the day after breaking his leg, Kenny Willekes is ready for his Michigan State swan song.
As usual, he’s trying to think of himself as an underdog.
“Always,” he said. “That’s the way you’ve got to play, that’s the mentality I play with. I play with a chip on my shoulder regardless. I still feel like I got a lot to prove.”
Willekes has a school record 49 1/2 tackles for loss in his career, and the senior defensive end has nine sacks this season. But the honor that best exemplifies his path at MSU may be the one he received earlier this month. Willekes was the 2019 winner of the Burlsworth Trophy, which goes to the nation’s most outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on.
Brandon Burlsworth was a walk-on who eventually became a standout at Arkansas. He died in a car accident 11 days after being drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1999. The award bearing his name has gone to players such as Baker Mayfield and Hunter Renfrow.
“It’s pretty cool. Everyone loves the underdog. Everyone loves the underdog story,” Willekes said. “There’s a lot of people that truly are the underdog, and they’re working to get noticed, so the fact that they brought that trophy in to acknowledge some of those underdogs and show other walk-ons that there’s a way to do it — it can be done.”
At the Pinstripe Bowl on Friday, it will be a chance for Willekes to finish on a positive note — and another opportunity to move on from his difficult experience last year, when Willekes broke his leg in a 7-6 loss to Oregon in the Redbox Bowl.
After that injury, Willekes returned for his senior season. He remained a force on the defensive line. With one game to go, it would have been hard to blame him if he’d decided to sit out this bowl — especially after what happened last year. Instead, he’s playing.