John Willis was called to the scene of a shootout between a young kid and police in the southside of Jackson on Easter this year.
While Willis, the director of community outreach for Jackson and the director of The King Community Center, went to the scene, his family continued to eat Easter dinner at their home on the outskirts of the south side. Except for one — his son, senior safety Khari Willis.
“He waited to eat dinner until I got home, because he just wanted me to have somebody to eat with,” John, the father of Khari and nine other children, said. “That’s just who he is.”
Khari usually visits Jackson and The King Community Center, a 10-acre multipurpose facility “located in the most financially challenged parts” of Jackson, once or twice during the weekend to work for John and train with high school and elementary school kids.
The center has a health and wellness room, meeting rooms and a commercial kitchen that “serves warm dinners to youth every week day after-school,” among other facilities.
John said the center also takes about 416 kids from different backgrounds in their summer program to about 20 field trips to visit museums and cultural educational spots, as well as tutoring and national recreational culture activities. He said the goal of the center is to "expand the horizons of young people" and give them opportunities "they don't ordinarily get to see."
And giving opportunities to young kids is something Khari wanted to do since he was 10 years old and learned how to keep the “light” on in young kids.
“I always tell them, there’s a light in every single young person. And it’s up to us as adults to make sure those lights don’t go out,” John said. “And I think Khari has taken that challenge and accepted (it), and I feel he engages with a lot of people — I don’t care whether they’re old or young. I truly believe that it doesn’t matter what you say.
“People may not remember what you say, they may not even remember what you do, but they’ll always remember the way you make them feel. So we try to emphasize that to all of our family and our children.”
Becoming a mentor
When Khari grew up, he wasn’t the outgoing type. He wasn’t the one to jump in front of a camera or a media scrum to answer questions coming from all angles.
In fact, John said Khari is still an introvert.
“Khari was a very, very shy kid, wasn’t very outgoing,” John said.
Now, Khari faces those scrums and that attention without hesitation. He takes on every question without hesitation.
But perhaps more importantly, he now goes out of his way to interact with kids. He’ll talk over the phone with a kid and watch a game together, using pointers from that game in the future, or having kids send him progress reports to make sure they’re performing well academically.
And if you mess up, he’ll tell you. Even if you’re related to him.
“(On April 8) he spent about two hours on the phone with a younger brother. He was disappointed in his younger brother’s report card,” John said. “He spent a lot of time with him talking about study habits, situations and things like that.”
Khari is the seventh youngest out of his 10 siblings, all fathered and mothered by John and his mom, Mary Catherine, John’s “lovely wife, the beautiful mother of all 10 of my children," who also loves to give back to the community.
Khari said all of this is because of John. He believes John set the standard for what all Willis children should aspire to, and is motivated by the actions of his older brother, Terrell Willis.
“My older brother took it and he took it to another level and I’m trying to take it to another level. So I just want them to be better than me, that’s what my dad always used to say to us,” Khari said. “So, whenever I take to the King Community Center… my brothers, I think I’m going to be a lot harder on my siblings, because I feel greatness is an expectation.”
He frequently works out and mentors kids at the King Community Center, allowing kids to see the effort he puts in day in and day out to be a senior leader on MSU’s football team, and to use Khari as a guide, even for non-football related situations.
Which is something John thinks Khari has realized.
“It may just be a kid that wants to make a shot, maybe a kid that just wants to run faster. Maybe a kid that needs some help with math and tutoring,” John said. “I think he was able to see how that he was able to give and I think that encouraged him. I’m very proud of his decisions off the field.”
He also makes sure to tell all of his children to make sure to realize other people will remember how you make them feel in the long run, not necessarily in the moment. Especially for Khari, whose impact off the field will last longer than his impact within the confines of Spartan Stadium.
“We always like to say, ‘If you really want to find out who you are, find out how you treat a person that can’t do anything to you or anything for you.’ We try to emphasize that to him a lot,” John said. “I think Khari really takes those things to heart.
“It’s just important to just engage young people, if it’s a young person that’s asking for an autograph or asking for a picture, he’s been really, really well with making sure he’ll have something — even if it’s just something he’ll give away from his car or anything. He does understand that he does carry some influence and we’re very grateful that he’s making good choices on and off the field.”
The turning point
Khari and his nine siblings grew up at The King Community Center with John, giving them opportunities to help out in events while doing workouts and homework.
But Khari “naturally” gravitated towards working with young kids.
“He knew how to run a game for the kids, he knew how to get them engaged. And we truly believe that decisions determine destiny. So I kind of embedded that in them,” John said. “He knows how to take control of a group for a week, believes that the energy you deliver is very, very important to making sure your group is successful, to make sure the kids want to participate… We have some great leaders and Khari is one of those great leaders for us.”
Khari said he was influenced by John to help out young kids, because of the type of leader his dad was in the Jackson community. John and his family eventually moved out of the southside of Jackson after somebody was shot on their front yard.
And growing up in the south side of Jackson, he realized he knew kids in his area weren’t in a similar situation as him.
"You get to see some young people find their way and to see some people lose their way,” John said. “And to see some young people, you start to realize you’ve been blessed with some assets. Blessed with a mom and dad.”
Khari said as he got older, he realized the values community service brings to others in need.
But from John’s perspective, he said Khari wanted to be involved more in shaping young kid’s lives when a tragic event happened to Khari. He said Khari's friend was beaten to death by his mother when they were children.
“He wanted to do some things differently with himself and he kind of challenged himself to make some changes in himself," John said. "And I think that drove him as far as wanting to reach out to young people and present young people with opportunities.”
From Jackson to East Lansing via US-127 North
On June 14, 2014, Khari committed to playing football for Mark Dantonio’s program. According to 247Sports, Khari was not only listed as a three-star running back and athlete, but a three-star point guard as well.
He even had handles when he was little getting the nickname “Big Kid.”
He said he didn’t come to MSU strictly because of the program’s involvement in the community, but that was a factor into his decision.
“I wouldn’t say it was an intricate piece,” Khari said. “I would say it’s icing on the cake because it was so relatable to me.”
He currently is second on the team in active all-time tackles with 112, receiving an All-Big Ten honorable mention from both the media and coaches.
Khari said after the annual Green-White spring game, which the offense (White) won 32-30, he’s the older guy in the room now. He has young and old players looking to him for leadership.
“I feel like I have the characteristics they were looking for. It was really just getting on my teammates was my biggest thing outside of football, coming out of the shell or whatever, each and every one of us,” he said. “There are other guys stepping up as well, it's not just me. I feel like them putting their trust in me, looking to me and me being able to have that trust is just a blessing.”
Dantonio brought in a new defensive backs coach after former coach Harlon Barnett left this offseason to be the defensive coordinator at Florida State University. Haynes said after a March 27 practice when he tried to get the support of his locker room, he had to go to Khari first.
Only about four months into his second stint at MSU, he said Khari “is one of the best kids I’ve ever coached.”
“If Khari Willis wouldn’t have respected me, then that room wouldn’t have respected me, just because of his leadership,” he said. “You talk about a guy who sits up front and sits there and takes notes, who asks questions, who does exactly what I tell him to do. It’s helped me out so much in that room.”
John said he thinks Haynes, Barnett, Dantonio and Khari's high school coach Herb Brogan, along with countless others, have all influenced Khari for the better.
“God put him in hands of some really good coaches all of his life,” John said. “I think coach Dantonio… he’s a quiet storm. He’s very, very focused, very determined, but very, very good about making sure guys are taking care of business. And I think those things have influenced Khari and help him even more become a professional as a person.”
He thought right, according to Khari.
“At MSU, it’s just the perspective of us drive our way. Coach (Dantonio) provides the opportunities for those who want to do more,” he said. “I feel that I’ve been able to take advantage of those and I feel like it’s helped me as a person and to help me in the future.”
Dantonio has noticed he has a special player in his program — on and off the field ever since the safety’s first year on campus in 2015.
“What makes Khari so special is that he’s a fearless competitor on the football field, he’s an outstanding student, and he’s a young person who cares deeply about his teammates and all of the people around him, including his coaches,” Dantonio said in a prepared statement. “He gets involved. If you want to see something change, you have to get involved, and he’s done that at an extremely high level.”
In December, Khari will graduate with a prelaw/political science major. He’s had the occasional thoughts about pursuing a law degree to help out those in need. He especially wants to help those in situations similar to what he saw when he was younger.
“If I can learn the law, I can teach the law and help people avoid certain situations that I grew up seeing,” he said.
But whether or not he does it’s seems to be clear what he wants to do: Follow in his dad’s footsteps and surpass him.
John said his son has already done that by visiting Lumen Christi, his elementary school and Jackson County Jail talking to inmates, who don’t usually see someone of his stature.
“Any father wants to see your children surpass you in whatever it is that you’re doing. I think he’s worked hard to be able to move into a role that I would see him having,” he said. “He’ll end up doing something where he’s influencing a lot of young people’s lives. I think that’s a burden for him, I think that’s something he’s constantly concerned about.
“The type of person you are, the type of student you are, the type of influence you are within your community, those are the type of things you work at and be cautious of. And we’re very proud of him that he decided to do that.”
Khari does all of this to not only keep the light alive in young kids, but to see those lights in person reacting to their mentor.
That’s his reward.
“It’s a surreal feeling. I feel like I’ve been able to give back to help people,” he said. “And to see their reaction, and the happiness and the joy that they have and in someone taking the time out of their day to help better them, is something I’ve always felt helped me. And I just try to do the same to them.”