MOBILE, Ala. -- This will be a funny story Kambridge Saunders can tell someday: how her father missed being present at her birth, because he was busy electrifying NFL scouts with an eye-opening performance for the North team Tuesday afternoon at the first practice of Senior Bowl week, nearly 1,000 miles south of the Naperville, Ill., hospital where her mom, Ayanna Hall, delivered Kambridge, nine days before Ayanna’s due date.
At least, Khalen Saunders, a defensive tackle from Western Illinois, hopes it will be a funny story, hopes Kambridge will understand.
“I was shaken, man,” when he found out via Snapchat Monday night his fiancée had gone into labor, Saunders said.
“She calls me and she’s, like, ‘I’m feeling lightheaded’ and all this kind of stuff – she’s felt lightheaded before; it comes with being pregnant. Next thing I know, I’m on Snapchat, and I see her in scrubs in a hospital bed. I Facetimed her immediately, like, ‘Hold on. You said you were feeling lightheaded, you didn’t say this’ … Her mom’s with her, though, and I’m real happy about that, that she has somebody with her at least that she’s very close to and that can support her throughout this process, while I’m out here.
“I obviously would love to be there with my baby girl, and I really wish I could. But all of this is for her. All of this is for my fiancée, for my mom, for my family. ... I’m not a flashy guy. I’m not an expensive guy. I’m not going to go buy a car with whatever check I get. The first thing I’m getting is a house for my family.”
If Saunders were some Clemson or Alabama All-American, with an extensive NFL personnel file, maybe he would have caught the first flight out of Mobile on Monday night. But the Western Illinois Leathernecks play in Macomb, Ill., at the FCS level, and Saunders was virtually unknown until last week, when ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted a video of Saunders doing backflips. At the Senior Bowl, Saunders weighed and measured 6-feet, 320 pounds, not the usual backflip physique.
So there was intriguing buzz, but pro scouts wanted to see Saunders practice this week against those big-school dudes.
The opportunity to compete in Mobile “means the world,” Saunders said Tuesday morning, as he awaited word from Naperville. “I’m coming from a smaller school, and I know that. That’s ultimately the reason I made the decision to stay – I’m not afforded the luxury to just think that I’m going to go in the draft. I’ve got to earn everything I get.
“This is a perfect opportunity for me … I’m just so thankful and blessed to be here. There’s a lot of guys who want to be in my position right now. I’d be foolish to go home. … I’m ready to work.”
And work he did, earning praise from observers as the defensive standout of the North practice, held in spitting rain and gathering gloom late Tuesday afternoon, under the lights at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
“He just had a heckuva practice,” an NFC personnel executive said. “He certainly helped himself today. He’s got a very good first step, quick hands. You can definitely see the explosive traits in his lower body.”
Less than an hour after practice ended, Saunders tweeted: “I AM A FATHER!!!!!!!!! Thank you God for your continued blessings. I love you so much Kambridge Vonyea Saunders. Daddy’s coming home real soon.”
Saunders said he’ll consider going home before Saturday’s game if he feels he has done enough in practice to show teams what he is about.
“I don’t want to be known as a gymnast, I want to be known as an exceptional football player,” he said. “That’s ultimately why I’m here and why I decided to stay here."
Saunders said he was recruited by Big Ten schools as a shot-putter, but not as a football player, because of his stature. Maybe if they had seen the backflip video, they would have reconsidered.
He said he has been doing backflips since he was 8 or 9.
“We used to have these, I guess you could call ‘em, 'hood talent shows. … We had a big hill you could do flips down. … It’s one of those talents like riding a bike. Once you learn how to do it, you don’t forget how to do it. I still can do it, I just kept growing,” Saunders said.
He said the video was his agent’s idea, and he liked it, but Saunders had no idea what was ahead.
“He said, ‘We’re going to take a video of you doing your backflip.’ … I’m thinking he’s going to tweet it out on his page. … I didn’t know he was going to send it out to a guy with, like, 7.2 million followers. … I actually had to mute my notifications, within, like, an hour,” Saunders said.
“It’s nice though, to get that type of publicity. There’s not a lot of guys, or media in general, that comes in and out of Macomb, Ill. It’s one of the hardest places to get to; you can’t even fly into it. You gotta fly into somewhere else and then drive into it.”
Saunders came to Western Illinois from the St. Louis area, and a challenging background.
“The whole Ferguson-Mike Brown situation, that happened down the street from my house,” he said.
Brown, 18, was shot and killed by a police officer, igniting a series of protests, some violent.
“And that happened on my birthday in 2014, the summer I left for college. It had my mom very shaken up, because it was a guy, very similar build to me, my height and weight, kind of. That could have been me, easily,” Saunders said.