For most professional athletes, landing a starter’s job in the top league in the world is usually enough to fulfill the long-awaited childhood dream. Living out a lengthy career is then considered the icing on the cake. For those lucky enough, winning a divisional game, a conference final or even better yet, making it to – or coming out victorious in – the championship game is something that just a select few have been able to accomplish across the entire professional sporting realm.
For Indianapolis Colts’ starting safety Khari Willis, living out his dream of playing every day in the National Football League just wasn’t the fulfillment he desired. In June, the 26-year-old, third-year professional made the shocking announcement of early retirement from the NFL. His decision was not that of injury or a fear of future head/brain-related issues.
Khari Willis retired to pursue a career in ministry.
Yes, you read that right; a National Football League player – who had made over $3 million in salary over the first three seasons of his rookie contract – opted to walk away from the sport he loves to begin a new career, that of spreading the good news of Jesus’ gospel as a minister.
“The lessons that I’ve learned in this phase of my life will be valuable for me in my next chapter,” Willis wrote in a statement published to his social media pages. “With much prayer and deliberation, I have elected to officially retire from the NFL as I endeavor to devote the remainder of my life to the further advancement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Having spent the past three seasons as one of the top strong-safeties within his division, Willis put up 219 tackles, four interceptions and 3.5 sacks over 39 games – 33 of which he started with Indianapolis. He was just one year from earning a big-money contract through unrestricted free agency.
“I thank all of my family, friends and those who have supported me on this journey thus far and I look forward to your continued support through the next phase of my life,” Willis added. “I am both humbled and excited to pursue the holy call that God has for my life which brings me much joy and purpose. Thank you all for your support over the years, God bless.”Willis’ decision took many by surprise, but the support shown by fellow members of the Colts spoke to the positive effects that he had brought to the fold while passing through Indianapolis as a fourth-round selection (109th overall) during his time with the organization.
“We’re thankful and appreciative of Khari’s contributions to the Colts both on and off the field over the last three years,” said his head coach Frank Reich, also a fellow Christian. “Khari’s character, leadership, and professionalism will be missed in our locker room as will his play on Sundays. I admire and respect his decision to transition into the next stage of his life and ministry and my prayers will always be with him.”
Pro Bowl cornerback Kenny Moore II posted a message on Twitter shortly after the news broke. Despite surely missing his on and off-field buddy, the fellow Colts’ defender held his friend in high regard.
“Never take having a great teammate for granted,” Moore II tweeted. “From calling your name on your draft night to watching you mold into the human you are today. Best wishes in retirement, I’m always in your corner, 37. Love bro.”
Although mentioning his focus will be on a career in ‘ministry’, Willis did not expand in his update as to what direction he plans to take in terms of education and/or service. His unwavering faith, however, has been present throughout his collegiate and professional sporting career.
“It’s crazy,” Willis told Michigan Live shortly after hearing the Colts trade up 20 places to select him at the 2019 NFL Draft. “It’s what you dream for, it’s what you work for – moments like these, to be able to share them with the people you love. I’m ready, I’ve been ready for this so long, I’m just ready to get going. I thank God. It’s just a tremendous blessing to have this opportunity, especially with such a great organization. It’s rare so I’m thankful for it.”
He certainly soaked up the God-given opportunity but saw a need elsewhere. And for that, Willis will most definitely be remembered.
“My faith to me is a personal journey,” he said in a 2018 interview with Sports Illustrated. “Along this road of faith, I’ve had a lot of ups, and truthfully, I’ve had some downs as well. But it’s something that if I stick to, I’ll become better and better and better at what I’m doing.
“Faith to me is important, believing in something you can’t see, especially in this dark world, something that you can’t see with your eyes and especially when you may not always want to believe or want to do the right thing, sometimes it’s a hard thing to do. But I feel my faith is something that keeps me grounded and keeps me honed-in on who I am.”