INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Khari Willis found there was more to life than football.
So on Tuesday, the Indianapolis Colts’ promising 26-year-old starting safety surprised many by retiring to join the ministry.
“I am both humbled and excited to pursue the holy call that God has for my life which brings me much joy and purpose,” Willis wrote in his announcement on Twitter. “Thank you all for the support over the years.”
Indy seemed to have an inkling Willis considered leaving when it excused him from the team’s mandatory three-day minicamp in early June. Back then coach Frank Reich, who studied in the seminary and became a pastor after his football career ended, told reporters Willis was absent for personal reasons.
It’s another early exit from a promising young player. Andrew Luck retired in August 2019 at age 29, an absence that left a gaping hole. Indy will have its sixth consecutive different opening day quarterback Sept. 11.
But the Colts appear better positioned to fill Willis’ void.
Julian Blackmon, Indy’s other incumbent starting safety, has already recovered from last fall’s torn Achilles tendon and worked out with teammates at minicamp. The Colts also signed veterans Rodney McLeod and Armani Watts in free agency, added hard-hitting safety Nick Cross of Maryland in the third round of this year’s draft and have two cornerback prospects, Marvell Tell III and Dallis Flowers, who could play safety.
And yet Willis will still be missed in the locker room.
“Never take having a great teammate for granted,” Pro Bowl cornerback Kenny Moore II wrote on Twitter. “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.”
Willis made an immediate impact after general manager Chris Ballard took the former Michigan State captain in the fourth round of the 2019 draft.
He started nine games and finished with 71 tackles that season. Over his final two seasons, injuries forced Willis to miss eight of 33 games, but he continued playing a key role on a rapidly improving defense. He finished his career with 219 tackles, 11 pass breakups, four interceptions, 3 1/2 sacks and one fumble recovery.
But Reich expects Willis to be even more successful after football.
“Khari’s character, leadership, and professionalism will be missed in our locker room as will his play on Sundays,” Reich said in a statement. “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.”