Parkway Central football coach Mark Goldenberg enjoyed this year’s Super Bowl more than normal.
Khalen Saunders, a 2014 Parkway Central graduate, was a rookie defensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs playing in Super Bowl LIV. Now, he’s a Super Bowl champion after the Chiefs won 31-20 over the San Francisco 49ers in Miami, Florida. It was the first Super Bowl title for the Chiefs in 50 years.
The 6-foot, 324-pound Saunders was drafted by the Chiefs in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft out of Western Illinois University. He had 13 tackles and one sack (Green Bay’s Aaron Rogers on Monday Night Football) on the season for the Super Bowl champions. In the Super Bowl, Saunders recorded one tackle.
“Oh man, I did enjoy the game,” Goldenberg said. “It’s an unbelievable thrill.”
Saunders is the second Colt to play in a Super Bowl. Isaac Byrd played for the Tennessee Titans, who lost Super Bowl XXXIV to the St. Louis Rams.
Goldenberg has a connection to Byrd as well.
“My very first year at Parkway Central I was on the sophomore staff and Isaac was a sophomore,” Goldenberg said. “He went up to varsity but I still got to see him in practice.”
Goldenberg was the head coach when Saunders was a Colt.
“To be honest, as a freshman I don’t remember too much about him,” Goldenberg said. “As a sophomore, we’re practicing against the JV (junior varsity) guys and we couldn’t block him. It was very frustrating. By the second week of that season, he was playing varsity defensive tackle for us.”
Goldenberg discovered Saunders wanted to play offense, too. So, Goldenberg devised a plan to do that.
“The way to get him to play really hard on defense was to give them the ball a little on offense,” Goldenberg said. “By the time he was a senior, he was a true weapon for us. Defensively, he was really good the whole time.
“He got more of a twinkle in his eye when he was getting the ball. He was a fullback for us. He ran the inside trap really good. He caught passes. People didn’t want to tackle him. He was a load. He was just so big and strong. Other teams would just cringe. With his technique, he was a man among boys many times.”
Saunders did it all, helping Parkway Central to the state championship game as a senior. Unfortunately, Lee’s Summit West won the game in what was then called the Edward Jones Dome.
“He was pretty special for us with his size and speed,” Goldenberg said.
Saunders went and played at Western Illinois. It was his only Division I scholarship offer.
“He had some other offers,” Goldenberg said. “Missouri wanted him to come for track and throw the shot and discus. But he wanted to play Division I football.”
Saunders excelled at Western Illinois. An unblockable lineman, he consistently beat double-teams to record 14 sacks, 25 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, nine quarterback pressures and 129 tackles in his last two seasons. He earned second-team AP All-America honors. He also played situational fullback and rushed for a touchdown while catching another.
Saunders became Western Illinois’ first-ever Senior Bowl participant. While there that week practicing, his then fiancée, Ayanna Hall, gave birth to a baby girl. Saunders and Hall later got married.
His showing at the Senior Bowl helped him get drafted.
“Khalen invited my wife (Brenda) and I to the draft party when he got drafted by the Chiefs,” Goldenberg said. “I was so excited for him and his wife and his family.”
When the Rams left St. Louis, Goldenberg said he soured on the NFL. But when Saunders became a Chief, his interest perked back up and he began to watch.
“I was mad when the Rams left,” Goldenberg said. “Now we have Missouri pride with Khalen playing and he’s playing in Kansas City.”
Saunders did not start immediately for the Chiefs.
“Watching his first few weeks and seeing him inactive, I didn’t know what to think,” Goldenberg said. “Then he got his first chance and then he became a starter in the defensive line rotation. It was so exciting to see him sack Aaron Rogers on Monday Night Football. It’s like a fairy tale.”
Goldenberg said he remains in tough with Saunders.
“We do through texts and things like that. It’s back and forth with good luck and those kinds of things,” Goldenberg said. “My wife texted him before the AFC championship game and he texted back.”
While Goldenberg admires Saunders for his football talent, he said there’s more him than just being an athlete.
“He’s a pretty person. The crazy thing is what a great kid he is,” Goldenberg said. “He can play anything on the piano by ear. He sings. He dances. He does backflips. He’s just an unbelievably great person with a great family.”