3:56 PM ET

  • Nick WagonerESPN Staff Writer Close
    • Covered Rams for nine years for stlouisrams.com
    • Previously covered University of Missouri football
    • Member of Pro Football Writers of America

MOBILE, Ala. — This is a life-changing week for Western Illinois Leathernecks defensive lineman Khalen Saunders. In more ways than one.

Saunders, who recently went viral after a video of him doing a backflip at 320 pounds hit the internet, is participating in this week's Senior Bowl activities. He and his fiancée, Ayanna, are also about to have a baby girl.

In fact, Saunders' pregnant fiancée informed him after he arrived here this week that she had gone into labor in Chicago.

"She calls me and she's like I'm feeling light-headed and all of this kind of stuff," Saunders said. "She's felt lightheaded before, it just comes with being pregnant. Next thing I know, I was on Snapchat and I see her in scrubs in the hospital bed. I FaceTimed her immediately, like, 'Hold on, you said you were feeling light-headed, you didn't say this.' She was in the hospital. 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. "

The impending arrival of his daughter — whom the couple plans to name Kambridge — left Saunders in something of a difficult spot. He badly wants to be there for his child's arrival, but he also knows this week could provide him the best chance to improve his draft stock and thus, the family's financial future.

For now, Saunders said he and his fiancée agreed it was best for him to stay in Mobile to take part in this week's activities. There are contingency plans, however, and if Saunders can at least participate in the padded practices on Tuesday and Wednesday, he might opt out of Saturday's game.

"I most likely won't play in the game if anything, but if she has the baby then I'll do a couple practices for sure because I've got to prove myself at least a little bit before I leave," Saunders said. "So that's my plan."

According to Saunders, the baby is due Jan. 31, but there are signs she might arrive early. He said Ayanna has been dilating and he knows it's possible he could miss his daughter's birth in order to play for the North team, coached by Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders this week.

As a small-school prospect, Saunders hasn't yet had much exposure to NFL coaches and scouts against top competition and isn't considered a slam dunk early-round choice. ESPN NFL draft experts believe Saunders has a chance to play his way into the Day 2 conversation with a good week here.

With that, Saunders knows that every rep this week is an opportunity to open some eyes. His fiancée knows that, too, which is why she encouraged him to stay.

"I'm coming from a smaller school and I know that," Saunders said. "That's ultimately the reason I made the decision to stay, because I'm not afforded the luxury to just think that I'm gonna go in the draft. I gotta earn everything I get. Being from a small school, this is the perfect opportunity for me. I get to play against the top competition in the nation, play against some of the most talented guys in the world really. It's a huge opportunity, man.

"I'm so thankful and blessed to be here. There's a lot of guys that would want to be in my position right now and I'd be foolish to go home. Take advantage of what those guys didn't get to use. I'm gonna stay here. I'm ready to work. "

And if all goes according to plan and Saunders gets drafted and goes on to a solid NFL career, he knows what it could mean for his family's future.

"I obviously would love to be there with my baby girl," Saunders said. "I really wish I could. All of this is for her. All of this is for my fiancée and my mom and for my family. That's the biggest reason I wanted to stay."

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