By Alexis Brudnicki
Luke Willson is a Super Bowl champion.
Fresh off his rookie season with the Seattle Seahawks, it’s easy to say now that the 24-year-old tight end made the right choice, but it hasn’t been long since Willson was weighing his options.
In high school, he played a little bit of everything. His focus was on baseball and hockey, and then of course there was some football too. When he accepted a scholarship to be part of the offensive line at Rice University in Houston, Texas – where he continued to have back-and-forth thoughts between the gridiron and the diamond – he had to red-shirt his first year after arriving late following a summer baseball tour with the Canadian Junior National Team.
“It actually worked out for me in the long run,” Willson said. “I expected to go to Rice and play, but most guys report at the beginning of June because their school ends earlier so I was going to miss two weeks of summer training because I was still in school.
“Then I got a chance to play with the national baseball team and I missed all of summer workouts and then about a week into camp as well, which was only a two-week camp. Then the day I was supposed to fly in, I was already two or three days late, and then there was a tropical storm so they shut down all of the flights. I was a little behind the eight ball, but to red-shirt that year worked out.”
In retrospect, the native of LaSalle, Ont. was happy to have the opportunity to ease into football in Texas — something that was a little different than what he’d been used to — and to take the chance to play for Team Canada, which was an experience he still cherishes.
“I really enjoyed playing baseball,” Willson said. “Especially that junior national team experience – it was one of the best athletic experiences I’ve ever had, as far as just having fun and playing the sport.”
Keep in mind that among the athletic experiences Willson has had is a Super Bowl championship, of course.
When Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams, asked Willson to join the JNT during his high school playing days, the first baseman and outfielder was playing for the Windsor Titans and had been offered a spot to play for the Intercounty Terriers in Guelph on the weekends, providing him the exposure he needed to make the team.
“The first weekend [with the Terriers], we played the Toronto Mets at Rogers Centre,” Willson said. “It was funny – I went 0-for-2 with a strikeout and a pop out and the next day I got a call from Coach Hamilton who said, ‘We’re actually in Orlando right now, do you want to come tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’
“So I flew down there, my first trip was in Orlando against the minor league teams and then we played in the Dominican about a month-and-a-half later, and then after that we did our world [championship] tour. That year it was in Edmonton, and we played Taiwan a bunch of times. We started in Ontario, Thunder Bay was our first stop, then went to Calgary and then Edmonton.”
Willson downplays his performance over the course of that summer, and credits his improvements on the field to the help and dedication of Hamilton.
“I wasn’t great in Orlando, and not really that great in the Dominican,” he said. “But the week leading into the worlds, I was hitting the ball pretty well and I really improved. Coach Hamilton really worked on my swing a bunch, so I was a lot more comfortable out there. That last trip was my best.”
When Willson committed to the Owls, he originally thought he could play both baseball and football. But when he arrived at Rice at the end of the baseball season and was red-shirting, he wasn’t getting in much time doing either one.
“I wasn’t playing football, obviously, and then I wasn’t playing a ton of baseball, so I was kind of behind a little bit,” he said. “Then I realized I was not going to have any time at home. So I thought, next year I’ll get right for baseball, I’ll get into the swing of things so I’m not starting behind the eight ball.
“Then I was a little homesick and I wanted to go home. I went home for May and played summer league baseball and then when I was ready to go back [to Texas] and do both, I tore my labrum in my throwing shoulder playing football. So I thought I should probably just put baseball on hold.
“At least until the Blue Jays called me.”
That’s right. Toronto was looking, and they wanted to see what the 6-foot-5, 250-pound football player could still do with the bat.
“We were in spring football and I had broken the ball of my foot, so I’ve got this whole lower-leg cast on and I was sitting at breakfast and I get a call on my iPhone from Ontario,” Willson said. “I answer it and it was Jamie [Lehman, Toronto’s Canada scout] and he asked, ‘Are you still playing baseball?’
“I’m thinking, broken leg, haven’t played baseball, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m still playing. Why?’ He said, ‘We wanted to get you out for a workout.’ I heard Coach Hamilton set it up because he thought I had potential. I got the cast off about a week-and-a-half later, and then for about a month [in May] I got to come home. I spent every day swinging with my dad and I went out there and had a pretty good day.”
A pretty good day. That’s close to the description Lehman gave.
“He actually came in to hit with us after his junior season at Rice,” the scout said. “Greg Hamilton told me he was still looking to pursue baseball, so we set it up for him to hit at Rogers Centre. He hadn’t really hit since the fall of his freshman year, so we didn’t expect much.
“The first thing that blew me away when he stepped off the elevator, he was massive. His first round [of batting practice], he hit a few to dead centre, one off the base of the wall which was really impressive. His second round, he put one into the second deck and then he launched a couple up near the Level of Excellence. Not many people in the world can do that.
“I couldn’t be happier for what he has accomplished. He’s a great person, always very respectful and well-spoken. My only disappointment is that we’ll never know what he could have done on the baseball diamond.”
The experience was one Willson remembers just as vividly.
“That was cool,” he said. “It was literally just a guy from the Ontario Blue Jays throwing [batting practice], [then-scouting director] Andrew Tinnish, Lehman, one other guy, and my dad was in the dugout, and that was it.
“He asked if I wanted to bunt a few to get the timing down and I missed the first bunt by three feet. He said, ‘Do you want to just swing?’ I said yeah. I hit the first one off the L-screen and made good contact, so I thought, alright. The next one I hit out of the park to dead centre.
“It was like the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders…and the next thing you know, I started swinging and I hit a few deep, deep-deep, and I thought, man this feels great. In my head I was all excited, and then [outwardly] I was acting like it was no big deal.”
Before that epic batting practice session, Willson had finally narrowed his focus to football. So that made it a little bit harder.
“It was tough because I hadn’t played and I had tried out going into my red-shirt junior year so they would have signed me for the next year,” he said. “I had a big red-shirt sophomore year, and my big hope was if my junior year was good enough maybe I’ll declare [myself eligible for the NFL draft] and leave school early, and if it’s really bad then I’ll go play baseball.
“It’s funny because I had a really good red-shirt junior year, but I got hurt and missed the last five games, so now I was back in the same spot. They were kind of saying, ‘Quit football,’ and I was so close to football and I thought, do I really want to go into extended spring and into rookie ball when I’m six months away from getting drafted into the NFL?
“I liked baseball, but I was so far behind and I didn’t really want to completely give up football for it.”
Willson did give professional baseball a shot, heading down to extended spring training with the Blue Jays in 2012 before returning to the Owls for the last time.
“I went down for about a month,” he said. “And then went back for my senior year at Rice and I thought if I didn’t get drafted or if I didn’t have a shot, I would go back to the Blue Jays…I was pretty open about it [with Toronto]. They knew football was my first choice.”
Willson was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the fifth round and joined the team for a Super Bowl run in his rookie season, but he did have enough time playing pro ball to understand the differences and how football best suited him.
“Football – even at Rice – we would have odd hours, you wake up early and it would suck, you would go and be in the weight room for two hours and have a guy screaming at you, and then during camp you would have a two-hour practice, or longer, and you’re there all day with film and stuff,” the tight end said. “Baseball, you can only go hard a certain amount of days in a row.
“You wake up at seven, done at four, and you do the same thing every day. It’s like the season – we play 16 games and they play 162. It’s a different kind of mentality.”
Willson had to make some adjustments when he arrived at Bobby Mattick Training Center in Dunedin, Florida, home to the organization’s minor leaguers.
“I got down to extended [spring training] and I was really intense,” he said. “All the guys were saying, ‘Dude, relax.’ It was hard for me to switch. It sounds awkward but football was go, go, go, and [baseball] was a long process and you had to be nice and easy and relaxed.
“That was also my first experience being a professional. To wake up and play and think my job is to play baseball, that was kind of fun for me. I know a lot of people hated extended spring, but in that sense it was fun.”
Reminiscing about his time with the junior team and in the Blue Jays organization, Willson stopped to ask how his former teammates were doing. He was interested in each update and was genuinely interested to hear what the current status of each of them was.
With all of them except Brett Lawrie either still in the minor leagues or out of baseball altogether, Willson’s choice started to look even better as the conversation went on.
“It’s one of those things where if baseball was easier to become pro I would have questioned it a little more,” he said of his decision. “In football, there are no minor leagues. You get drafted and you either make the team or you don’t…
“Sometimes, especially in [training] camp, I’ll think I wish I played baseball; those guys have guaranteed contracts, but what happens if you’re the guy who gets stuck behind Derek Jeter? For me, there are so many uncontrolled variables in baseball that I don’t think, ‘what if’ because you never really know.
“People ask me all the time if I could have made it in pro baseball and I think, how am I supposed to answer that question? I don’t know if I would have made it. Did I have the ability? I think I did, but I only played extended spring training for a month. I didn’t see what triple-A was like, and I didn’t try and develop my skills to see if I could make it.”
Willson also isn’t sure he has the right mindset for the diamond.
“I always thought I was a good baseball player, but I never had the baseball player mentality,” he said. “The hardest thing for me in baseball was to settle myself down. Baseball guys are loosey goosey and relaxed, and I wanted to go out and run around and fire hockey pucks.
“That’s why I loved hitting and being in attack mode I guess…Right now, I definitely have more of a football mentality but I [had to grow into it] a little bit.”
He did grow into it, and the gridiron is not a bad option for the man of many talents. He made it onto the field more than some had predicted in his rookie season as well, diving right into the National Football League headfirst.
“I wasn’t really sure,” Willson said of how much he would play last year. “But as the season progressed, I felt like I got more and more playing time so it was kind of nice. I’m not a huge expectations guy, so I go out there and do my thing…I never go out and say I want to play X amount of snaps and catch this many balls, just let the chips fall.”
Just a few games into his sophomore season, the whole experience of his first year in Seattle is still sinking in.
“There was so much on my plate as a rookie, I didn’t even think about it, even during [the Super Bowl],” Willson said. “That’s the difference between football and baseball. With baseball, you have time to sit back, and that was what was so cool about Team Canada.
“I would be sitting with my down time with Team Canada and think, this is incredible, and enjoy it. Football for me is harder to enjoy because you’ve got three hours of intensity and then you’re done.”
Willson recounts his time with Baseball Canada so fondly that he even made his first donation to the organization’s annual banquet and fundraiser in January. The package he offered up for auction included tickets to a playoff game, time on the field, a signed jersey and other memorabilia. Not bad for a young man in his first pro year.
“It was cool just to be able to give back to Baseball Canada,” he said. “Again, that whole summer was something that was a lot of fun for me and something I really cherish.”
Top packages at the banquet tend to be donated by major league veterans with several years of service time under their belts, not 24-year-olds still in the midst of their rookie years, but Willson didn’t seem to think it was a big deal.
“It was one of those things where, especially for my baseball career, Greg did a lot for me,” he said. “Not just calling the Blue Jays, but my whole approach to the game, and my swing. He really helped.
“I remember being in Orlando and we were done our doubleheader and I was in the cage. It was literally just me, him, and a guy throwing batting practice. He was teaching me drills and all sorts of stuff, which allowed me to improve enough to make the team. I have a lot of respect for the way, as a manager and a coach…he was just there really trying to help us…
“When he reached out to me, with all that he helped me out with, I felt like it was the least I could do. To be able to maybe help out in even a small way, from a kid who had the summer I had that year, it was cool for me.”
It was probably pretty cool for the owner of the donated package as well.
“It was a great game,” Willson said. “Holy smokes. That was probably the most electrifying atmosphere I’ve ever been in and probably ever will be in. It was nuts, because San Francisco is our rival. That’s like Boston-New York for people around here.”
After a crazy year, even several months later, Willson isn’t sure that the Super Bowl championship has set in.
“I don’t think it really has,” he said. “Maybe when I got the ring [in June]. When I went home I was like a celebrity, and it was crazy, so that was different. I would be at home and go out to eat with my family and people would tweet, ‘Luke Willson was at such-and-such restaurant,’ or ‘Luke Willson was here.’
“For the most part here [in Seattle], I’ll get some people who ask for my autograph, but I went to the local mall in Windsor and I’m at Devonshire Mall and old ladies are congratulating me. It was fun but it was kind of a lot to handle…It’s a bit surreal for my parents, the whole Super Bowl and going home and being a local celebrity. It’s a little different.”
While he was at home for whatever time he could muster throughout the off-season, Willson took part in several charity events and made appearances for different causes before deciding to put his time and efforts into his own.
He, along with several helping hands, put together a night to honour the late Kevin Siddall, son of Blue Jays broadcaster Joe Siddall, a young athlete who had his life taken by lymphoma a week before he turned 15 years old. Proceeds of the fundraiser went to Lymphoma Canada.
“The Kevin Siddall night was cool,” Willson said. “It was a fun night and we raised a lot of money in a short amount of time. I remember being a kid and kind of looking up to Joe Siddall when he was playing in the major leagues and it was cool to bring a community together and celebrate what kind of impact Kevin had. That was pretty neat for me.”
Looking back on last season, it was also neat for the tight end to spend time with the calibre of talent the Seahawks put out on the field every week.
“One thing that’s cool for me was to have been able to play on a Super Bowl team,” Willson said. “We had guys who were cut last year who started on other teams. I know in baseball maybe it’s different, but playing for us, our backups were better than a lot of other teams’ starters. It was cool in that sense, not only that I’m playing but I’m playing for the eventual world champs.”
Holding that reign is the logical next step for Willson and his teammates.
“It’s the next challenge,” he said. “You hear all these things, like nobody since 2005 has won a playoff game after winning the Super Bowl, let alone won the Super Bowl two years in a row. We’re a pretty self-motivated group, and Coach [Pete] Carroll does a pretty good job of keeping us all fired up. That plays a role in us really competing and trying to do our best, so we’ll have a great year.”
– Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis