There was a moment when Luke Willson was forced to gaze into his sporting future and face the existential dilemma that only the rarest of athletes is asked to confront: Baseball or football?
Today, one win away from playing in the Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks rookie tight end from LaSalle, Ont., can confidently say he made the right decision.
“It has certainly worked out okay,” Willson said with a smile during a recent interview in the Seattle locker room. “But you know, as a rookie you’re so busy learning new stuff you often don’t take a step back to really consider everything you’ve accomplished – you know, just making it to this league.”
Other than offensive tackle Michael Bowie, no other Seattle rookie received the kind of playing time this season Willson did. He often lines up beside the team’s No. 1 tight end, Zach Miller, or subs in for him in other packages.
In 16 regular-season NFL games, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Willson had 20 receptions for 272 yards, including one touchdown against the 49ers at San Francisco last December.
After coming off a high ankle sprain suffered in the last game of the regular season against St. Louis, Willson saw limited action in the divisional playoff win over the New Orleans Saints. He could well see more of the battle in the conference final Sunday, against a stout 49ers defence that will give Seattle’s offensive line everything it can handle.
Like many of the players performing key roles for the Seahawks, Willson was something of a long shot – a fifth-rounder taken in last year’s draft out of Rice University. But unlike teammates such as cornerback Richard Sherman or strong safety Kam Chancellor, he has not viewed the late-round selection as a slight to use as motivation.
“I did not have great numbers in my last year at Rice because I was injured,” Willson explained. “So I think that had a lot to do with [where he was picked].”
“We also went through four offensive co-ordinators during my five years there,” Willson said. “It’s hard to put together a couple of real solid years when you’re constantly changing up schemes and stuff.”
Willson was a two-sport star at St. Thomas of Villanova high school in LaSalle; a formidable slot receiver on the gridiron who could swing a mean twig on the baseball diamond. He would bat cleanup for Canada’s national junior baseball team, playing alongside current Toronto Blue Jays infielder Brett Lawrie. Willson signed a free-agent deal with the Jays in 2011, and went to extended spring training with the team a year later.
He showed promise. He then faced a decision.
“I figured I was at least five years away from making the bigs in baseball,” said Willson, who turned 24 last Wednesday. “Meantime, I was going into my fifth year of college football after red-shirting my freshman year, and the NFL draft was about six months away. I just thought I’d really put in too much hard work not to see where football led me.”
An ankle sprain limited Willson’s production in his senior year to just nine catches. He was overshadowed by a more highly touted teammate at the tight end position, Vance McDonald, who was selected in the second round by the 49ers. McDonald played a limited role in the San Francisco offence this season.
Because of his sub-par senior year not everyone knew about Willson. But the Seahawks, always on the lookout for that hidden gem, which the team has mined so well in recent years, saw the raw talent when he worked out for the team in advance of the draft. Besides his gift for catching a football, Willson had eye-popping speed for a big man: a 4.5-second, 40-yard dash. His 38-inch vertical leap also came in handy at his position.
Now, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll can’t stop raving about Willson’s ability and potential.
“Luke has tremendous talent,” Carroll said. “He has speed and strength and catching ability and range and all of that. At that spot [fifth round], that’s as good a pick as you could make. … When we had that pick at that time, it turned out to be a great opportunity and Luke has made that come to life.”
Willson has benefited from the mentoring of Miller, a seven-year veteran known for his work ethic, toughness, attention to detail and versatility. He couldn’t ask for a better role model. But if he’s looking for someone in the same mould, the Seahawks quarterback with the same last name – minus an ‘l’ – isn’t a bad person to emulate either.
“Russell is just a tremendous leader who sets an example every day he comes to work,” Willson said of second-year quarterback Russell Wilson – someone who also excelled at baseball before settling on football. “He’s always the first one here and the last one to leave. Every day, never fails.”
A win against the 49ers on Sunday will put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history. (The last appearance was in 2006, in a losing effort against the Pittsburgh Steelers.)
Willson has his Seahawks-speak down pat: “That’s been our ultimate goal all season, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves ever. We need to take care of the business in front of us first. Every game is a championship opportunity.”
As competitive a person as he is on the field, Willson appears a blithely contented soul off of it. He didn’t get to the NFL by accident; talent plus hours and hours of hard work had something to do with it. Yet, he seems genuinely humble about the opportunity he’s been given to play on the biggest stage in North American sports.
“I was never presumptuous about what role I would play here, if any,” Willson said. “I don’t really set goals, because so many things can happen in sports you don’t really know. My attitude has always been: go there, work hard, and make the most of your opportunity.”
And he appears to have done just that.
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