In the first college football game Luke Willson played, he caught one pass, a short toss, and took it down the field for a 52-yard touchdown. It was late in the game, and didn't make much difference as Willson's school, Houston's Rice University, lost on the road to University of Alabama-Birmingham.
The display of size and speed, however, did not mark the beginning of a spectacular collegiate career for Willson, who grew up near Windsor, Ont. By the end, his senior year was jarred by injury, when he caught only nine passes and instead made his mark as a tight end blocking.
Two years ago, Willson was taken in the fifth round by the Seattle Seahawks – the eighth tight end chosen in 2013 draft – and today in his second NFL season has become a central part of the offence on the team that aims to become the first to repeat as Super Bowl champions in a decade.
"Some of the glimpses we saw at Rice is something we're seeing every time he touches the ball," said David Sloan, tight ends coach at Rice and a former Pro Bowl tight end for the Detroit Lions, who Willson watched growing up across the river in Canada.
"If he stays healthy," Sloan said, "he'll be one of the elite tight ends in the NFL. Everyone will know his name, not just in Seattle."
Willson, who turned 25 on Thursday, fits the mould of many of his teammates: upbeat, and fiercely competitive, seeking to prove to others their potential had been not properly tapped or recognized. Quarterback Russell Wilson was a third-round pick. Cornerback Richard Sherman was picked in the fifth round. Defensive end Michael Bennett went undrafted.
"Oh, definitely. Definitely," said Willson on Wednesday before practice of his drive to prove himself. "I don't even know how to elaborate."
On the Seahawks, Willson played behind starting tight end Zach Miller last year and earlier last fall before Miller went out for the season because of ankle surgeries. Willson stepped into the role, ready. In practices, the Seahawks line up their main offence against their starting defence, the best in the league, an elite tutoring service. "They dissect what I'm doing," said Willson of Seattle's defence. "If I make mistakes, they make me pay.
Willson in December notched a career-best, pro or college, score, an 80-yard touchdown, and last Saturday, was essential in the Seahawks win against the Carolina Panthers. In the fourth quarter, Seattle ahead by only seven, Willson caught short passes twice on third downs and took them up field for big yardage. The second time, he went 25 yards for a touchdown, four Carolina defenders lurching to tackle him but barely getting a hand on the 6-foot-5, 252-pound tight end.
"A big, fast kid," is how Seattle coach Pete Carroll described Willson on Wednesday. Carroll sees a strong chemistry between Willson and the team's quarterback, Wilson. "Russell has a great sense for him," Carroll said. Russell Wilson joked, "It's always good throwing to another Willson."
Wilson and Willson also share a multisport history. Both were excellent baseball players, and grew up playing everything. Willson, outside Windsor, excelled in hockey, and played with Vancouver Canuck Zack Kassian as a teen. In football, Willson started at running back before he became a slotback and also played defensive end in high school. In Grade 12, he begged his high school coach to let him return kickoffs. The coach kept saying no, but eventually relented. Willson went a hundred yards for a touchdown on his first return.
"You don't get built into a robotic player," Willson said. "You're more fluid in what you're doing. No matter what sport, you can't get too technical."
There was, also, the crucible of family, twin brothers two years older who went on to play university football in Canada, and father Mike Willson, a lineman in university and a talented baseball player.
"Having older brothers, and myself, you're trying to keep up," said Mike Willson from the family home in LaSalle, Ont. "You're want to keep up." Mike didn't push his boys to football. For Luke, the gridiron was always central. "His competitive nature comes naturally," Mike said.
Few Canadians have made a mark in the NFL, and Willson has a shot to put his name on what's currently a short list, which features the likes of running back Rueben Mayes and safety O.J. Atogwe.
In Seattle, Willson has found an ideal home for his personality and game. Carroll has infused the team with a positive spirit. Willson was captain on teams through his youth and has a charm that endears him to teammates. "It doesn't take much to realize you like this guy," said Sloan at Rice.
"I thrive in this type of atmosphere," said Willson, whose long brown hair falls to his shoulders. It was early Wednesday afternoon, and the expansive locker room at the Seahawks practice facility was full of laughs and some music. A good feeling, relaxed, four days before the team hosts its second consecutive NFC championship game.
"I'm really enjoying – I don't know if you want it to call the vibe or attitude – but it's pretty neat," Willson said. "It's cool to be around."