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Luke Willson: I just scored an NFL touchdown
For weeks now, Luke Willson has been reading the good natured taunts of his former teammates at Rice, texting him, asking him questions like, “When are you finally going to score a touchdown?”
His response always has been the same, “I hear you. I hear you.”
And on Sunday he gave them what they wanted, with a flourish at the end.
Russell Wilson’s play action fake was so good, the San Francisco defense bit hard on it, confusing, just slightly, Seahawks’ rookie tight end Willson. The safety came flying toward the line of scrimmage, forcing Willson to run his pattern flatter than it was designed.
“Russ adjusted like he always does,” Willson said. “He put the ball right in stride.”
Willson caught the pass at the Niners’ 21, eluded a tackle at the 15 and, with nothing but green grass in front of him, cruised untouched into the end zone, a 39-yard, catch-and-run that gave the Seahawks a 14-9 lead late in the first half.
“That was probably my first time in the NFL when it felt a little surreal during the game,” Willson said this week. “Before the game I get nervous and such, but once the game’s on I don’t think of the crowd or stuff like that. But as I was crossing the goal line, there was a split second when I thought, ‘I just scored an NFL touchdown.’ That’s a pretty cool experience.”
In the week leading up to the game, Willson had a premonition. After one practice, some of the players were challenging each other, trying to hit the goal posts and cross bar with passes from various distances. Assistant equipment manager Drew Bley was watching.
“Hey Drew, I’m going to score this week,” Willson said and then gave him a sneak peak at the celebration he had choreographed for his first touchdown.
“I don’t know, man,” Bley said about the celebration. “It’s not like anybody hasn’t done that before.”
“I’m still doing it,” Wilson told him. And he did.
In those first exhilarating seconds after he scored, Willson spiked the ball before arching his back, tilting his head and throwing his arms out, an homage to another footballer, Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney.
A fan of the other football, Willson was watching a game between rivals Man U. and Manchester City (the English Premiership’s equivalent of the Seahawks and 49ers) when Rooney scored a remarkable, YouTube-able goal on a bicycle kick and celebrated with that same “Master of the Universe” pose.
“I was watching that with my roommates and we were laughing and going nuts and I said, ‘The next time I score, I’m doing that.’” Willson said. “Then we all kind of had a pact, where whenever we scored at Rice we would do something similar to Rooney’s celebration.
“His was really elegant, but mine turned into this kind of aggressive thing that you saw from me on Sunday. I was pretty excited. That’s probably why Rooney’s was much more elegant.”
And in the days since the catch, his buddies have been hitting him up, “Hey, we saw you do, ‘The Rooney!’”
“I really like what I’ve seen from Luke,” said offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. “He’s done a really nice job of picking up the offense, fitting in where he needs to be, doing the right things all the time and then, when he gets opportunities to make plays, he’s made them. That speaks volumes for him.”
A two-time candidate for college football’s John Mackey Award as the game’s best tight end, Willson was victimized in his senior season at Rice by a curious change in the offensive philosophy. But general manager John Schneider is a latter day explorer, the Vasco de Gama of the NFL and Willson, who at 6-foot-5, 252 pounds fits the blueprint for 21st century tight ends, was his finest discovery from the 2013 draft.
Only nine receptions? No problem.
“I’m still kind of at a loss, even today, for some of the reasons why we changed our offense at Rice,” Willson said. “It was extremely frustrating. I didn’t think we were as efficient as we could have been.”
The thought crept into his head -- how could it not -- that he was dropping draft position and maybe even losing money because of his diminished role in the offense.
“I was kind of stuck,” he said. “But I just tried to do everything I could to help us execute. That’s all behind me now.”
Things have worked out quite well.
“He has some of the same qualities (as New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham),” Bevell said. “Obviously he can run. He’s a big body. As we start to fit him in here, we kind of find other things that we might be able to do with him.”
Willson was in the basement of his home in Lasalle, Ontario when the Seahawks called to tell him they had chosen him in the fifth round.
“I was truly blessed to have been picked here,” he said.
You can almost see Willson representing Canada in the 2016 Olympics in Rio as a decathlete. He has the speed, the strength and the footwork to excel at just about any sport he tries. He was a standout youth hockey player, was part of his high school’s track and field team. He played soccer and was on his country’s junior national baseball team. He played a little baseball at Rice before devoting himself full-time to football.
That didn’t, however, stop him from taking a call from a Toronto Blue Jays’ scout three years ago, asking him to come to the Rogers Centre for a private workout. For a Canadian baseball player, a call from the Blue Jays is better than a call from the Prime Minister.
He got two weeks off from Rice, flew home and had his father, a former catcher, throw batting practice. Willson began to lose the rust and rediscover his swing. And for one glorious day, in his country’s only Major League ballpark, Willson swung like Robinson Cano. The ball looked as big as a grapefruit and he launched shots deep into the empty seats. He hit a tape-measure blast. He was a left-handed Jose Bautista. Whoa Canada!
“I remember that day as if it was yesterday,” he said. “I made the four-hour drive with my father to Toronto and we were standing in the dugout and there was a guy ready to throw batting practice. And it was just me. I was the only guy at the workout. I was a little nervous. I’d only taken two weeks of batting practice.”
He was told to try a couple of bunts and missed the first pitch by about two feet. He came there to swing, not bunt and his first cut was a line drive to center and on his second was a home run to dead center. He said he felt, “like the weight of the world was off my shoulders” after that home run.
“And the next thing you know,” he continued, “it’s kind of one of those things where baseball’s kind of like that, where you can just have this great day. I was making really good contact. I’m a big pull guy, but I hit a couple of opposite-field home runs. And I was standing in the box thinking, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m doing this right now.’ It was just a great experience for me.”
Of course, the Blue Jays signed Willson and he played for a month in their extended spring training. But baseball can be a long, uncertain slog. So much can go wrong on the road to the big leagues and he already had invested so much time and emotion and suffered so much pain that he couldn’t quit on football.
“I don’t know if I could have made it in baseball,” he said. “I was in the lowest level, so it would have taken me a while. And I was so close to achieving my goals in football I didn’t want to give it up.”
Luke Willson made the right choice, just as the Seahawks did in the fifth round, when they did what they’ve done so often, finding another perfectly-fitted puzzle piece.
And, more than likely, we haven’t seen the last of “The Rooney.” Read