First, there was soccer. “I started kicking the ball around at a very early age,” he said.
Then came hockey, a rite of passage for any kid who grows up in Canada. “When I was younger, I was pretty good,” said Wilson, who’s from La Salle, Ont.
Willson really hit his stride as a baseball player, and was good enough to bat cleanup for the Canadian National Junior Team and sign a free-agent deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.
This three-sport athlete finally settled on one. But he agreed to revisit his prowess on the ice and the diamond as part of Seahawks.com’s Throwback Thursday series.
So let’s start with hockey, where Willson was not a defenseman but, in his words, “a very tall left-winger” who made it to the Triple-A level.
“Hockey was always kind of my No. 1 growing up,” he said.
In elementary school, his team played in the prestigious Silver Stick tournament. They reached the final, only to face the best team in a province that had “beaten everyone by about 10 goals,” as he put it.
“We ended up taking the game into overtime,” Willson said. “On the first shift in overtime, I scored the cheesiest goal. But we went crazy. We were jumping around. We were doing victory laps. That’s one hockey moment that definitely sticks out.”
Another came when he was in eleventh grade. Willson played in another tournament and was voted MVP in each game he played.
What is it with hockey and Canadians? Is it that everyone plays, or once you start playing you fall in love with the sport?
“I think it’s a combo of the two, probably,” Wilson said. “It helps that in the winter, that’s what everyone does. But it’s also easily accessible outside the rink. In the summer, you’re playing road hockey. It’s a fast game and it’s fun. So once you start playing it’s pretty enjoyable.”
When he turned his attention to baseball, the left-handed-swinging, right-handed-throwing Willson also showed he could turn on a fastball. During a workout with the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre while playing football at Rice, and despite not even swinging a bat much for almost two years, Willson put on a show.
“He hit one ball into the third deck, and few home runs to center field after not really picking up a bat much in a few years,” Andrew Tinnish, Blue Jays assistant general manager, told The Globe and Mail last month. “What stood out for us were his power and his athleticism. He’s very raw and hasn’t played a lot of baseball, but when you have someone who has a great makeup like that, works hard and has terrific raw ability, we’ll take risks on those types of players.”
Willson has other recollections from that day.
“I was all by myself and their head scout was there,” Willson said. “The first pitch, he said, ‘Bunt one if you want, to kind of get warmed up.’ I think I missed the bunt by about three feet. He’s like, ‘You don’t have to bunt if you don’t want to.’ I was like, ‘Alright.’
“The next pitch, I hit a line drive up the middle and the second one I hit a homerun dead center. That kind of took all the pressure off. Then I hit a couple of homeruns the other way. Then I hit one into the third deck, but it was foul. But the very next pitch, I hit one that went off one of the names of the retired players (on the 400 level).”
Despite that dream of an afternoon, Willson’s dream remained football. It was in his genes, you might say. His twin brothers, Greg and Eric, are two years older and played in high school and at the University of Western Ontario. His father, Mike, played at the University of Windsor and coached each of his sons in the sport.
So Willson went back to Rice, and back to football. He also was selected in the fifth round of last year’s CFL draft by the Grey Cup-champion Toronto Argonauts; and the fifth round of the NFL Draft this year by the Seahawks.
“I love baseball,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I loved playing baseball. But I always wanted to go the football route. That was always kind of the goal.
“Looking back, I think I made the right decision.”