Luke Willson dressed up as Lions Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders for Halloween not once, but twice.
So when the Ontario native and free agent tight end learned he had an opportunity to sign with the Detroit Lions, he jumped at the chance to join the team he grew up watching just a half hour south of Detroit in LaSalle, Ontario.
“I remember being a kid on Sundays in LaSalle watching Barry, Herman Moore, I think Scott Mitchell was the quarterback back in the day, Johnnie Morton.” Willson said via conference call Wednesday. “David Sloan ended up being my college tight ends coach (at Rice).
View photos of TE Luke Willson. Photos: Associated Press.
“As far as what this means to me, honestly, it’s a dream come true. I’m really excited to wear the Honolulu blue.”
Willson’s signing, while certainly nostalgic for him, also fills a significant need for the team after the release of Eric Ebron last week. Willson brings a veteran presence to a tight end room that also includes Michael Roberts, Hakeem Valles and Brandon Barnes.
Playing behind Jimmy Graham in 2017, Willson caught 15 passes for 153 yards and four touchdowns.
He graded out 36th overall among tight ends, according to Pro Football Focus, while his run blocking earned a positive grade from the website. He was the 24th best at the position last year.
Willson’s best season with the Seahawks came when he caught 22 passes for 362 yards in 2014 – both career highs – and had three touchdowns, including an 80-yarder against Arizona. That was the year prior to the Seahawks signing Graham in free agency.
Willson, 28, is athletically gifted, and measures in at 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds. He was clocked in the 40-yard dash at his pro day back in 2013 in the low 4.5’s and high 4.4’s.
“I think there’s a great opportunity for me here to compete and really help this team out,” Willson said. “With this coaching staff and the situation here on both sides of the ball, I think this team is ready to win and win now.”
Willson and Graham developed a close relationship both on and off the field the last three seasons, and Willson said he learned a lot from Graham in terms of how to prepare his body and his preparation off the field.
“I thought I was dedicated but a few years ago I met Jimmy and I realized there’s a whole new level I needed to take myself to and I think I’ve done that,” he said.
Willson should get a chance to compete for a much bigger role here in Detroit than he had in Seattle the last few years.
Signing with the Lions fulfills a lifelong dream for Willson, and Detroit is getting a veteran pass catcher in the deal. But there's another perk: Two lifelong Packers fans are being converted.
Willson’s brothers, Eric and Greg, actually grew up Packers fans.
“One of them shot me a text and said, ‘To be honest with you, I never thought I’d be rooting for the Lions, but here we go,’” Willson said.
“They are fraternal twins that are two years older than me. When you’re a youngster growing up and you have two older brothers that are Packers fans picking on me a little bit. Now the tables are turned and they’re going to be sporting the Honolulu blue and silver, so I’m fired up about that.”
Willson also has a younger sister Rachel, who grew up a Lions fan.
“She’s smarter than Eric and Greg,” Willson said.