John McGrath

John McGrath: Wilson-to-Willson a connection born on the playgrounds

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson offers an explanation for the surprisingly quick pass-and-catch camaraderie he has achieved with tight end Luke Willson.

“It’s always good,” Wilson said Wednesday, “throwing to another Willson.”

Wilson and Willson share more than similarly spelled last names. Both are versatile athletes who believe their football ability was enhanced by concentrating on sports other than football.

Before transferring to Wisconsin, Wilson was a North Carolina State second baseman who spent two summers with Single-A teams in the Colorado Rockies’ organization, including in Pasco. Willson also played baseball. A left-handed cleanup hitter for Canada’s 2008 national junior team, he turned a one-day tryout for the Toronto Blue Jays into a free-agent contract.

The Blue Jays realized Willson’s ultimate ambition, upon graduating from Rice University, was to compete in the NFL. But scouts were impressed by his speed and size — 6-foot-5 — and when they saw him launch a batting-practice pitch into the third deck of Toronto’s Rogers Centre, they figured baseball could be an option for Willson if football didn’t work out.

A native of LaSalle, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, Willson also excelled in youth leagues as a hockey forward.

“I was a dump-and-chase guy,” said Willson, whose curly, shoulder-length hair and amiably carefree disposition are consistent with the NHL stereotype. “I could score some, make some hits, get a few garbage goals. Hockey made me a little more tough.

“Growing up as a kid, playing all sorts of sports — I was even a goalie one year in soccer — helped in the sense you just become more of a fluid athlete. You don’t become locked into one specific style of playing football. You kind of incorporate stuff from all over the place.”

Wilson’s uncommon poise when a play breaks down appears natural, but the third-year quarterback suspects he has benefited from the success — and, yes, the tribulations — he has experienced away from football.

“One of the great gifts I have was my parents’ pushing me to play multiple sports: football, basketball, baseball,” he said. “For me, it helps my game, first of all, in terms of being able to make different throws and all that. But it’s also helped my mental game.

“I’ve been in so many situations when the game is on the line, when you’re down by a lot, when the season is going well or not going well, whatever the circumstances are, you know how to get through those moments.”

One such moment occurred on Nov. 12, when the Seahawks learned starting tight end Zach Miller would require season-ending ankle surgery. A superior blocker whose absence figured to devastate an already beleaguered offensive line, Miller was seen as irreplaceable.

All the Hawks wanted from Willson was to step in and deliver blocks that merely were adequate. The possibility he would provide more exotic contributions to the offense was unrealistic.

But since Miller was placed on the injured-reserve list, Willson has turned the tight end conundrum into a Seahawks’ strength. The one-time hockey player revels in the smash-mouth aspects of the position, and his soft hands have been a revelation: Through 17 games, he has caught 22 passes for 362 yards and three touchdowns.

“He’s gotten down field and caused some problems for opponents with big plays because he’s a big, fast kid,” said coach Pete Carroll. “He can really get down field and stretch it out. Russell has a great sense for him now. Their chemistry has connected for the last month or six weeks or so. It’s a big deal to have another weapon who can strike like that.”

The quarterback seconds the emotion.

“That guy has played some unbelievable football the past several weeks,” Wilson said of Willson. “He just keeps growing. A lot of people don’t know this, but he didn’t play that much football in college in terms of getting a lot of catches. When he got here, he already had great hands and great speed, so it was just a matter of getting some game reps and practice reps against the best defense in the NFL.

“Luke Willson has been a phenomenal football player for us this season.”

The Wilson-to-Willson connection is fortified by a common denominator: They grew up participating in different sports that liberated them from a myopic focus on a single sport.

As a consequence, the quarterback drafted in the third round and the tight end selected in the fifth round brought clear eyes and hungry appetites to the occupation that is their livelihood.

“This generation, a lot times their parents, or high school coaches, or kids in general, want to play just one sport,” said Wilson. He didn’t finish the thought, but the direction he was taking was implicit.

Let the children play, and let them play on the fields, floors and rinks that bring them joy and heartbreak while reducing the risk of burnout.

When the Seahawks take on the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game Sunday, there’s a chance a former minor-league second baseman will throw a touchdown pass to a former dump-and-chase hockey forward who had light-tower power with a baseball bat.

The sudden chemistry between Wilson and Willson is no surprise. They’ve been gamers all their lives.

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