It started with a prank call. Or at least that’s what Luke Willson thought when Blue Jays scout Jamie Lehman first contacted him.
Today, Willson is a tight end for the Seattle Seahawks. But an unexpected call one spring morning in 2011 nearly sent him straight from the gridiron to professional baseball.
He was sitting in a cafeteria at Rice University with his teammates, wearing a cast halfway up his leg, when his phone rang. He recognized the area code, but not the number. He hadn’t been on a baseball diamond in nearly two years, so the fact that it was a call from a baseball scout made little sense.
“I haven’t been an actual adequate baseball player since 12th grade,” Willson thought. “That was the peak of my career.”
It wasn’t until Lehman invited Willson for a workout at Rogers Centre that Willson realized he was serious. With a break between exams and summer workouts approaching, the tight end, still recovering from a broken sesamoid bone, committed to making the four-hour drive from his hometown of LaSalle, Ontario, to Toronto.
When he returned home from Rice, Willson and his dad, a former collegiate football player and member of eight Canadian senior men’s baseball championship-winning teams, immediately went to the batting cage. At first, the ball seemed to be jumping off his bat. But when he progressed to an actual field with deep and defined dimensions, it was a different story.
“I’m out there hitting ... and not even coming close to getting anything out,” Willson said. “I’m like, ‘Damn dude, this isn’t good. Balls that I’m crushing are falling in the middle of the outfield. ... I’m about to go to Toronto and embarrass myself.’”
Willson considered calling off the audition until his dad stepped in.
“At the end of the day, you get to take batting practice at the SkyDome in an empty stadium,” Mike Willson told his son. “That will be pretty amazing.”
Willson had actually played in Rogers Centre before.
With no hockey or football on his schedule the summer after his senior year of high school, the first baseman joined a new baseball team. Rogers Centre was the backdrop for his first game, and his squad was facing future second-round pick Jake Eliopoulos. Willson came out of it with a strikeout, a popup ... and an invitation to join the Canadian Junior National Team.
“He has a personality and a character that people warmed up to,” said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams. “He was just a big, competitive, gentle giant, and he had a really competitive streak to him when he got on a field in a positive way.”
Team Canada finished in sixth place at the world championships that summer, one that Willson still refers to as “the most enjoyable sporting experience that I had.”
“He made our team better and he was an absolute pleasure to coach,” added Hamilton. “He was one of those guys that competitively went all in and really got it and really understood what it meant to have Canada across his jersey.”
It was Hamilton who recommended Willson to Lehman three years later, leading to the invite to a private batting-practice session for the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Willson.
“He gets to Rogers Centre, Gate 9,” Lehman recalls. “I walk down from the office, and the elevator opens and it’s like this Greek god. He’s massive. And super polite and soft-spoken, but you just think, ‘Man, this guy is huge.’ Already, I’m excited. I’m thinking this is what they look like. This kid looks like Adam Dunn.”
Lehman had invited local amateur coach Greg Byron to throw to Willson. Then-scouting director Andrew Tinnish, who now serves as Toronto’s VP of international scouting, was also on hand.
“Tinnish told me to bunt a few, get the rhythm down before swinging away,” Willson said. “So the first pitch comes, bam, I square up and miss this bunt by 3 feet and I’m thinking, ‘Oh god.’ So Tinnish looks at me and he says, ‘Yeah, why don’t you just swing?’”
Two swings later, Willson hit a blast to dead center.
“It was like the weight of the world was off my shoulders,” he said. “All the anxiety, everything was absolutely out the window now, and I just started swinging out of my shoes.”
With Byron serving up meatballs, Willson put on a power-packed display.
“He hit the second ball off me into the third deck,” Byron said. “He ended up breaking a lot of chair backs in the stands that day.”
Even when Willson tried to go opposite field -- something that had always vexed him -- he found sudden success.
“I remember acting like it was no big deal and just stepping up to the plate again,” Willson said. “But the fact of the matter was, on the inside, I was spazzing out I was so happy.”
Willson wasn’t the only one trying to contain himself. After almost two decades in professional baseball and 11 years in scouting, Lehman still says Willson’s time in the cage was the coolest thing that he’s ever seen.
“He starts hitting them out to the pull side and he goes second deck in foul territory, then one up off the Level of Excellence, then he hit one off the facing of the upper deck, foul, but he just started launching baseballs,” Lehman said. “Andrew and I looked at each other like, ‘Holy smokes, this is crazy. That is power.’ From that point on, he could have done anything he wanted. It was over. The things he could do were unteachable.”
Lehman and Tinnish never wrote a scouting report on Willson. They didn’t need to.
“You don’t typically put an eight on an amateur but that’s how big it was,” Lehman said of where Willson’s power would have landed on a traditional 2-to-8 scouting scale. “He was hitting balls to the 300 level, 400 level in right field in batting practice, and that’s huge.”
“I certainly would have put that he has some type of skill that could play eventually at the Major League level because of the power and the makeup,” Tinnish added. “It wasn’t going to be easy, but it’s something that he probably would have had a chance to do.”
As Willson picked up the balls that didn’t leave the yard, Lehman asked if he’d ever thought about quitting football.
“I’m like, ‘What?!’” Willson remembers. “’No dude.’ I hadn’t even thought that far. I was more worried about just not embarrassing myself.
“I get in the car and me and my dad look at each other, and we just both start laughing. He still laughs at me about that to this day. He’s like, ‘I cannot get over that; you were hitting opposite-field home runs. Where did that come from?’ I go, ‘I’ve got no idea, man, you tell me. Your guess is as good as mine.’”
Despite giving the offer some serious thought, Willson wasn’t ready to abandon his football dreams. Hoping for a strong redshirt junior season on the gridiron, Willson intended to get his degree and declare for the NFL Draft early. But a sprained ankle seven weeks into the season foiled those plans.
Willson touched base with Lehman, who, in turn, offered an invitation to come to Dunedin, Fla., where Willson could join the Blue Jays in extended spring camp.
Willson, who hadn’t played baseball in a year, said yes.
“I showed up Day 1, had a really great batting-practice session, and was absolutely brutal at baseball,” he said. “I mean, I was just not good. I was not in very good baseball shape. So I thought if I stopped working out, started doing more stretching and mobility and that sort of thing, stopped worrying about football, maybe I could do it.”
But Willson couldn't sever those ties. Even after eight-hour days in Dunedin, he would frequently drive to Bradenton to work with a combine training specialist.
It didn’t take long for the incredibly intense routine to take a toll.
“After like a week I was just a complete puddle of trash,” Willson said. “It got to the point where I was so dead and gassed and tired where two or three weeks later, I was struggling to hit home runs in batting practice. I was just a complete waste."
After a few weeks in Dunedin, Willson had had enough baseball.
Within two years, he was a Super Bowl champion.
He had finished his football career at Rice, then joined the Seattle Seahawks as a fifth-round draft pick in 2013. He played in every game that rookie season, culminating with a Super Bowl appearance in which he caught two passes for 17 yards.
Willson, who re-signed with the Seahawks on Wednesday, is now entering his eighth year in the NFL. He has played in two Super Bowls and been to the playoffs five times. He followed his football dream to the summit of the sport.
And yet, those who remember seeing his majestic swing still can’t help but wonder what might have been had Willson stuck on the diamond a little longer.
“I have so much respect and admiration for the players who are able to compete at the highest level in multiple sports,” Tinnish said. “Obviously you need to have the physical ability to do that and part of that is natural. But you have to work. You have to be really smart. You have to be really athletic. And you have to be really determined and focused to be able to do that. It’s not quite Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, but there are not a lot of people who have done what he’s done.”
Alexis Brudnicki is a Canada-based Baseball Development and Special Projects reporter for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @baseballexis.