Faith, family, football

Luke Willson. Photo: Stephen Brashear Luke Willson. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Seahawks player Luke Willson says his Catholic roots ground him

Seattle Seahawks tight end Luke Willson is somewhat of a rarity — a young pro football player who is also a practicing Catholic. Willson, 27, was born and raised in LaSalle, Ontario, Canada, just over the border from Detroit. His family attended church regularly, and Willson went to Catholic schools — which are publicly funded in most Canadian provinces — from kindergarten through high school.

Willson is in his fifth season with the Seahawks and spoke to Northwest Catholic during preseason training about faith, family, football and more.

Did your parents have any particular prayer practices with you at home, or Catholic traditions?

I remember when we were young kids we would always pray at night, and as we got older, we were expected to
pray at night on our own. But when I was a youngster, the Catholic culture was instilled in me, if you will.

You never skipped praying at night?

You know, I’m quite sure there were a few days when I was a kid where unfortunately I skipped it. But for the most part, I would say I definitely did.

The number of young adults who remain practicing Catholics is dropping. What has kept you Catholic all of these years?

To be honest with you, a lot of that would be my upbringing. And that being said, I think because of the part of the world that I’m in, I don’t think it’s as unusual there [in Ontario]. They might not be hardcore Catholics, but a lot of people that I know identify themselves as Catholic.

How about being out here in Seattle?

I really love it out here. But that being said, I know where I’m from and I know how I was raised. It’s kind of unique because [during the football season, the Seahawks] have Mass every Saturday at our hotel even though we are playing on Sundays. Even road games, we have a priest come in, and we have our team priest here as well.

Where do you go in the offseason? Do you parish hop?

Yeah, I definitely parish hop. Like when my mom was in town for Easter, we were at St. Louise in Bellevue.

Do your parents check in on you and say “Are you going to Mass?”

My mom does more so. I think they trust me. But I enjoy religion. Even in high school, I enjoyed the study of world religions and I am kind of into that type of stuff. That’s never really crossed my mind of not identifying myself as a Catholic.

Who are some of the influences on your faith journey besides your parents?

I would say [former Seahawks team priest] Father Tom Belleque was one guy, especially when I came to Seattle here, that I really enjoyed and looked up to and appreciated. You know, just his weekly message. I remember being a Seahawks rookie. I went to a small school, which was Rice [University] in Houston, and all of a sudden to go from playing in that situation to 70,000 screaming fans at the stadium can be a little anxious. It wasn’t necessarily that Father Tom was giving me pep talks. But even if I had a little anxiety that Saturday night [before the game], I’d head into Mass and realize what’s important and settle my mind down. That really helped.

Seahawks tight ends coach Pat McPherson is also a Catholic. Do you talk spirituality with him much?

Yeah. Not a ton, but here and there. It’s kind of funny because we have similar upbringings. He’s got one parent that’s also Italian — my mom is full Italian Catholic. So it’s kind of neat the similarities we have.

Any particular saints you pray to?

Sebastian was my confirmation name after St. Sebastian. So I’ve got the St. Sebastian prayer card, and before every game I ask St. Sebastian to say a little prayer for me. Also, I’ve got the St. Chris[topher] stuff in all the cars. My mom always made sure that I’ve got my St. Christopher medallion in any vehicle we go through. For me being an athlete and just St. Sebastian’s whole story of the arrows and kind of coming back to life and still preaching [he was sentenced to death by archers and survived], it’s something that resonated with me. He’s kind of my guy. In fact, at one point I thought about getting arrows tattooed on my body, but I don’t know, no tattoos for me.

Do you still pray in the end zone before and after a game?

Yeah. I do for every game and also going into the second half of every game. My go-to since I’ve been a little kid is
the Guardian Angel prayer and another prayer. I don’t know the name of the second prayer. I learned it in kindergarten so I have no idea, but I’ve got it memorized pretty well. It goes “All things bright and beautiful. All creatures great
and small. All things wise and wonderful. The Lord God made them all. He gave us eyes to see them. Lips so we may tell. …” Again, I remember learning it in kindergarten, so it’s something that kind of stuck with me.

So I do the Guardian Angel prayer, that prayer, an Our Father, Hail Mary and then kind of a little self-talk with very grateful words and I thank Jesus for the opportunity and the things that I’ve been given in my life.

Do you think God cares who wins a particular game?

That’s a deep question. I don’t know. Never even thought about it. I honestly don’t know. I mean, I think God cares about prayers for sure, but when it comes down to the actual outcome of the game, I don’t ever ask God to help us win. I usually just thank him for the opportunity and pray for everyone’s safety and that we play well.

You signed a new one-year contract with the Seahawks this past spring when it sounded like you could have gone closer to home and gotten a better contract elsewhere. Why did you decide that you were going to stay in Seattle?

It was a tough decision and it was just one of those things where I felt very comfortable here and I love the team here and I’ve got a lot of good friends here and thought it was a great situation. Based on the market with the draft, I kind of rolled the dice for another year and thought I could come back here and hopefully end up here long term.

I don’t know how vocal you are about being Catholic or if it’s not much of a big deal at all among the other players. But do you ever talk about spirituality or faith or passing topics like that with some of the other players?

There is a lot of talk about spirituality and faith throughout the team. Not a ton about which denomination of Christianity people are, though.

I’ve read a little bit about your thoughts on the mind-body connection. As a football player and as a person, do you think that Catholicism plays into that at all, about connecting your mind and your body or your whole self?

I think one of the things for me personally about football and playing in the NFL is that at times I take it so seriously that it tends to take over my life. You kind of need to sit back, and really going to Mass helps me with this, to realize football is a great opportunity. It’s a privilege for me to be playing it. But there are many more important things, especially faith and family, then football. But it’s tough to make sure you keep that balance because, I know we have an offseason, but football really is an all-year-round thing. Even when you leave work you’re always watching what you’re eating, getting extra bodywork done. So it’s important to realize you can’t put your faith or your family aside for that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Luke Willson at his First Communion
Luke Willson at his First Communion. Photo: Courtesy Luke Willson

A little more about Luke

Favorite Catholic school teacher: “My uncle was a religion teacher at my high school, Mr. [Robert] Biasutto. I just called him Zio. He definitely had a big influence, especially when it came to religious studies.”

Favorite pope: Pope John Paul I. “He is from the same area as my Nonno, or Italian grandfather.”

Favorite philosopher: Willson, who was a philosophy major at Rice University, says Plato and his work The Sophist are among his philosophy favorites.

Catholic reading: Willson is working on a book by Peter Kreeft that his uncle recommended. “Usually when I read books, I have a million questions, so he’s probably waiting on me to start asking them.”

Charitable efforts: Among his charity work, Willson has volunteered with Catholic Athletes for Christ. For two years running, he has organized the 12 North Sports Classic in Vancouver, Canada. The event includes a youth football camp and raises money for Canadian charities including grants to Canadian high schools that are struggling to afford sports equipment

Northwest Catholic - September 2017

Anna Weaver

Anna Weaver was the multimedia, online and social media editor, and writer for Northwest Catholic from 2013-2018.