Many people think of football as a purely physical endeavor. Seattle Seahawks’ rookie tight end Luke Willson sees it differently. Even before majoring in philosophy at Rice University, Willson had been accustomed to methodically thinking his way through sports and life in general.
This practice is now more important than ever, with all of the distractions leading up to the Super Bowl on Feb. 2, in which Willson’s Seahawks will be facing off against the Denver Broncos.
The 24-year-old Windsor, Canada, native continues to rely on a solid philosophical and theological foundation for being the best football player — and man — he can be.
Luke Willson spoke of his Catholic upbringing with Register correspondent Trent Beattie in the days leading up to the Super Bowl.
Everyone I’ve spoken to who has been in the Super Bowl has said the actual game is just like any other, but the increased media hype can be a problem. How have you dealt with all the hype?
There’s definitely a lot of media attention, and people like to make it seem as if this is the most important thing ever. I don’t put a lot of weight into all the attention, though. All the buildup doesn’t really serve to make the quality of the game better. It’s more productive to be on an even keel and just take things as they come.
My whole thing is not to over-try. That’s a huge temptation for all athletes: to get so psyched up that you actually hurt your chances of doing well. You become tense, and you’re not really yourself. That’s why you just need to relax, play your game and not try to press things.
We came here to play football, and that’s what we’ll do. It’s not about all the extraneous stuff; it’s about playing as a team. That’s what we’ve done all season, and it’s great to be a part of such an outstanding team that has gotten this far.
Your family is from eastern Canada, relatively close to this year’s Super Bowl site in New Jersey. Will they be at the game?
Yes, my whole immediate family will be there. My mother, father, younger sister and older brothers are all going to be watching the game in person. Football isn’t quite as popular in Canada as it is here, but my father played at the University of Windsor, and my older brothers, who are twins, played at the University of Western Ontario, so they’ll surely know what’s going on. In fact, I learned from them how to play football to begin with.
If you weren’t playing football, what would you be doing?
I would probably be playing baseball. I actually got to do just that for a little while last year. After completing my degree at Rice University, I played an extended minor-league spring season for the Toronto Blue Jays. That was my first experience as a professional athlete, and I found it be very helpful for learning how to conduct myself on and off the field.
Outside of sports, though, I might be writing something philosophical. I majored in philosophy, so I’m into thinking things through, with the aim of being a better, more complete person. It’s kind of a mind-body wellness that takes into account the whole person. That fits in well with Catholicism, which is a sacramental religion. It’s a mix of spirit and matter. The Church sees the human person not just as a soul alone, but a body-and-soul combination.
Have you always been able to connect your Catholic faith with sports?
My faith is a huge part of who I am today, and it always has been huge, ever since I was a child. My siblings and I were raised to believe what the Church teaches and to act in certain ways. Clear demarcation of right and wrong made decision-making pretty easy. That’s incredibly helpful for pursuing excellence in life, because you see what’s truly valuable and worth sacrificing for and also what you shouldn’t even bother to give attention to.
It’s an irreplaceable thing to be raised in the Catholic Church, where you have the teachings of Jesus passed down through the centuries. His goal is our eternal salvation, but even if you look only at the earthly benefits you get from being Catholic, they’re amazing. The peace of mind that comes from being in God’s will is awesome. I’m very grateful for the Catholic upbringing I had. Without it, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today. Not even close.
Do you have a favorite Catholic book?
Outside of the Bible and Catechism of the Catholic Church, there are many others. One that I have with me now is called Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefs Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church by Peter Kreeft, a professor from Boston College. The book is not meant to be a replacement of the Catechism, but a summary of sorts.
Dr. Kreeft has a way of organizing and explaining things that makes them very accessible to laymen. He’s very precise and insightful, which helps clarify misconceptions you might have. I’ve read some of his other books, which in turn have led me into reading works of C.S. Lewis, such as Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.
Do you have a patron saint?
I’m named Luke, so St. Luke the Evangelist is someone who’s been a patron from way back. So has St. Paul. Later on, when I was confirmed, I chose St. Sebastian, a patron of athletes, as another heavenly helper. I have a medal with his image on it and also one of St. Michael the Archangel.
As any Catholic should, I also have a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the Queen of Angels and Saints. I pray the Rosary, which is a powerful way to remain in the heart of the Church. Mary’s entire existence is centered on Jesus, so when we ask for her intercession, we’re allowing ourselves to be sanctified in Christ.
All the sacramentals of the Church have that same goal: greater union with Christ. In addition to the Rosary, other things that are great to use include prayer cards, scapulars and holy water. They’re not only expressions of our faith, but means for increasing our faith.
You attend Mass with other members of the Seahawks, such as Dan Quinn. Why is the Mass important to you?
Wherever you go in the world, the Catholic Church is the same. Whether I’m at Mass in Ontario, Houston, Seattle or anywhere else, it’s the same Mass. Some of the externals will be a little different, but even if it’s in a language you don’t know, the core of the Mass — the very heart of what it is — is the same. That’s because the Mass is essentially a re-presentation of the life of Jesus, and Jesus is unchangeable.
From the readings of the Old Testament, where Jesus is prefigured, to the readings of the New Testament, where he walks the earth, to the actual sacrifice that happens on the altar, it’s all about Jesus. He’s the one who sanctifies and unifies us, no matter what differences we might have. This guidance received in Mass is incredibly important, and it’s awesome to have it all capped off by receiving the body of Christ.
The whole team doesn’t attend Mass, but we do all pray in the locker room before games. That connection is important for playing as well as we can. Camaraderie is all the better when it not only has a social component, but a spiritual one.
After we’ve prayed in the locker room, I pray alone in the end zone before the game. I thank God for getting me that far and ask for his guidance and protection on that day. I’m incredibly blessed to be where I am, so I can’t help but acknowledge that and ask for God’s continued assistance to do what I’m supposed to do.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.