Luke Willson, whose NFL career was cut short, is returning to the Super Bowl as a TSN analyst
An unfamiliar shiver came over Luke Willson when he woke up this morning. It was July in Seattle, but the feeling quickly transcended the cold — he was actually freezing — and became more urgent when the 31-year-old pro footballer realized he was also struggling to breathe.
He was eight years into his career as an NFL tight end and preparing for another training camp. Seven years earlier, in 2014, he won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks, but soon he was on his way to the local emergency room while his family was back in Canada on the other side of the continent.
Willson was told he was suffering from severe pericardial effusion, a buildup of excess fluid around the heart. As he lay on the stretcher, unrolling the mental highlight roll of his lifetime achievements, he made a promise to himself: “If I survive this whole ordeal, I will accelerate.”
He made it back to the Super Bowl this week, but as a broadcaster, not a player. Willson has worked as an analyst at TSN, the Canadian all-sports cable channel, and his work has been featured on so many shows over the course of the season that viewers could reasonably expect him to randomly appear in their wedding videos, too.
Appearances on “SportsCentre” and “SC with Jay Onrait” were sprinkled liberally around cameos with “OverDrive,” the Toronto afternoon radio drive show. Also on February 16, Willson will appear on CBC as a celebrity coach on the athletic adventure series Canada’s Ultimate Challenge.
Over and beyond? Williams wants to be an Olympian.
Now 33, he’s training to form Canada’s track cycling team for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. He’s described it as “a bit of a pipe dream,” but it delivers on the promise he made to himself in a Seattle hospital room two years ago.
He goes fast.
“This is going to be interesting,” Willson said with a smile during a video call the athlete this week. “I have some decisions to make here. I would like to tell you that I am fast enough or that I am close to forming an Olympic team. But I’m not.”
The efforts have made him a self-proclaimed nomad. Willson performed in the studio with TSN for the first part of the NFL season, but mainly because it was convenient for his Olympic training. He said he pedaled at the Mattamy National Cycling Center in suburban Milton, Ontario with a mix of outdoor riding during the warmer months.
When the weather got colder, he said he moved to Los Angeles where he could train at another velodrome for the winter. He also towed his bike across Canada while filming “Canada’s Ultimate Challenge” and said the CBC was generous to his training needs.
The show was filmed over a short but intense period of weeks over the summer. After a particularly long day at work, during a layover in the Yukon, Willson said it was still light when he got on his bike around 10 p.m. and he stayed out for hours. (According to the Canadian Olympic Committee, each country is allowed a maximum of 16 track cycling riders to the Games.)
“I had a great time,” he said. “It was really picturesque. It was just fun. I thought, ‘Holy smokes: it’s 11:30 p.m. and it feels like 3 p.m.’
Willson said he has no family connection to cycling. It didn’t matter much during his formative years in LaSalle, Ontario, outside of Windsor. He grew up in other sports and developed particular expertise in baseball and football. (Willson once played on a small football team with quarterback Kyle Quinlan, future winner of the Hec Crighton Trophy as Canada’s top varsity player, and they beat a team from Sault Ste. Marie, 60-0.)
In 2011, Willson was also a 6-foot-5, 240-pound first baseman who had played on the Canada junior team alongside future major league player Brett Lawrie. The Blue Jays signed Willson to an extended spring training contract, but he ultimately stuck with football.
Willson smiled and said even if his Paris 2024 dreams don’t come true, he wouldn’t try baseball again: “Me throwing a baseball now might be the most disgusting thing you’ve ever seen.”
His father, Mike, was a scavenger who ran a small business in southwestern Ontario. His older brothers, fraternal twins Greg and Eric, both played football and have both settled into traditional careers. (Greg is a lawyer and Eric is a police officer.)
“I’ve always been a bit of a wild child,” Williamson said. “Even when we were younger I was a bit like, set my hair on fire and run around. That was nice of me.”
As an example, he pointed to a moment early in his career with the Seahawks. Table tennis developed into a competitive activity among players, and Willson realized he was overwhelmed. Not content with being a follower, he found a table tennis teacher in Seattle to practice in his free time.
At the end of a work day, he would leave the NFL team’s training facility and then practice table tennis.
In retirement, Willson adapted this approach to his work in the media.
“This year has been kind of like a year for me where I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m going to try to get into this and really make a decision after that,'” he said. “I really enjoyed it. I loved going into the studio.”
Williamson started one too podcast. He said he’d be interested in returning for a second season of Canada’s Ultimate Challenge if the CBC moves in that direction. He would also like to return to TSN for another NFL season next year.
He just has no idea how next year is going to play out. Life moved pretty fast.
“The next four to six months are going to be quite a whirlwind for me,” he said. “I will have to answer many questions.”
(Photo of Willson with the Seahawks in 2019: Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)