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Canadian ex-NFLer says playing for the Detroit Lions wasn’t for him, but the wins are exciting for Windsor | CBC News

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Luke Willson grew up in LaSalle, Ont., on the outskirts of Windsor — across the river from Detroit — cheering for the Lions.

The Super Bowl champion and retired tight end played parts of eight seasons in the NFL, primarily with Seattle and one season for his “hometown” Lions in 2018 when they finished with a 6-10 record.

Willson holds up a Canadian flag after the NFL Super Bowl XLVIII football game against the Denver Broncos on Feb. 2, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J. The Seahawks won 43-8. (Kathy Willens/The Associated Press)

Willson says that while his time with the Lions was brief, and with some not-so-great memories, the team’s recent successes are exciting for his hometown, which he recently called “the football capital of Canada.”

“I’m excited for the city itself,” he said.

“A lot of my buddies are big Lions fans. I think it’s great for the football scene. I’m really excited for that.”

He said he’s also excited for a lot of longtime suffering Lions fans.

Fans hold signs
Jan 14, 2024 in Detroit, where fans of the Lions are seen before the NFC wild-card game against the Los Angeles Rams at Ford Field. (David Reginek/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters Connect)

A lot has changed about the team since Willson’s time there, including the hiring of a new head coach and general manager three years ago. Willson says when he was there, there were some issues. 

“With the whole coaching staff, especially compared to where I had been in Seattle — where we’ve been to two Super Bowls — it was very disappointing,” he said.

Detroit Lions tight end Luke Willson catches a pass during practice at the NFL football team's training camp in Allen Park, Mich., Wednesday, June 6, 2018.
Detroit tight end Willson catches a pass during practice at the team’s training camp in Allen Park, Mich., on June 6, 2018. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

“Very unprofessional at times … for that league. I thought it was a very peewee style operation, and we stunk that year.

“To be honest with you,” added Willson, “I got to the point where I thought we were purposely trying to lose. But that was my own conspiracy … all those things kind of added up … that’ll burn you a little bit.”

Willson, who splits his time between the Toronto and Seattle areas, does NFL analysis for TSN — meaning he’s able to come back to see family near Windsor.

After an exciting 31-23 win over the Tampa Bay Buchaneers last weekend, the Lions are set to play in their second-ever NFC Championship game, this Sunday in California against the San Francisco 49ers.

WATCH | Michiganders celebrate the Detroit Lions’ latest playoff win in Windsor: 

Michiganders celebrate the Detroit Lions’ latest playoff win in Windsor

Jason Racette, a Michigander who lives in Windsor and Michigan residents Sarah Beaver, Nicole Holton and Stacie Stonebrook took in the Detroit Lions’ playoff game against the Tampa Bay Bucaneers in a Windsor pub. The CBC’s TJ Dhir spoke with them about their experiences following the Lions and seeing Windsor embrace the team as they embark on a deep playoff run.

According to Willson, he’s also glad they’re winning for the players.

“I think the whole Jared Goff story is really cool. And there’s a few guys on the team that I really like playing with through the year, like Taylor Decker … pretty cool moment for those guys. Even the fullback, Jason Cabinda, was kind of a linebacker special-teams guy.” 

Willson said he’s most excited for the buzz about football the Lions’ success will create among youth. 

Detroit Lions tight end Luke Willson is tackled by Chicago Bears inside linebacker Roquan Smith and free safety Eddie Jackson (39) during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018, in Detroit.
Willson is tackled by Chicago Bears inside linebacker Roquan Smith and free safety Eddie Jackson (39) during the first half of a game on Nov. 22, 2018, in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/The Associated Press)
The University of Windsor is offering $20 raffle tickets, with proceeds benefiting the Shawn Yates Memorial Scholarship. The winner will receive this autographed jersey of Luke Willson, the native of LaSalle, Ont. who signed with the Detroit Lions back in March.
An autographed jersey of Willson, the native of LaSalle, Ont., is shown after he signed with the Lions. (Submitted by Charlene Yates)

“I remember being a kid. I’ve always been a fan, but I remember that when the [NHL’s] Red Wings were winning, it was tough at school if you’re a Leafs guy and the Wings are in the [Stanley] Cup every year,” Willson said. “You know, kind of made hockey really relevant.” 

He’s expecting to see a beefed-up minor football registration in the region because of the Lions’ playoff push.

What if the Lions do make it to the Super Bowl and happen to win it all? Will the 2014 Seahawks Super Bowl champ come home to celebrate with the team?

“No. I don’t have anything to do with the team. I’d be excited for the city, but I am a very small speck of people who played for the Lions, and there’s a lot of other athletes that have given a lot more to the Lions organization than I have now.”

As for the fans, they’re likely going through an emotional roller-coaster. But University of Windsor sport management Prof. Terry Eddy previously told CBC News there isn’t much research on the long-term health effects of fandom.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know about that,” said Eddy, who is also an expert on fandom.

“I would say the overall benefits of feeling that level of investment and being able to ride the roller coaster generally does offset the negatives that come when we’re on the downside of the track so to speak.”

WATCH | This Detroit Lions fan has spent the season preparing for their Super Bowl parade:

This Detroit Lions fan has spent the season preparing for their Super Bowl parade

Plenty of devoted fans are cheering for the Detroit Lions this season. Essex resident Craig Meloche is one of them — and he says he knew this season was different from the beginning. Meloche has been snapping pictures in preparation for what he’s hopeful will be a Detroit Lions Super Bowl parade and spoke with CBC’s Meg Roberts about his passion for the team.

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