ALLEN PARK, Mich. – They will all look familiar. Some of the players will be different but the coaching staff, training staff, strength staff, they are largely the same. If Sunday – and this whole weekend, really – ends up a little bit weird for Luke Willson, it’s for good reason.
Prior to this season, those guys on the other sideline were all he knew in the NFL. The Detroit Lions tight end spent his first five years in Seattle, part of a team that had been in the midst of a run through the NFC West where every year was essentially the same.
In five years, he won three division titles. Made the playoffs four times. Reached the Super Bowl twice. Won it once, as a rookie. So yeah, looking over at the other sideline will be a tad strange.
“When anyone is there for five years, it’s tough,” Willson said. “It’s not like I left ... I didn’t leave on bad terms. You sit there and if you’re in any locker room for five years, it’s not just players. It’s equipment guys. It’s the training staff, the strength coaches, you have a relationship with all those guys so it was tough to leave in that sense.
“But, you know, it’ll be cool to see everybody. Maybe after the game we’ll be able to catch up a little bit.”
Willson said he hadn’t reached out to any Seattle people just yet – he figures there’s a chance he might see some of his closer friends still with the Seahawks when they arrive in Michigan – but that for the most part, it will be all business.
That, after all, is how he handled things so often in Seattle.
He realized it early on as a rookie drafted in the fifth round out of Rice in 2013. He showed up for OTAs and entered an intense experience. The veterans then – stars Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Marshawn Lynch, Michael Bennett and others – believed they had the core to be one of the better teams in the NFL.
And they acted like it.
“I kind of realized that I didn’t know anything about the NFL, like what it was about, but that they had won a playoff game the year before on the road, had a heartbreaker against Atlanta the year before and it was like, ‘Hey, man,’" Willson said. “The culture, the vibe, the energy of those OTAs were very intense. Very intense. Very competitive but very intense.
“I was like, these guys, they mean business, man.”
It left Willson, who usually has no problem talking about anything, pretty silent then. He realized he had to shut up and just make sure he didn’t screw up. The atmosphere then was more intense than anything he’d seen – not uncommon for a rookie. He saw the nucleus of the Seahawks, beyond the stars everyone flocked to, were the “heartbeat” of what was going on in Seattle – players such as Michael Robinson, Max Unger and Breno Giacomini.
Willson didn’t do much that year, catching 20 passes for 272 yards, but he recognized he was part of something different. They made back-to-back Super Bowls in his first two years in the league made his years in Seattle something he’ll never forget.
“They were special,” Willson said. “Any time, even anybody in this program that came from New England, knows. You’re on a Super Bowl team. That was kind of a bond that will last forever. Those teams, not that these guys this week aren’t great, they are a great team and really playing well, but some of those seasons that we had were pretty special.
“Even my second year, obviously didn’t end the way we wanted it to in the Super Bowl there, but the NFC Championship game against Green Bay, it was pretty magical. You play games like that, big moments. Have success. It creates a bond with guys so there’s a little nostalgia there.”
Willson acknowledges that he probably won’t be able to fully appreciate it until the end of his career. He knows he experienced something his first two years of his career that some players never reach.
Not, though, that he needs to see daily reminders of it. Those items -- specifically the Super Bowl and NFC Championship rings – sit not in his rented home or his parents’ home, but in a safe deposit box in a bank in his hometown of La Salle, Ontario, Canada. They are there, in part, because he doesn’t know where he would put them. He doesn’t have a permanent home and if he traveled around with them, he’d probably lose them.
He knows what they mean, though. How fortunate he is he has them as he reflects on being part of one of the best teams in football for a half-decade – the fondest of which was the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay his second season when the Seahawks rallied from a 16-0 deficit to win in overtime, 28-22, to reach a second straight Super Bowl.
The Seahawks he’ll see Sunday are a long way away from that. Most of the key players are gone. A couple – Golden Tate and Willson – are in Detroit. But they know, they’ll always have what they accomplished in Seattle.
“It’s a very different look from five years ago,” Willson said. “But I think that one day we’ll all kind of get together and look back and be pretty fond of what happened.”