Rice junior tight end Luke Willson is heading into the 2011 football season as a preseason All C-USA selection, but next May he will turn his thoughts to a possible career in professional baseball after signing a free agent contract on Sunday with the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
Willson, who was a member of the Canadian Junior National Baseball Team where he was a teammate of current Jays rookie Bret Lawrie prior to reporting to Rice in Fall of 2008, will report to Toronto's minor league complex in May after he completes classes. He will be with the Blue Jays minor league system until he returns to Houston later in the summer to begin preparations for his senior season with the Owls.
"I am excited for Luke because I know how much he loves baseball," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "All he has done since he arrived on campus is exceed our expectations, so we're confident he'll come back from his time in baseball ready for his senior year of football. We always tell the parent of every player we recruit that we will make decisions based on what is best for their son. This is a great opportunity for Luke and we want to see him do his best."
Willson was signed by the Jays on the basis of an impressive showing at a batting practice session at Toronto's Rogers Center in May. As a third-year college athlete, Willson was eligible for the June MLB Amateur Draft and the Jays were interested in the hometown product even if he had concentrated on football for the past three years.
"When the Jays first called, I talked to my Dad about and we decided we could not pass up the offer. So when I came home in May after classes were through, we went to my old high school and hit in the cage," Willson said. "At first it was a little ugly, but once we started to hit on the field, it felt better and better. I didn't hit any balls out, and that concerned me. But my Dad told me that was because we were using old beat up baseballs and not to worry about it too much."
Willson's tryout would be on the home field of the Blue Jays, a field that Willson had played on once before during his summer baseball days. On this day, he stepped to the plate in front of a small gathering of Blue Jays personnel and his father.
"I was pretty nervous and the BP pitcher asked me if I wanted to bunt a couple first, I guess to get the nerves out of my system," Willson recalled. "But those had to be the most pathetic attempts at bunting ever seen in a major league park. My Dad was laughing about it and said I looked like I missed them by two feet. I had not bunted at all in my BP work before the tryout. "
Any nerves that might have remained were eased on his second full swing, when he made solid contact and drove a ball over the wall in dead center.
"That got me pretty excited." Willson said. "In the end, I had a real good day. I hit one into the second deck down the right field line. They asked me if I was ready to sign if they drafted me, but I said I wasn't sure about it. Since I didn't get drafted, I was a free agent who was eligible to sign with anyone after the draft and they started talking to me about a two-sport arrangement that would allow me to finish my career at Rice and still have the chance to play baseball. The Jays were very understanding about my wanting to finish things here and Coach Bailiff was great as well."
Willson had worked with the Rice baseball team in the winter of 2009 but the rigors of school and off-season football workouts designed to add weight caused him to abandon that pursuit.
"I don't want to try and make excuses, but I had come in late after playing for the Canadian Junior Team that summer, so my football weight work was already behind," Willson recalled. "I was about 220 when I redshirted and knew I had to get bigger. But a 6 am weight workout was not a great lead in to an afternoon of trying to make the baseball team. All those other guys had been focusing on baseball all fall and winter, and there was too much of a gap to try and make up."