T.J. Jones grew up Canadian entirely because of the CFL.
Together, these two unique Canucks provide the Canadian content in training camp with an NFL team right across the border from Ontario – the Detroit Lions.
For Willson, it is the culmination of a boyhood dream.
“Everyone knows now I was a Lions fan,” the 28-year-old tight end from nearby LaSalle, Ont., said. “Back in the Herman Moore-Robert Porcher-Barry Sanders days, that was kind of my childhood.”
Signed by the Lions as a free agent in March after spending his first five NFL seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, Willson has been able to make his childhood dream a reality.
“It is very cool,” Willson said. “I was signing a few autographs (following a training-camp workout) and heard a bunch of people shouting that they were from LaSalle. Pretty neat.”
As a kid one Halloween, Willson went out trick-or-treating suited up as Sanders.
“When I was younger, it was all about Barry Sanders,” Willson said.
Among those able to see Willson at work with what is basically his hometown NFL team has been his dad Mike, who didn’t share his son’s Lions pride.
“It’s actually kind a funny story,” Luke Willson explained. “My whole family were (Green Bay) Packers fans except for me. I was a big Lions fan growing up, so as you can imagine, it was a struggle for a long time for me.”
The Lions have won one playoff game since 1957.
But Luke’s move to Motown finally converted his father to the Honolulu blue and silver cause.
“He just left,” Willson said after a recent workout. “He had on a Lions hat and a Lions T-shirt.”
One fact of life Willson’s been forced to repeatedly explain to the American media covering the Lions is that he’s not the only Canadian on the team they should be asking about the CFL even though the Toronto Argonauts hold is rights by drafting him in 2012.
“I watched a little bit, kind of sparingly, but I was not a big CFL guy,” Willson said. “Being from Windsor, it’s not really a huge CFL city.”
It’s Jones, the Canadian by happenstance, who is the go-to guy for CFL knowledge. The fifth-year Lions wide receiver was born in Winnipeg in 1992 while his dad Andre was playing for the CFL’s Blue Bombers, but moved back to the U.S. as a young boy. However, Jones considers himself to be every bit as Canadian as back bacon or a Coffee Crisp bar.
“I take it to heart,” Jones, 26, said of his Canadian status. “I wasn’t an American citizen technically until I was 17. Growing up, definitely, I identified (as a Canadian) and tried to learn as much as I could about the culture and what being a Canadian really means, without actually living there.
“I really try to stay on top of little things that can kind of set you apart as a Canadian.”
That includes keeping tabs on his dad’s old squad.
“I definitely follow the Blue Bombers,” Jones said. “I follow a couple of other teams because I have friends playing there.”
As a border city, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s a rich history of Canadiana with the Lions.
CFL legend Joe Krol of Windsor played for the Lions in 1945, before heading north to win a record seven Grey Cups. More recently, Eddie Murray of Halifax was the team’s kicker from 1980-91, leaving as the Lions’ all-time scoring leader.
Receiver Nate Burleson, a Lion from 2010-13, shared ties with both Jones and Willson. Similar to Willson, Burleson joined the Lions from the Seahawks. And like Jones, Burleson was Canadian because he was born in Calgary while his dad Al played defensive back for the CFL’s Stampeders.
Jones holds other unique connections to Canada and the CFL. His dad’s college teammate at Notre Dame was Rocket Ismail, who was named MVP of the 1991 Grey Cup with the Toronto Argonauts. Ismail is T.J.’s godfather.
“Even though I didn’t spend a lot of time actually in Canada,” Jones said, “there’s a lot of connections I have that keep bringing me back.”