Oakland Raiders’ Luke Willson finally gets to play another game in Canada

Luke Willson figures he’ll have a smooth travel day when his Oakland Raiders head to Winnipeg for Thursday’s NFL pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers.

“I think I’m going to have the easiest time going through the border compared to everybody else,” the veteran tight end from LaSalle, Ont., said in a phone call after a weekend practice in Napa, Calif.

“It’s very exciting. Obviously, being Canadian, I think the more NFL stuff that can head up there is a great thing.”

The game will mark the first NFL contest in Canada since the Buffalo Bills completed a run of eight games in Toronto with a regular-season clash against the Atlanta Falcons in December 2013.

It’s Willson’s first trip to Winnipeg and first football game in his home country since his high school days in LaSalle, which is near Windsor, Ont.

He played five seasons with the Seahawks, getting into every game in his rookie 2013 season as Seattle captured the Super Bowl against Denver. He spent last season across the border from home with the Detroit Lions and signed with Oakland in March.

Willson is battling for playing time with Raiders tight ends Brandon Barnes, Paul Butler, Derek Carrier and projected starter Darren Waller.

It’s his 86 career games, including 45 starts, that he says might give him an edge.

“I think experience definitely helps when it comes to identifying defences,” said the team’s only Canadian-born player.

Willson has caught 102 career passes for 1,216 yards with 11 touchdowns. With Detroit last season, the six-foot-five, 254-pound tight end got into 14 games and had 13 receptions for 87 yards.

He missed Oakland’s first pre-season game because of a minor injury, but played in the team’s second victory last week in Arizona and had one catch for four yards.

He expects to play in the Week 3 game versus Green Bay (1-1) at IG Field, home of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Oakland (2-0) is the home team.

“It’ll be competitive,” Willson predicted. “I can’t speak for Green Bay, but there’s a lot of guys here who have a lot to prove. All these pre-season games mean a lot as far as making the team and guys’ careers.

“Obviously, the starters won’t play the whole game, but they’ll be some hard-nosed football going on up there.”

However, two of the game’s big drawing cards may not play at all.

Green Bay star quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t play last week because of tightness in his back and was held out of Sunday’s practice.

Meanwhile, new Oakland receiver Antonio Brown is recovering from frostbitten feet he got during cryotherapy in France last month. He also recently lost a grievance to wear his old, uncertified helmet.

Brown missed Sunday’s practice and Raiders general manager Mike Mayock told reporters he was a no-show because he was still upset about the helmet issue. The GM said it’s time for Brown “to be all-in or all-out.”

Willson said he hasn’t followed ticket sales for the Winnipeg game, which are at about half the stadium’s 33,000-seat capacity. Tickets were priced at $75 to $340 before taxes and fees, with recently reduced end-zone tickets costing a total of $94.25.

When asked if he’d be surprised it wasn’t a sellout, he said a lot of factors impact that.

“To be honest with you, it kind of depends on the game and market,” Willson said. “Obviously, Winnipeg has the Blue Bombers, I’m sure that’s the No. 1 team up there.

“I don’t know if there’s a bunch of Packers fans in Winnipeg, possibly. Might be a few Seahawks fans. I don’t know if there’s a ton of Raider Nation in Winnipeg, so I’m sure that plays into it.

“And it’s a pre-season game, so I get that maybe not everything is sold out right now. But I’m sure there will be a lot of football fans in the Winnipeg area that are happy, regardless, and excited to come out and watch.”

Judy Owen, The Canadian Press