Catching Up with: Willie Pless

Oct. 7, 2010

Former Kansas linebacker Willie Pless was recently inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame in Wichita, Kan. The Jayhawk great played three seasons at KU, where he set numerous NCAA records and went on to have a long and fruitful career in the Canadian Football League.

Pless was a three-time All-Big Eight First Team selection (1983-85) and was named the all-time best linebacker in the history of Big Eight after it became the Big 12 in 1996. He was arguably the best defensive player in the history of the CFL, holding the league record for most tackles (1,241). He also had 84 quarterback sacks, 39 interceptions, 39 fumble recoveries, played in 18 playoff games and three Grey Cups, winning one championship.

He sat down with KU Athletics.com for an interview.

On how it feels to be back on the KU campus:

“It’s amazing. As I look back today, it was over 20 years ago, I just keeping telling myself how blessed I am; blessed to come to a university that really and genuinely cares about their athletes. Even to this day I can call anyone from the university, the doors are always open – it didn’t matter about your size, if you could play ball, whatever you could or could not do. Sometimes I can’t even explain what I did on the field, I’m just blessed with the fact that they gave me that opportunity, I was really happy about that.”

On if he has gotten a chance to see the football facility upgrades:

“Not yet, I’m looking forward to taking a grand tour and my kids are very excited, too. I hope all of my girls end up here at Kansas, but we’ll see how that works out.”

On his fondest memories of playing football at KU:

“We had a great group of guys here – we used to say we were the foundation of success that the KU football teams have now. When we played against Oklahoma, I believe it was my junior year, we upset the Sooners. That was one of the days that you just can’t forget; you had people coming from everywhere, fans coming down the hill, it was amazing.”

On if he sees his NCAA single-season tackles record ever being broken:

“I sure hope so, records are meant to be broken, and I hope I’m around to see it being broken. The person who breaks this record will mean that they were part of a team whose defense was on the field a lot. It’s a good thing and a bad thing at the same time.”

On what his secret was to getting to the ball so often:

“There are some things that I just cannot explain, when I have gone back and watched film from when I played, there were just some things I would sit back and say ‘wow, how the heck did I do that?’. It’s just something I was blessed with, God gave me this ability to see a play and react to it. A lot of players just don’t have that.”

On if he ever feels slighted that he never got a chance to play in the NFL:

“No, during my time the prototype for a linebacker was 6’4″. I came out in a draft class with (Former Oklahoma All-American Brian) Bosworth and guys like him – if you weren’t 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, the NFL would overlook you. I think I would have had an opportunity to play in the NFL if they would have put me at a different position – but for me, I can do my best work when I’m right there in the middle playing linebacker; I don’t have time to think about it, I just react and do things. That was one of the things I thought about before I went to the Canadian Football League; I asked if I could play inside linebacker, and they said yes – that’s all I needed. In 1989, I went down to New Orleans and tried out for the Saints. I had a great training camp, I just happened to get injured in training camp – I was the leading tackler on special teams and defense. It looked like I was going to make the team, but all of a sudden I got injured, the worst injury a linebacker could have – a lower back injury. The trainers didn’t know how long it would take to heal. As I look back, I have no regrets. If I had to do it all over again; I would do everything pretty close to the same.”

On if he follows the current Jayhawk football team or has met Head Coach Turner Gill:

“I have not met Coach Gill yet, but I do know of him. I played against him my freshman year, and that’s when he had all of that talent, which of course, he still has. If he is anywhere close to the type of player he was, he is going to do some great things for this Jayhawk football club.”

On what is keeping him busy since he retired from the CFL:
“Well, taking care of my three daughters sure keeps me busy! I am in the oil and gas industry, I do outside sales and public relations for a valve company – we manufacture ball valves. I get a chance to travel everywhere, it’s a wonderful job and I work for a great company. We have a facility in Texas, and a place in Edmonton (Alberta, Canada). it’s a great job and I love it.”