Edmonton Eskimos

Willie Pless - Linebacker - 1991-98 - Kansas

-

Ex-Jayhawk was a tackling machine By Chuck Woodling, Sports Reporter Friday, June 23, 2000

Some men are born to dance. Others are born to sing. Some can shoot the three-point shot. Others can perform magic with a golf club.

Some guys can play football. Some can't. I've seen big men who couldn't play a lick. And I've seen little guys with extraordinary ability. Willie Pless was to me the Barry Sanders of defense. Both Sanders and Pless are about the same size. Whereas Sanders possessed the knack of making tacklers miss him, Pless had the uncanny ability to make tackles.

 

Too bad Sanders and Pless never had the opportunity to perform in the same NFL venues. The NFL will find a home for a small running back, but it has no use for a 5-foot-10, 210-pound linebacker.

Willie Pless, who retired from the Canadian Football League this week at the age of 36, was simply the best defensive player in CFL history. Yet there was a time when he yearned to play in the NFL.

 

Ignored in the 1986 NFL draft, Pless went to Canada and played three years for the Toronto Argonauts before deciding he would try to make an NFL team as a free agent. Pless picked New Orleans, but suffered a lower back injury in a preseason Saints' game and was placed on waivers. Later he tried out with the Chiefs. Sorry, Willie.

 

So Pless returned to Canada where he tackled his way into history.

Along the way, Pless was revered by the local populace for his involvement in community affairs, and respected by his contemporaries for his humility. Willie Pless never met a microphone he liked, never looked into a television camera he loved

 and continually urged pen-and-pencil pushing media-types to talk to his teammates instead.  When Pless was a freshman at Kansas University in 1982, he rarely talked to the media because mostly he played only on the punt and kickoff coverage teams. Then, under first-year KU coach Mike Gottfried, Pless became a starting linebacker in

1983.

 

As his talent became more and more obvious with every game, Pless became a media target.

He would have preferred an appendectomy with a church key.  All during the 1983 season, for example, Pless refused all requests from television reporters to stand in front of a camera. Eventually, though, he relented, saying: "I guess there's no way of getting around it. You just have to come out of a shell and do it."

 

Willie Pless broke the mold in his family, too. The youngest of five boys, he was the first to go to college. The other four had enlisted in the military. Pless would have loved to stay close to his Anniston, Ala., home and play for either Alabama or Auburn, but neither school was interested. Too small, you know.

How did Kansas University discover him? The Anniston High team doctor, a Kansas grad, sent films of him to the KU football office.

 

"When they offered me a scholarship," Pless said later, "I was thrilled to death."

Even though he was a starting linebacker for just three seasons, Pless established career tackling records for both Kansas University and the Big Eight Conference. Pless was credited with 633 tackles. To put that number in perspective, it is 230 more tackles than the runner-up, Rick Bredesen, another linebacker who played for four seasons. Moreover, the three highest single-season tackling performances by a Jayhawk are the property of Pless.

 

For the last decade or so, Pless has made his offseason home in Edmonton. In his last visit to Lawrence in 1997, Pless talked with KU coach Terry Allen about the possibility of joining his staff some day.

Allen says he has maintained a correspondence with Pless, and who knows?

During that '97 visit, Pless didn't hedge about what he wanted to do after he retired from pro football.

"I'm interested in making Lawrence my home," he said. "My heart's always been there."

And what a heart it is. Willie Pless is 210 pounds of heart

 

Willie Pless played 250 regular-season games with four different teams - primarily the Edmonton Eskimos - and made 11 CFL All-star teams before retiring in 1999 as the League's all-time leading tackler.

A 5-foot-11, 210-pound middle linebacker from the University of Kansas, Pless made 1,241 defensive tackles during his 14-year CFL career. Five times he led the League and seven times he had more than 100 defensive tackles. He also had 84 quarterback sacks, 39 interceptions, 39 fumble recoveries, played in 18 playoff games and three Grey Cups.

 

Pless joined the Toronto Argonauts in 1986. After four years with Toronto, including a Grey Cup appearance in 1987 and another All-Star campaign in 1988, he was one of six Argonauts traded to the B.C. Lions for quarterback Matt Dunigan. Pless spent only one season in B.C., earning his third nod as a division and CFL All-Star plus a nomination as the Lions' outstanding player, before signing with Edmonton as a free agent.

During eight seasons (1991-1999) in Edmonton he ranged all over the field, setting Eskimos records with 813 all-time defensive tackles, 117 tackles in one season (1998) and four times tied the team mark of 12 defensive tackles in one game. Pless won numerous awards and honours throughout his tenure as an Eskimo.

As a free agent he joined the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1999, recording a 102-tackle campaign and being named their outstanding defensive player and a division All-Star during his final season. He rejoined the Eskimos for a symbolic game in the 2000 preseason. Pless, who was born Feb. 21, 1964, in Anniston, Alabama, was enshrined last year in the Edmonton Eskimo Wall of Honour.

 

HONOURS AND AWARDS:

  CFL outstanding defensive player: 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997

  West Division outstanding defensive player: 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997

  East Division outstanding rookie: 1986

  CFL All-Star: 1986, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998.

  East Division All-Star: 1986, 1988

  West Division All-Star: 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999

  North Division All-star: 1995

  B.C. Lions outstanding player: 1990

  Edmonton Eskimos outstanding player: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996

  Toronto Argonauts outstanding defensive player: 1986, 1988

  B.C. Lions outstanding defensive player: 1990

  Edmonton Eskimos outstanding defensive player:1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997

  Saskatchewan Roughriders outstanding defensive player: 1999

  Toronto Argonauts outstanding rookie: 1986

  Grey Cup participation: 1987, 1993, 1996

  Grey Cup victories: 1993

-- statistics --

 

 

Willie Pless     Kansas
Yr Team Tkl Sack Fumb TD
1986 Tor - 3 3 0
1987 Tor 93 7 3 0
1988 Tor 96 6 3 0
1989 Tor 30 0 0 0
1990 BC 107 4 4 0
1991 Edm 84 8 2 0
1992 Edm 110 8 8 1
1993 Edm 77 9 3 0
1994 Edm 113 5 6 0
1995 Edm 100 4 5 0
1996 Edm 96 8 1 0
1997 Edm 116 7 1 0
1998 Edm 117 8 0 0
1999 Ssk 102 7 0 0
Total 14 1241 84 39 1