Few National Football League players ever get to play in a Super Bowl, and even fewer get to do it twice. Rice University alumnus Luke Willson has accomplished that in just two years.

With the Seattle Seahawks becoming the first team in 10 years to make consecutive Super Bowl appearances, Willson, the Seahawks’ starting tight end, will represent his alma mater in Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday, Feb. 1 in Glendale, Arizona.

Willson, a former member of Lovett College, graduated from Rice with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and political science and a minor in business. Willson capped his Rice career with a victory in the 2012 Armed Forces Bowl. Willson was then drafted the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks.

According to Willson, his time playing football at Rice helped him prepare for his NFL career, as he learned how to move on from losses.

“My first few years [at Rice] everyone faced a lot of adversity, so that really prepared me for the NFL,” Willson said. “Especially this year when we were struggling a little bit early on and going through some challenges. We kind of fall back on times when we faced adversity before and how we got through it and how we learned from it.”

Willson also said he learned his work ethic during his time in Houston.

“There’s a lot of hard-working guys on that Rice team and that’s kind of what the program is built on, and that’s what I took into the NFL,” Willson said.

Last season against the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, Willson recorded two receptions for 17 yards in a winning effort. This time, Willson will look to improve upon those numbers, but remains focused on winning the big game. Willson has improved on his rookie numbers this season, posting 22 catches for 346 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season, and making six receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown during the Seahawks’ playoff run.

Willson has already made a name for himself in the NFL as the starting tight end for the reigning Super Bowl champions. In last week’s NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers, Willson made a play that may have saved the Seahawks’ season.

With 1:25 left in the game, Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch scored a rushing touchdown to put Seattle up 20-19. Seattle elected to go for a two-point conversion to put them up three points, and Willson ended up catching the ball in the end zone after a broken play. 

According to Willson, he was not even supposed to be going for the catch on the play.

“It was kind of just a backyard football play; not exactly how we were planning to go,” Willson said. “I was actually involved in protection and [Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson] scrambled around. I really thought I was out of the play and the next thing I knew the ball was in the air. It hung up there a while and I was able to come down with it, and it turned out to be a big play in that game.”

The touchdown put the Seahawks up 22-19, and after the Packers scored a game-tying field goal near the end of regulation, Seattle was able to win the game in overtime.

Only seven teams in NFL history have ever won back-to-back Super Bowls, and no team has accomplished that feat since the 2004 New England Patriots, who will be Seattle’s opponent in the game. According to Willson, the team will go into their second consecutive Super Bowl with the same mindset as last year’s, although they will be more aware of the off-field hype that surrounds the biggest annual event in the United States.

“It’s a little bit different, but at the same time a lot of it is the same,” Wilson said. “We have a pretty good idea of how this game is going to as far as distractions go. But on the football side of it, it feels very similar. We’re playing a great team just like we did last year. We just have to come out and execute.”

Despite being an NFL starter on the verge of playing in his second Super Bowl in two seasons, Willson hasn’t forgotten his roots. He still follows Rice football closely, and said he has some interesting, if not controversial, ideas about its future.

“I hope one day we’ll be in the Big 12 Conference,” Wilson said. “Especially nowadays with everyone realizing how short NFL careers are and how important education is. I feel if we went to the Big 12 we could attract some people. The way the program is headed and how we’ve been able to win a bunch of games the last three years could send us into a Power 5 conference, and that would really get the ball rolling.”

Willson and the Seattle Seahawks will face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday, Feb. 1. The game will be televised around the globe on NBC at 5:30 p.m.