It’s rare to be completely awestruck when doing research on a player, but that’s exactly what happened to me when I started gathering information for this article on former KU linebacker Willie Pless. After reading about him, I feel ashamed that I’d never even heard of him before, much less understood his greatness. But make no mistake about it, he is one of the all-time greats to ever play at Kansas, possibly the best defensive player in school history.
Pless was born in Anniston, Alabama in 1964 and grew up amongst the racism and hatred of the deep south, and there’s no doubt that his determination on the gridiron can be directly traced back to the hardships he endured during his formative years. Sure, Pless attended an integrated high school, but at the time the local authorities were still fighting to turn over the ruling that said that black students had the right to attend classes with white students. If you are capable of attending school in that environment all the while thriving in the classroom and on the football field, I’m sure that tackling a running back from Oklahoma or a quarterback from Colorado seemed like a piece of cake in comparison.
And Willie Pless tackled. And then he tackled some more. And he kept on tackling. He tackled for four years at Kansas and another 14 years in the Canadian Football League. By why did he play the game north of the border when he was such a dominant force defensively? Well, the NFL doesn’t look too kindly on linebackers that stand 5’10" and weight 215 pounds. Regardless of his talent, regardless of his motor, regardless of his sheer will to find the ball carrier, he just didn’t have the size for the NFL. But Willie isn’t the type of guy to let a little something like inferior size get in his way. All you need to do is look at his collegiate and professional statistics to know that.
The 633 tackles that Pless accumulated during his three years starting for Kansas (1983-1985) are a school record. Unfortunately, this stat is unofficial as the NCAA only started keeping track of tackles as an official stat in 2000. The official KU record is 526 tackles, a mere 107 fewer than Pless accumulated. For most, that 107 would take an entire season to accrue, but Willie Pless was a tackling machine. In 1984 alone, he had 206 tackles, a school record. Sure that sounds like a lot, and it is, but when you factor in that KU played only 11 games during the 1984 season, and start doing the math on the amount of tackles Willie really had, you find out that he averaged a ridiculous 18.7 tackles per game. That is insane. I’m not even sure how to process that kind of number. One has to guess that KU was simply terrible and Pless was the only one doing anything defensively, but the facts just don’t bear that out. KU beat #2 Oklahoma that season and finished with a 5-6 overall record. Pless was simply dominant, the man knew how to get to the offensive player with the ball and the man knew how to bring him down.
When he made the transition to the professional game, Pless exceeded his collegiate performances. He won the best defensive player award on his team (Toronto, British Columbia, Edmonton, and Saskatchewan) in 11 of the 14 seasons he played in the CFL. He was the league’s defensive player of the year on five of those occasions including winning the trophy four years in a row between 1994 and 1997 (He also won in 1992). As a comparison, Lawrence Taylor, the man widely regarded as the best linebacker in NFL history won the NFL’s defensive MVP award only three times. Pless simply dominated Canadian football. He amassed 1241 tackles (CFL record) and 84 sacks in his 14 years north of the border and was rightfully inducted in the CFL Hall of Fame in 2005.
Pless is a Canadian hero, but relatively unknown back at his alma mater. It’s a shame that the (unofficial) leading tackler in the history of the Big Eight is not more recognized. I’m as guilty as the next guy, but now I can enthusiastically say that Willie Pless is my favorite Jayhawk that I never had the privilege of watching.