Willie Young Jr.: Thrill Of The Chase

By Rich Armstrong

NFL linebacker Willie Young Jr. ferociously hunts quarterbacks for a living, but he passionately pursues fish after the whistle blows.

Willie Young Jr. with his catchWillie Young Jr. was passionate about fishing long before he became a star professional football player with the Chicago Bears.

Willie Young Jr. is your classic underdog who willed — and earned — his way to a successful career. Yet, what he wants to do, every day he possibly can, is chase fish.

"My dad got me hooked on it at a young age, and I just got addicted," says the native Floridian. "I grew up fishing banks, ponds, canals, streams. You name it, I tried to fish it, including through the grate to the canal system under the road! Let's see what I can catch."

The difference between Willie and a typical fish guy is that he's a star football player for the National Football League's Chicago Bears. Drafted as the 213th pick out of college in the seventh round (for non-football fans, that means you're an afterthought who probably won't stick around the league for long), Young, now 32, is one of the best players on his team and in his eighth season of playing professional football for a multiyear, multimillion-dollar annual salary. That's a long way from his humble beginnings, but in a way he never left them. As a boy, Young wrote a letter to his father, stating how much he appreciated what Willie Sr. did for him.

"I am going to be a pro football player when I grow up," reads the letter, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. "To pay you back. Because I love you, Dad."

Of course, Willie Sr. still gushes over the letter, now preserved in a picture frame, and over his son. Pay him back, Junior did indeed. Now a grown man and father of two young boys himself, Willie Jr. has the financial resources to chase his passion. With marketing endorsements from the likes of Mercury Marine and Bass Pro Shops, Young has access to five boats. "I feel like I need a different boat for every kind of fishing I do. I have the Atlantic Ocean, the ICW, and Lake Okeechobee within a few miles from my house."

His fleet consists of a 10-foot skiff with electric motor for lakes that prohibit gas engines, a 22-foot custom aluminum center-console, a 25-foot center-console for the ICW and near-shore angling that he bought with his rookie year contract money, a bass boat, a bay boat, and a 36-foot center-console with triple 300-hp outboards — "my hardcore fishing offshore boat that I've taken on numerous trips to the Bahamas," he says.

Like other fish guys, the fish led him to the boat at an early age.

"After years of fishing on the banks, I had to figure out how to get out to the middle of the pond. The only way to get out there was by boat," he recalls. "I found this beat-up aluminum jon boat on the side of the road. After fixing it up, I was able to get out to those areas where I could fish. At that point, I was addicted to boats." Back then he didn't even have a motor — just paddles. During his sophomore year in high school, a buddy invited him to fish offshore, which turned into another revelation.

"His boat had triple outboards — the fastest boat I'd ever been on. So now, I had a need for that power and speed," he says, adding, "And we had a hell of a day of fishing, caught sailfish and dolphinfish [mahi-mahi]. It just kind of took off from there." He hung around tackle shops, picking up tips like learning how to rig his own bait, and followed his passion.

Pro athletes have down time between seasons, during which Young estimates he fishes five or six days a week. "I know, it's bad," he laughs. Even if he's not on a boat, he still fishes the banks, and now he's teaching his young sons, hoping to pass on his passion.

"My boys love boats as much as I do, but I feel there's a need to show them how to fish from the bank, so they can fish when I'm away," he says. "I teach them the techniques — the tricks of the trade — to be successful."

Chicago Bears footballEven during busy NFL seasons, he finds time to cast a line.

The NFL season is legendary for its demanding grind, from off-season workouts, to training camp and exhibition games, to the fast-moving 17-week season. Does he at least put the rod away during that summer and fall stretch?

"Not a chance. If I can get two days of fishing a week, that's good," he says. Football players are known for their personalized celebrations. Not surprisingly, when the 6-foot-4-inch, 258-pound linebacker sacks a quarterback, he celebrates the tackle by casting an imaginary fishing rod toward the end zone and reeling it in.

The last couple of years, Young says he's been chasing swordfish. He says he loves the long fight required to work the massive fish through hundreds of feet of line.

"The thing about swordfishing is you go out there looking for a nibble. Sometimes it comes in five minutes, sometimes 30, sometimes it never comes," he says. "But there's nothing like the feeling of a nibble."

When pressed, he admits he sometimes takes the family for a day cruise.

"It's something that I can't describe. It's a rush and sense of relaxation all at once," he says of time on the water. "I can't explain the feeling I get from it. It's like a drug for me, and I have to have it." His cruises comes with a disclaimer, however: "If I decide to go out just for a cruise, I have to have a rod on board for that ‘just-in-case' factor." 

— Published: October/November 2017

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