ALLEN PARK, Mich. – It reverberates throughout the Detroit Lions' locker room like a Vegas casino transported to the Midwest. The constant slot machine-like sounds – ching-ching-ching -- are almost impossible to miss.
It’s all coming from the back corner, where Luke Willson, Levine Toilolo and Hakeem Valles have their heads down, pawing at their phones. This is jokingly serious business. On their screens is a 4-by-4 board of different letters with varying point values like Scrabble.
Two minutes at a time, in idle moments at home and on the road, the three tight ends and safety Miles Killebrew start dragging their fingers across the screen, trying to create as many words as possible. On the bus, on the plane, at home at night and occasionally during an idle moment in the locker room, it’s time to play.
Ruzzle is their game – and it has taken over their rare idle moments the last two months.
“The game is always different,” Toilolo said. “The board is always changing. I think it’s something that’s short and quick and you’re not on your phone all day. You can play a quick, 60-second round. When you’re playing each other, it’s two minutes.”
Initially released in 2012 by Swedish-based game company MAG Interactive, Ruzzle became popular in the United States in 2013. Among the Lions’ tight ends, it started earlier this year when Willson asked Killebrew what he was playing.
Willson told Toilolo. Valles, who doesn’t typically download app-based games and hasn’t owned a video game system since middle school, joined in. Soon, it overtook Battleship as the app game of choice. All Detroit’s tight ends play except for Michael Roberts, who does crossword puzzles in his downtime but hasn’t caught on to the Ruzzle rage.
They’ve gotten so good – and played enough – they’ve formed a Ruzzle team to compete weekly against other teams worldwide.
“We started playing against each other and it was kind of a joke,” Willson said. “But now we coined a team and we play every week, there’s a weekly whatever. We started in the rookie league and we got second the first week and we’ve won every week since.
“Now we’re in the silver league. What all these things mean, I have no idea. But let’s just say that we’re pretty dominant.”
Willson admitted Toilolo is the best Ruzzle player in the locker room. Actually, he thinks he’s better than that, calling him “the Wayne Gretzky of Ruzzle,” which coming from a Canadian is about the highest compliment one can receive.
“I’ve always thought I was pretty good at word games until I met Levine,” Willson said. “This guy, Levine, I’m not trying to pump his tires but he’s got to be one of the greatest Ruzzle players, not in America, but the entire world.”
As Willson was saying this, Killebrew walked by. Willson called him over and started calling him out for saying he was the best Ruzzle player in the locker room. Killebrew paused as Willson then started going in that he’s the second-best player in the locker room, “right on Levine’s tail,” pounding his fist.
Then Willson told Killebrew he doesn’t come within 200 points of him. To which Killebrew responded, “Bro, you don’t want it,” before asking Willson if he ever has beaten him before leaving the locker room.
The gregarious Willson will celebrate a win louder than most, and usually with more trash talk, especially if he beats Toilolo. It’s a consistent competition that fits the lifestyle they live in every day. In an atmosphere where competition is everything, this is another thing with a winner and a loser that can keep those instincts alive as they pass the time.
“Competition brings out the best in us,” Valles said. “You could use that for football or the game. I don’t know, it’s just fun. I can’t even ... it’s just fun.
“It keeps your brain going and maybe we’re learning a little bit at the same time, [words] that you didn’t know existed.”
Valles admits he’s not as good, lamenting recent blowout losses to Willson and Toilolo. The newest at the game, he hasn’t picked up some of the tricks Willson and Toilolo know – like the combinations of two-letter words and just the experience of seeing various combinations before.
Valles estimates he has played Willson and Toilolo 100 times each – at least – and has yet to beat either one. This is morning, noon and night, even sending a game request to Toilolo at 12:30 a.m. heading into a recent off day. To his surprise, Toilolo – also awake – accepted the request right away.
And away they went, dragging their fingers from letter to letter, their own bonding way with words.
“It’s something to do with teammates,” Toiolo said. “I think, yeah, it’s just kind of naturally when people are playing a game, you’re sitting around and jump in and join the game.”
An off day can bring challenges 10 or 15 times among the four of them. It keeps their minds fresh and a light, competitive atmosphere going. They all said it has helped them learn new words. Toilolo mentioned esthesia (definition: capacity for sensation and feeling) as one he saw Willson use in a game recently.
“Definitely, probably,” Killebrew said. “I don’t know. I’m not taking any vocab tests lately, already took the SATs. So no way to really measure it, but I’m sure it’s not hurting.”
The added benefit is it helped bring together a position group that all came from different places this offseason. Valles was on the Lions’ practice squad last year. Toilolo signed from Atlanta. Willson came from Seattle. Roberts, who doesn’t play Ruzzle but did partake in their Battleship battles, was a rookie last season in Detroit.
It has been a way to bring them together. For now. Because as with anything else, it could be just a fad. But for now, in one corner of the locker room, Ruzzle reigns.
“Then we’ll probably find another game,” Valles said. “That’s what will happen.”