Allen Park — Former Detroit Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead returned to the team’s practice facility on Friday to announce his retirement from the NFL after 10 seasons.
“It was only right to finish the career where it started, retire a Lion,” Whitehead said.
A fifth-round draft pick out of Temple, Whitehead played his first six seasons in Detroit, overcoming long odds by becoming a late-round draft pick to carve out a lengthy career.
“Never in a million years, never thought as a fifth-round draft pick I’d get 10 years in the NFL,” Whitehead said. “I remember going into my second year, had a talk with (former general manager) Martin Mayhew and he was like, ‘Look, I need you to make some plays, it’s week to week.’ At that point, it really shifted gears and it was like nothing’s promised. You’ve gotta work for everything and don’t think just because you’re drafted you can let up and think everything is going to fall in your lap.”
Whitehead played exclusively on special teams his first two seasons with the Lions, but stepped into a prominent defensive role in 2014 after starting middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch tore his ACL in the third game of the season. Whitehead stepped in, starting the rest of the season at that spot, and played a critical role on one of the best defenses in franchise history.
“I think that was a focal point in my career,” Whitehead said. “Obviously, you don’t want guys to go down, but just having the support of (Tulloch). When he went down and was leaving the field, he said, ‘Look, young boy, you’re ready.’
“He said, ‘Go out and show them who you are.’ For me, that touched me.”
Whitehead maintained a defensive role the following season, after Tulloch returned, and went on to become a full-time starter in both 2016 and 2017, although he was shifted from middle linebacker to the outside after the Lions drafted Jarrad Davis in the first round of the 2017 draft.
Whitehead departed in free agency following that season, signing a three-year contract with the Raiders. He played two seasons with the team, starting all 32 games, before moving on to Carolina and starting for the Panthers in 2020.
In total, Whitehead appeared in 142 games, making 95 starts and racking up 685 tackles and six interceptions. He just wishes he could have done it all with the Lions.
“I probably would have preferred to never leave, if you ask me,” Whitehead said. “Just the city in itself, I held it near and dear to my heart. I wanted to play my whole career here. For me, that’s why it was important to come back and retire a Lion.”
In retirement, Whitehead plans to continue his work with underserved youth in both Detroit and his hometown, just outside Newark, N.J.
“When I’m here, I’m still going to be involved with the Downtown Boxing Gym,” he said. “… And when I’m back at home, I have a recreational center, the Tahir Whitehead Training and Recreational Center in Newark that I plan on running financial literacy programs, programs about college readiness, (as well as) bridging the gap with law enforcement, things like that. Just all the resources and tools the youth need to make sure they go out here and understand how to be successful in life.”