Allen Park — Halapoulivaati Vaitai won’t turn 30 until next month, but for the past year, he got a taste of what retirement might look like.
There were unquestionable charms that came with the idea of calling it a career after just seven NFL seasons. There was all the extra time he got to spend with his wife and young children, plus the opportunity to build up his 205-acre ranch an hour outside of Houston, where he has 20 head of cattle and some donkeys.
But once he got through the initial limitations from last year’s season-ending back surgery, the pull of the game of football proved too strong. S,o for the first time in 10 months, Vaitai is back on the field this week for the Detroit Lions’ OTA practices, ready to resume his role as the team’s starting right guard.
“After surgery, I was like, ‘Let me just rest. Let me just enjoy this time,'” Vaitai said Thursday. “And then when I started training again, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not ready to retire yet.”
Vaitai doesn’t exactly know what happened with his back. The injury came on suddenly, during the team’s third preseason game, and required surgery shortly thereafter. He also wasn’t able to explain the corrective procedure, only acknowledging it didn’t involve fusion and he knows that the doctors “went in and took something out.”
It was approximately five months before he had healed enough to begin working out, and it was the first time he lifted weights that he knew he wanted to continue his career.
Of course, doing so in Detroit wasn’t a lock. After battling injuries two of the past three seasons, and being scheduled for a hefty salary-cap hit, the two sides had to come to an agreement on a pay cut that would keep him in a Lions uniform in 2023.
“I can’t leave all my guys,” Vaitai said. “I can’t leave them. I love this team a lot. I’m going to help (coach) Dan (Campbell) win one.”
Additionally, the team added some insurance, in case Vaitai’s back issues return, bringing back veteran Graham Glasgow via free agency.
“A guy like Graham raises the floor,” Campbell said in March. “He’s been a starter in this league. He’s been a pretty good center. He’s got guard flex, obviously. And so he’s a guy that we know that can go in there and compete to start. And let’s see where Big V’s at coming off this back. I know we have some optimism in the building, you know? But, we won’t know. And really, that’s what Graham gives you, man. He gives you ability — he can step in and he can hold the fort down.”
Returning to Detroit, where he’s spent the past three seasons, was important to Vaitai. He’s built a strong bond with the team’s other offensive linemen, particularly Penei Sewell. The veteran has served as a key mentor to the 2021 first-round pick, a rapidly rising star.
Vaitai will have the opportunity to mentor another young lineman this year, Detroit’s fifth-round pick Colby Sorsdal, who is transitioning from tackle to guard as a rookie.
“I’m trying to give him all the things I’ve known and the knowledge I’ve known over the years, so that way I can help him,” Vaitai said. “So when his time is ready, he should be prepared. … I love (mentoring). I love when guys come up and ask questions. I just try to calm them down, because this is all new to them. I was a rookie once, and I asked questions all the time.”
Even without Vaitai, Detroit’s offensive line was one of the league’s best last season. If he’s healthy, the unit has the potential to reach greater heights. Starting 15 games at right guard in 2021, he was an above-average run blocker and didn’t allow a single sack.
“I feel like I took a step back, now I’ve got to catch up and then keep going,” Vaitai said. “I’ve got that chip on my shoulder, so I’m going to come back strong.”