Detroit Lions offensive lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai got a taste of retired life, and he didn’t like it one bit.
“There was just a bunch of stuff to do,” Vaitai said Thursday.
Laid up after undergoing season-ending back surgery last September, Vaitai spent most of the fall at his home in Houston and the 205-acre ranch he owns about an hour north of town.
He played catch with his son after school and had long talks with his wife about his future. He had chores upon chores to do at that ranch. There were donkeys to feed and cows to breed and plenty of cleaning to get done.
“I’m like, ‘What am I doing? I can’t decide what to do,'” Vaitai said. “The only thing I know is football, and so – but it was great. I got to reflect on my life and my career in the league, so it was really good and just sit down with my wife and just talk over a lot of things.”
Vaitai, who injured his back in the Lions’ preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers last August, returned to the field for organized team activities this week.
He said he spent two weeks bedridden after surgery and went nearly five months before beginning rehab to let the healing process sink in.
He watched the Lions play from afar last fall. He yearned to be on the field with his brothers — “It was just eating me alive,” he said. Late in the season, he dropped by the team’s Allen Park practice facility as they made a run for the playoffs that came up just short.
When he finally got back to working out this winter, he knew he wanted to stay in Detroit.
“It’s one of those things,” Vaitai said. “After surgery, I was like, ‘All right, let me just rest, let me just enjoy this time,’ and then when I started training again I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not ready to retire yet.'”
Vaitai, who turns 30 next month and is the fourth oldest player on the Lions roster, agreed to a restructured incentive-laden contract this offseason that dropped his base salary by more than $6 million and voids after this year. He said he agreed to the deal because he wanted to stay with the Lions and his good friend Penei Sewell, who he’s helped mentor the past two seasons.
“I mean, I can’t leave Penei, I can’t leave my guys, I can’t leave them,” Vaitai said. “I love this team a lot. I want to help Dan (Campbell) win one.”
On Thursday, Vaitai took some first-team reps at right guard, though he said the plan is to slowly ease him into practice with an eye on ramping up his work when training camp begins. He is expected to challenge for the starting right guard spot, which he held during the 2021 season, and if his back holds up he could be the final piece to what should be a very good offensive line.
Vaitai said his back feels “great,” and after missing last season he has a “chip on my shoulder so I’m going to come back strong.”
“I feel like I took a step back,” Vaitai said. “Now I got to catch up and then keep going.”
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.