When he was about 12 years old, Tahir Whitehead saw someone shot in front of him. In the West Ward of Newark, N.J., criminal activity was common, and he witnessed drug deals and violence on a daily basis.
Football was his ticket out.
"Detroit ain't got nothing on where Whitehead came from," said Brian Logan, Whitehead's football coach at West Side High and a Newark police detective. "Whitehead grabbed himself up by the boots. The light came on for him, and he saw the light, he saw the door open and he ran through that door.
"Where Whitehead comes from, they don't get out."
Motivated by his older brother and with a relentless work ethic, Whitehead escaped Newark and is thriving. He has a degree in criminal justice from Temple. He's the starting middle linebacker for the Lions. He's involved in community service with Detroit's youth. He has a wife, Shannon, and two sons — a 6-year-old and a 7-month-old — and hopes to provide a different upbringing than the one he had without a father in his life.
But as long as he's playing football, Whitehead will constantly remind himself he's always representing Newark, one of America's most dangerous cities. Though Lions tight end Eric Ebron and Falcons linebacker Marquis Spruill were born there, too, Whitehead is the only player in the NFL who claims the downtrodden city as his hometown.
"I think about it all the time," Whitehead said. "I think about it prior to going out on the field. My mentality is that it's bigger than me. … I'm playing with my city on my back, my family (too), and I feel like I always have something to prove. If anything goes wrong, I'm letting them down."
Whitehead, 24, could've easily become another athlete whose talented wasted away in Newark's streets. After his junior year of high school, he had a 1.85 grade-point average and zero Division I scholarship offers.
He then transferred from Science Park High to West Side, where he'd been playing football because Science Park didn't have a program. With a 3.66 GPA his senior year, he said he improved his overall GPA to a 2.4. And after taking the SAT four times to achieve the necessary score, he qualified for admission at Temple, the Philadelphia college that offered him a scholarship the winter of his senior year. Going to Temple was the first time he'd left New Jersey.
In 2007, Whitehead's senior year, West Side won its first state championship, but he knows his strides in the classroom were what ultimately shifted his future.
"Tahir was always a smart kid, but there was a lot of distractions in his life," Logan said.
Whitehead has four siblings, a 26-year-old brother, 22-year-old sister, 10-year-old brother and 1-year-old brother. He said his mother, Quadira, worked as a teacher's aide with underprivileged children and spent time working at packing plants, but relied on government assistance to feed her family.
The lights were always on and Tahir always had clothes, but it was far from a perfect childhood. His mother, who still lives in Newark, was arrested a few times with minor convictions for bail jumping, credit card theft and false identification. Quadira, who had her first child at 13 and Tahir at 15, spent a week in Morris County Jail in 2001 when Tahir was 11, and a few days in 2003 and 2004.
"She did whatever possible to make sure we didn't end up to the state and did whatever possible to make sure we all stayed together and that we didn't need anybody else," Tahir said.
Logan said he and the other football coaches provided encouragement for Tahir to improve his grades to make it to college, but he found all the motivation he needed from his older brother, who became a father figure despite being just two years older.
Quaheem Whitehead was a star in any sport in which he participated, particularly football. Tahir said his brother drew comparisons to Barry Sanders, and although Quaheem was primarily a running back in high school, Logan said he could play anywhere the coaches put him.
"His older brother was three times better than Tahir was," Logan said, calling him a freak of nature. "Tahir couldn't step on the field with him."
Quaheem helped Tahir become interested in football. As a child, Tahir spent much of his time playing video games or board games, an easy way to stay safe inside. Once he started Pop Warner, his brother told coaches he wouldn't play unless they put Tahir in the game, and they obliged.
In high school, Quaheem suffered an injury his senior year that allowed Tahir to take the field as a sophomore, filling in at free safety. Even after Quaheem recovered, Tahir remained at safety and played there for the rest of his high school career, though he did play a bit on offense, too.
"I was never really the biggest, fastest, strongest," Tahir said. "I actually got a lot of play time just off the strength of a lot of people knew my brother."
The end of Quaheem's senior year, though, was the end of his football career. He dropped out of school, and even though he later earned a scholarship to Delaware State, he quickly returned home.
Though Quaheem's football dreams fizzled, he took every chance to inspire Tahir, regularly pushing him to play better no matter how well he performed. After watching Sunday's Lions win over the Buccaneers at Ford Field, Quaheem said he sees that Tahir's work ethic remains.
"I guess he's just one of those special few," said Quaheem, who has had minor drug and weapon convictions and is looking for work. "He's focused. He wasn't weak-minded. He wanted out. He wanted more for himself and his family."
Emerging in NFL
And Tahir knew going to college was the best way to help himself and his family. At Temple, Whitehead studied criminal justice, eying a job as a New Jersey state trooper as a backup plan. The day he received his degree was the happiest day of his life besides the birth of his two sons, and once he arrived at Temple, he didn't visit Newark much.
"I wouldn't really go back home because it was just filled with negativity, and I figured nothing good was going to come of coming back home," he said.
After playing safety in high school, his college coaches wanted him to move to linebacker. He weighed 185 pounds as a freshman and joked he had to spend all of his time in the cafeteria to add weight.
Whitehead primarily played special teams his first two years before making eight starts as a junior. By his senior season, he became the starting strong-side linebacker.
With some solid numbers at the NFL combine, including a 10-foot, 4-inch broad jump, Whitehead impressed the Lions enough to draft him in the fifth round in 2012.
As he did in college, Whitehead started his career in Detroit on special teams, playing 14 games as a rookie and all 16 games in his second year, forcing one fumble on coverage units each year.
Entering the 2014 season, second-round pick Kyle Van Noy was expected to replace strong-side linebacker Ashlee Palmer in the starting lineup, but Whitehead won the competition, grabbing a lead even before the rookie suffered a core muscle injury.
Palmer said Whitehead studied all three linebacker spots in new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's scheme, which helped him earn the job. After Stephen Tulloch suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Week 3, Whitehead moved to middle linebacker and has been playing there since.
"He was just more determined this year," Palmer said. "I'm not saying he wasn't determined in the past couple years, but he came in here with a different mindset."
Whitehead is second on the team with 69 tackles and has four tackles for loss, four passes defensed and two interceptions. He opened the season as one of just two new starters — strong safety James Ihedigbo is the other — on a defense that now ranks first in scoring and second overall, and he's been a game captain twice.
For this Sunday's game against the Vikings, Lady Jane's Haircuts donated 59 tickets — Whitehead's number — on his behalf for Detroit student-athletes and their families. Now that he's more comfortable with the demands of the NFL, Whitehead has started doing more in the community, targeting inner-city student-athletes with hopes of stressing the importance of education. He and some teammates packed more than 100 Thanksgiving dinners for Detroit families last month, and he hosted a talent show at a school on the city's west side.
Quaheem said people in Newark regularly ask about Tahir, and Tahir visits his hometown when he can, often spending time with young football players who experience a similar upbringing as he did.
"Not only is it inspiring for me, but it's inspiring for a lot of the other kids in the inner city that I coach," said Logan, who now coaches at Weequahic High in Newark. "A lot of them know Tahir's story, and a lot of them, when they see him like that, they say to themselves, 'If he can make it, I can make it.'
"He's a bright light in a dark city."