Gridiron Great

Playing football has helped the National Football League’s Tahir Whitehead, CLA ’12, grow as a person, and he’s sharing what he’s learned with his community.

Tahir Whitehead sitting in the stands holding a football.
Photo credit: Brandon Todd

Kick off

Currently a linebacker with the Carolina Panthers, Whitehead didn’t initially aspire to play in the NFL.

During his senior year at West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey, Whitehead just wanted to “get a scholarship, go to a top school and earn a degree.”

All three things came to fruition.

In 2008, Temple became the only university to offer Whitehead a full athletic scholarship. He gladly accepted and played for four seasons with the Owls. Being exposed to a diverse student population at Temple allowed Whitehead to expand his worldview beyond Newark and grow as a person, he said.

As team captain, Whitehead honed his leadership skills, eventually earning the Mark Bresani Award for spirit and enthusiasm. Seeking to emulate his West Side High football coaches who worked in law enforcement, Whitehead majored in criminal justice.

“My plan was to go be a New Jersey state trooper,” said Whitehead, now 30. “But God had some other plans for me.” 

A different playbook

A fifth-round draft pick, Whitehead began his NFL career with the Detroit Lions in 2012. Six seasons later, he moved on to the Oakland Raiders. This year in Charlotte, he reunited with Panthers Head Coach Matt Rhule, who served as offensive coordinator during Whitehead’s time with the Owls.

Since he began playing football around age 9, Whitehead’s coaches have always been invested in his development as a person and athlete. Brian Logan, who coached Whitehead at West Side High, always said, “Life’s not what you take. It’s a matter of what you can give.” At Temple, former coach Al Golden encouraged players to “treat people how you want to be treated,” Whitehead recalled.

Tahir at a glance

Game changer

Those messages stuck with Whitehead. In 2014, he established an annual K-12 football camp in Newark. The camp, which was canceled this year due to the pandemic, is Whitehead’s way of “giving back to the city that raised me and taught me to have that grit and grind that’s pushed me and catapulted me to this point in life.”

Whitehead’s life experiences shape the camp as well as his other community service initiatives. His mother, Quadira Whitehead, raised him and his four siblings as a single parent. The linebacker knows that hard-earned paychecks can’t always go toward the rising costs of youth sports. He also knows how influential playing on a team at an early age can be.

“A lot of people who I hold near and dear to my life I met through playing football,” Whitehead said. “That kept me out of trouble growing up in Newark.” The camp is about “breathing positivity into the youth and letting them know that they can be whatever they put their mind to.” 

Whitehead vows to always remain active in Newark. He still finds ways to serve other communities, too. While playing in Detroit, he developed “deep, rooted relationships” with the Downtown Boxing Gym, where he volunteered as a mentor with the youth program. 

In 2019, the Raiders recognized Whitehead’s continued community service efforts by selecting him to be the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year candidate.

“It’s the fans … that give back so much to the team [by] coming out, showing support,” Whitehead said. “It’s only right that we reciprocate that.”

By Ashley Nguyen, KLN ’12, and Edirin Oputu