Giving back, on the other hand, is an acquired gift.
The NFL linebacker has been known around the Newark West Side High community for some time now as a big-hearted benefactor of youth sports in his hometown – as well as a revered member of the school’s 2007 state championship football team who went on to some very big things in the sport.
Whitehead sponsors the Youth Annual Football Camp each summer for free to city youth Grades K-12 and he has purchased equipment for the high school’s weight room. Even though he now resides in the Atlanta area, Whitehead also still makes routine visits to his old stomping ground to offer insights on education and teamwork to current Roughriders hoping to follow his path to success.
The teamwork part? That’s always come easy for Whitehead, according to his high school football coach, Brian Logan, and to just about anyone else asked to comment on the football star Friday during Tahir Whitehead Day ceremonies Friday at the West Side gym.
But the education and the social benevolence aspects of his life? Whitehead thanks men like Logan for opening his eyes to those worlds.
“When I first got to high school and first met Coach Logan I saw how big of a heart he had,” Whitehead said. “That motivated me to come back and give back seeing how much he did for the guys on the football team and the people in the community. Not only was he a police officer for 25-plus years, but he was dedicated to being an amazing human being, and that motivated me to emulate that.”
Whitehead’s success and the generous way by which he has shared it motivated many to join hands and honor the former West Side and Temple University star. It began, first, by renaming the West Side weight room the Tahir Whitehead Fitness Center and then awarding him with numerous proclamations from city, Newark Board of Education and Essex County sources before his No. 4 high school jersey was retired before a cheering student body at the West Side gymnasium.
After helping West Side win the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 championship in 2007, Whitehead starred at Temple for four years and graduated one semester early with a degree in criminal justice in December 2011 (that point, incidentally, drew raucous applause from the students). He played the last six years for the Detroit Lions after being drafted by that organization in the firth round in 2012, and just last week signed a three-year contract worth $18 million as a free agent with the Oakland Raiders.
Wealth. Athletic fame. A beautiful family. An enviable package, for sure for a kid from the gritty streets of Newark’s West Side. And it seems that each new measure of success in Whitehead’s life brings a moment to reflect on the lessons handed down by Logan and his staff at West Side.
“Coach Logan (who now is head coach at Weequahic) showed us all that community service is key. And not just by telling us and having us going around the help the less fortunate, but by his actions,” Whitehead said. “Having young men that were struggling in their lives actually come live with him in his house with his family, that right there was big-time for me. This man taught us that giving back like that was always bigger than you personally.
“I made a promise to myself to do exactly the same thing. Help as many people as I can while I can.”
Whitehead showed great talent as a football player in his Pop Warner days, but existed in that world somewhat in the shadow of older brother Quaheem Whitehead, a Newark Pop Warner legend and West Side star himself who graduated in 2006.
The older Whitehead was part of the crew that brought respectability back to the Roughrider name on the gridiron. Tahir, Anthony Baskervile, Jonathan Quallis, Carlos Cox and others advanced that several steps further and brought championship hardware back to South Orange Avenue.
But widespread notability was no guarantee for Tahir, who was considered a touch too small for linebacker and perhaps an academic risk by most colleges. He received exactly one scholarship offer, from Temple University.
“I’ve always been an underdog, always had a chip on my shoulder,” Whitehead said. “It was my only offer, but it was an offer. I was gonna show everyone that I am good enough. I was gonna show them all that I could play at any school in the country.
“But it was a blessing in disguise. Going to Temple, I really felt appreciated there. They chose me and they could have given that scholarship to anyone else. I was grateful and went in there with the mentality that I’m gonna work my tail off and make sure I pay it back.”