Detroit Lions veteran Guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai, recently contemplated retirement but ultimately decided to continue his football career.
Turning 30 years old, Vaitai realized that this milestone often signifies the beginning of the end for many NFL players, as teams continuously seek younger talent. However, Vaitai’s love for the game and his teammates compelled him to return to the field.
Originally drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fifth round of the 2016 Draft, Vaitai joined the Lions in 2020 after signing a lucrative five-year, $50 million contract.
Unfortunately injuries plagued Vaitai after joining the Lions, with a back injury sidelining him for the entire 2022 season. In total, he played in 80 career games across both teams but missed 26 potential games since joining Detroit.
When Vaitai suffered season-ending back injury during the preseason of the 2022 season, he used the opportunity to explore retirement as an “experiment“, via SB Nation’s Pride of Detroit.
Embracing that period, Vaitai spent quality time with his family, engaging in activities such as playing catch with his son and attending his tee ball games. He also pursued his newfound interest in ranching, tending to his 20 livestock animals on his ranch.
Additionally, Vaitai relished the chance to spend more time with his wife. Although he thoroughly enjoyed this time away from football, his passion for the sport eventually won out.
Football has been Vaitai’s primary focus throughout his life, and he admitted that it remains the only thing he truly knows. Nevertheless, his temporary retirement stint allowed him to reflect on his life and career in the league, providing valuable perspective.
In March, the Lions restructured Vaitai’s contract, resulting in a pay cut from $9.4 million to $3 million for the 2023 season. This adjustment allowed the team to clear $7 million in cap space.
While the financial changes were significant, Vaitai’s decision to remain with the Lions was motivated by his deep attachment to his teammates, particularly star right tackle Penei Sewell.
“I can’t leave Penei (Sewell). I can’t leave all my guys. I can’t leave them,” Vaitai said. “I love this team a lot. I’m going to help Dan (Campbell) win one.”
Sewell and Vaitai developed a close bond since Sewell’s selection as the team’s first-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft. As Vaitai enters his eighth season in the league, he is likely to start alongside Sewell as the right guard.
Vaitai’s value to the Lions extends beyond his on-field contributions. As one of the team’s most experienced players and having transitioned from tackle to guard, he serves as a mentor to fifth-round pick Colby Sorsdal.
Vaitai takes this mentorship role seriously, having received guidance from Philadelphia legends Jason Kelce and Jason Peters during his time with the Eagles.
Determined to prove himself, Vaitai approaches the upcoming season with a chip on his shoulder. Armed with extensive knowledge gained throughout his career, he understands that he must give even more effort to remain competitive.
Despite ongoing precautions related to his previous injury, Vaitai participated in roughly half of the reps at right guard during OTAs. However, the team plans to remove limitations on him once training camp commences, allowing him to further push himself.
With his decision to stick with football, Vaitai aims to contribute to the success of new head coach Dan Campbell’s vision for the Lions.
Motivated by his love for the game, his bond with his teammates, and the desire to mentor younger players, Vaitai is prepared to face the challenges that lie ahead.