Halapoulivaati Vaitai will be turning 30 in just a couple weeks here, and for an NFL player, that mark is sometimes a line of demarcation. That age is considered “old” in a league where teams are consistently trying to get younger.
So when the Detroit Lions offensive lineman suffered a back injury last preseason that required season-ending surgery, Vaitai used the opportunity almost like an exhibition retirement.
“Instead of just having my head down, I took that time to spend time with my kids, my family,” Vaitai said after participating in Week 1 of OTAs. “Just to see what retirement would feel like.”
He got to play catch with his son and go to his tee ball games. He spent time on his ranch of 20 livestock—including cows and donkeys—exploring his new ranching hobby. He got to spend more quality time with his wife.
Obviously, he loved it all, but once the body started getting right, the lure of football was too much.
“The only thing I know is football,” Vaitai said. “But it was great. I got to reflect on my life and my career in the league. So it was really good.”
Before stepping back into the fray, there was the matter of his contract. He was set to count over $12 million against the cap for each of the two years, and the Lions weren’t prepared to give him that. Instead, Vaitai took a paycut of $6.4 million and voided the last year of his deal to stick around in Detroit.
Why would he agree to such a huge adjustment?
“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 have developed a close relationship ever since the Lions drafted Sewell in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft to be the team’s right tackle (The Athletic had a great story on it here). Vaitai is entering his eighth season in the NFL and will enter training camp as the odds-on favorite to start right next to Sewell at right guard.
But the Lions likely wanted to keep Vaitai around for one more year for reasons beyond his play on the field. As one of the most veteran players on the team—and someone who has moved from tackle to guard—he can very much serve as a mentor for fifth-round pick Colby Sorsdal. That role of mentorship is one that Vaitai takes very seriously because he got that same kind of help in Philadelphia from legends like Jason Kelce and Jason Peters.
“I’m trying to give (Sorsdal) all the things I’ve known and the knowledge I’ve known over the years, so that way I can help him,” Vaitai said. “So when his time is ready, he should be prepared.”
That time may still have to wait for Sorsdal because Vaitai is coming back with a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove.
“A lot. I say that every year because now I’ve got all this knowledge now,” Vaitai said. “I’ve got to do a little more. You know what I mean? Now I feel ... I took a step back, now I’ve got to catch up and then keep going.”
As for the injury, the Lions are simply being safe with him right now. On Thursday, he took around half of the reps at right guard, but come training camp, the limitations are expected to subside.
“We’re going to turn it up.”