Four years ago, Detroit Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead was looking for a place to volunteer and work with children. The Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program gave him that opportunity.
By Andy Reid
Photography by Erin Kirkland
It’s a blustery Friday just before Christmas, and the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program in Detroit is a little quieter than usual. Kids, ages 7 to 18, from all over the city are still trickling in, signing up for tutors, computer lab access or a timeslot in the music studio before they hop in the ring to spar with boxing instructors. But the gym won’t reach its 156-student capacity today.
Even so, Tahir Whitehead and his wife, Shannon, stop by to check in with the kids who are scampering around the gym and with Khali Sweeney, the owner known as “coach.” Whitehead, starting linebacker for the Detroit Lions, will be in Cincinnati on Sunday for a crucial late-season game that will determine whether the Lions make the season playoffs, but it’s important to him to see everyone at the gym one last time before the holidays.
“The people here are like family now,” Whitehead says. “That’s why it is so enjoyable. We would do anything for them, at the drop of a dime.”
Third-grader Da’Vareon Thomas comes through the side entrance and makes a beeline for Whitehead. The two immediately start shadow boxing, ducking and weaving from each other’s phantom punches, Whitehead towering over the 8-year-old.
They drift over to a punching bag, and Whitehead, 27, feigns struggle to hold it in place as Thomas pummels it with his tiny fists. Everyone smiles and looks on, as Thomas shuffles his feet and unleashes a combo attack at the bag near Whitehead’s thigh.
After Thomas’ workout, Whitehead makes the rounds, catching up with every kid as they come in.
“He’s a really good person,” says 14-year-old Josue Feliciano, a Junior Olympics National Champion in boxing. “I like talking with him because he gives good advice. It is really nice because now you know someone is looking at our gym and our people and the way we work with each other, and he wants to be a part of it.”
Four years ago, when the Downtown Boxing Gym was still in a small, cramped facility on St. Aubin Street, FOX 2 sports reporter Jennifer Hammond mentioned it to Whitehead. Drafted by the Lions in 2012 and still trying to find his way in his new home, Whitehead was looking for a place he could volunteer and work with children.
The boxing gym sounded perfect, and Whitehead headed down there for his first visit.
“I was in the gym one day and I looked up, and there he was,” says Sweeney, who was named a CNN Hero last year for his charitable work with the gym. “With Tahir, with him being a Lion, (the kids) see a great athlete on the field, and a leader and captain. But they also get someone who really talks to them, someone who comes and kicks it with them on a one-on-one level. For them, it’s like, they get to know a real celebrity, but they also get a real friend.”
The kids couldn’t believe it when he came in at first; an actual Detroit Lion was talking with them. And, because Whitehead did not have any prior experience with boxing, it initially seemed like a one-time occurrence.
“When I first came in, it was like, ‘Dang, what’s he doing here?’ Just surprise,” Whitehead says. “Not to say they don’t get excited now, but it’s more like a friend walking through the door. They see me as one of the guys … For me, when I was a kid, I would have thought, ‘Well, he’s just looking for a camera opportunity, using us to make himself look good.’ Just coming around and being consistent, though, eventually, that exited their minds. Now, they know I truly care. I’m asking them how they’re doing, hanging around.”
Whitehead never had aspirations to teach the kids boxing techniques. He simply wanted to make a positive impact in their lives.
Like many of the boys and girls who benefit from the Downtown Boxing Gym, Whitehead didn’t have a relationship with his father when he was growing up in Newark, New Jersey. A naturally gifted athlete, Whitehead used football and other sports as an outlet and way to avoid negative influences in an area riddled with crime.
But midway through his junior year at West Side High School, Whitehead’s GPA hovered around 1.85, and his dream of continuing his football career was in serious jeopardy.
“I made the conscious decision to turn things around,” Whitehead says. “I decided, ‘I really want to go to college.’ But I was not doing my homework and not getting the grades I was supposed to. That wasn’t beneficial to me. It wasn’t going to get me to where I wanted to go, so I did a 360. I got a 3.66 my senior year. I worked hard and pulled my average up, and I was able to get into Temple University.”
Looking back, Whitehead credits his high school coach, Brian Logan, as someone who encouraged him and pulled him through some of the rough times in his life.
“During the early years, where I struggled and didn’t know what I really wanted, he was there, just encouraging me to stay away from the nonsense,” Whitehead says. “The neighborhood I grew up in was similar to the neighborhoods these kids are growing up in. Crime-infested, drugs, all types of stuff. He would lead me away from that and tell me, ‘Look, man, focus on your school work and pursue athletics. Stay out of the streets and focus on accomplishing what you’re trying to accomplish.’ It didn’t really register to me until my junior year, and I realized Coach B was right. I saw it in myself. I had him there all along, telling me that I can be successful if I put my mind to it, but it didn’t really register until I truly believed that of myself and realized that the community that I was in, I didn’t want to be another statistic. I didn’t want to fall victim to that, just another one of the guys around the way, selling drugs.”
Now, having finished his sixth season in the NFL, Whitehead is an unqualified success. But he looks back at that time in his life and knows that, without positive role models like Logan, things may have turned out differently.
That is, simply, his goal with the Downtown Boxing Gym. That’s why he comes in as often as he can, and why he brings his family to hang out: He wants to help out and provide positive mentorship to kids who might not be getting that elsewhere.
“When they see Tahir, they learn that he was in their shoes at one point,” Shannon Whitehead says. “Look what you can become. He didn’t have a dad. He didn’t have money. He didn’t have the greatest life. He grew up without, but he found a way to make a better life for himself, and you can, too.”
For more information about the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program, visit the website downtownyouthboxing.org or click the links below:
Follow Tahir Whitehead on Instagram at @t_dub90.