Cunningham to take Fairley under wing

Cunningham to take Fairley under wing

Published Jun. 5, 2012 10:23 a.m. ET

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said he's taking it as a personal challenge to help defensive tackle Nick Fairley turn his life around off the field.

Fairley was arrested twice in less than two months, first on a charge of marijuana possession and then for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol and evading police while being clocked at 100 mph. Both of the arrests came while Fairley was back in his hometown of Mobile, Ala. during the offseason.

Cunningham, who has been coaching for 43 years, said he met privately with Fairley, 24, the other day.

"If I have to go see his family, whatever I have to do to get him squared away," Cunningham said. "Some of these kids come from different areas. They’re not all from Birmingham (Mich.) They come from tough, tough backgrounds.

"As far as Nick is concerned, he knows this is going to be personal between the two of us. I say that like a father.

"He was surprised because I didn’t tongue-lash him for two hours, but I knew he’d already gotten that from eight different people. I took the approach of I’m going to take care of him."

Cunningham has worked with his share of players over the years who needed second and third chances before they straightened themselves out personally.

"They took a lot of hard work, but some of them are really successful now," Cunningham said. "One of them is Dan Saleaumua (a former defensive tackle who was drafted by Detroit in 1987 and later coached by Cunningham in Kansas City). He’s worth about $55 million, owns a chain of drug stores, has just the great life.

"All these kids, they go through things. It’s our job to step up, be there and make sure they get squared away.

"One thing about Nick, every day I come to work, he’s smiling. He works hard here. We’ve got to take care of the rest of it."


In the post-draft wrap-ups on the Lions, one player often seemed to get lost in the shuffle.

There was a lot of talk about the first-round pick, the three players from Oklahoma, the three cornerbacks.

But what about Tahir Whitehead?

Whitehead, a linebacker from Temple who was selected in the fifth round, went largely overlooked in many circles, but not anymore.

Cunningham made certain of that when he met with the media for the first time since the draft.

After watching Whitehead the last couple weeks during the team's offseason practices, Cunningham called him "by far the biggest surprise I've had in quite a while as a coach."

The Lions' brain trust thought enough of Whitehead that they traded a fourth-round pick in next year's draft to the Minnesota Vikings to add a fifth-rounder this year. That extra selection — No. 138 overall, the third pick of the fifth round — was used on the 6-foot-2, 228-pound Whitehead.

Whitehead, who played outside linebacker in Temple's 3-4 defense, had a combined total of 59 tackles, 12 for loss, five sacks, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in 12 games as a senior.

After losing Bobby Carpenter as a free agent to New England, the Lions have an extra spot open for a reserve linebacker.

"I think (linebackers coach) Matt Burke and the scouts did a great job on him," Cunningham said. "I kept looking at him. I said, 'Matt, I'm not sure.' I've always struggled with linebackers because of the way the college game is.

"Matt Burke said, 'Gun, I believe this guy can play.' I believe Matt Burke was right and so were the scouts.

"He's much better than a fifth-round draft choice."

Besides trying to win one of the backup linebacker jobs, Whitehead also has potential value as a special-teams contributor.

He played on the kickoff and punt units last season.

"I look forward to playing special teams," Whitehead said. "I know I have to. I'm eager to. I'm going to do what I have to do."

So far, it's working because he has impressed the man who makes a lot of those decisions for the defense.