Michael Wilhoite's Competitiveness Fueled His NFL Career and Coaching Aspirations
Welcome to Why We Play, a series of discussions with current players and NFL Legends about their youth football experience and why they play the game.
Michael Wilhoite remembers his first football team very clearly.
"I’ll never forget it," he said. "I came home, and on the counter, or on the end table in our living room, was a newspaper with an article that talked about the tackle football league and that it costs $175 to play. To me that was everything I needed."
Ten-year-old Wilhoite, who had been playing pickup football with the neighborhood kids in the backyards of Topeka, Kansas, from the time he was five years old, signed up for the Topeka Little League.
He kept playing organized football throughout his childhood, starring at Highland Park High School. He played many positions as a high schooler, including quarterback.
“Football was my way, he said. "As I grew and got older, I developed a love/hate relationship with football. Fortunately for me, I had some good people around me in high school that convinced me to stick with it.
“My parents were always there for me. My dad came to every practice, brought me back and forth and always preached attitude and mental toughness. He'd say, 'If you want to get faster, go outside and run. You have to work to get better.'
"I took it to heart and did just that. And worked out great for me."
Wilhoite graduated high school and headed to Washburn University in Topeka, where he played six different positions but thrived at linebacker. Afer going undrafted in the 2011 NFL Draft, Wilhoite signed with the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL.
After the Nighthawks' season concluded, Wilhoite signed with the San Francisco 49ers' practice squad in December 2011. He stayed on the practice squad until late in the 2012 season, when he was promoted to the active roster and became a key special teams contributor during the 49ers run to Super Bowl XLVII.
He ended up spending four more seasons in San Francisco, becoming a regular starter at linebacker in 2014 and 2015, before heading to Seattle to spend his final NFL season with the Seahawks.
After his playing career ended after the 2017 season, Wilhoite moved to Sacramento to be with his daughter and his wife's family. After a year dabbling in real estate and insurance, Wilhoite got the coaching bug.
"As a player, I never had a desire to coach," Wilhoite said. "But there were a lot of coaches in my life, my former coaches, who kept telling me I should be a coach.
"After my playing career ended, I figured out pretty quickly maybe this coaching is for me," he said. "So I made some calls."
Those calls resulted in a position opening up for Wilhoite on the New Orleans Saints staff. He spent two years as an assistant special teams coach and assistant defensive coach, learning under Sean Payton.
But after two years in New Orleans, Wilhoite wanted to head back to his family on the west coast. "The tough part (of becoming a coach) was missing my family," he said.
So in 2021, Wilhoite became the linebackers coach for the Los Angeles Chargers.
As a coach, Wilhoite tries to instill the same competitive drive that allowed him to stick with football and fueled him during his pro career.
"Honestly, I love competition," Wilhoite said. "I love to compete. I love to push myself, and when I’m competing against someone else, it allows me to push myself to the highest level. That competition has always driven me."
Photo: AP/Matt Patterson
- NFL Players and Legends
- Youth Football