Michael Wilhoite isn’t your heralded high draft pick, or big-time free agent, enjoying a cushy life in the NFL.
After five seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Wilhoite signed with the Seahawks in March as an unrestricted free agent to compete for a starting spot in the linebacking corps.
Wilhoite comes from modest beginnings. He went to NCAA Division II program at Washburn University in Topeka, which has never advanced past the second round of the national playoffs. And after going undrafted, he played for the Omaha Nighthawks of the now-defunct United Football League, which paid an average salary of $50,000 per year.
After that one season in the UFL, Wilhoite even sold shoes at a mall near his home.
Wilhoite eventually landed on the 49ers’ practice squad before the 2012 season, and worked his way up.
“It all made me a little bit more humble in the sense of, I always got to get better because there is always competition, and somebody is coming for your spot,” Wilhoite, 30, said.
Wilhoite played inside in San Francisco’s 3-4 defensive scheme as the primary backup to Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman for two years.
And after Bowman suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 2013 NFC Championship game against the Seahawks, Wilhoite became a full-time starter a year later — and ended up making 34 starts in his final three seasons.
Now, Wilhoite joins another linebacking group with a pair of Pro Bowl participants, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright.
“There are lot of similarities,” Wilhoite said. “Both groups are very business-like and great leaders, and are true to the game in terms of showing up to work every day with high energy, focus and attention to detail. Both sets of guys are incredible athletes. Bobby and K.J. are a little bit bigger, which for the system is how it needs to be.”
In Seattle, Wilhoite is vying for the starting strong-side linebacker position with Terence Garvin and Mike Morgan, the former starter who was just brought back Monday.
Wilhoite knows with the way Seattle plays so much nickel defense, the strong-side linebacker spends more time on the sideline than on the field. He also knows that means more will be asked of him on special teams.
Asked what ultimately brought him to Seattle, his answer was a simple one.
“Winning,” he said.
“We were kind of on top of them for a second (in San Francisco), but you could easily see pretty soon the tide was turning, and the momentum was coming to this side. They became a winning organization. It became tradition here.”
As far as leaving the 49ers behind after a 2-14 season — one in which he was the lowest-graded regular on the roster — Wilhoite isn’t bitter or critical at all of San Francisco’s rebuilding effort.
“I went through some great years there. We went through some rough years there. I learned a lot in both situations,” Wilhoite said.
“I don’t say, ‘Enough was enough.’ I say it was a good change for me. It was something I needed — new faces and a new organization. Everybody needs that at some point in their life.”