The lives he touched through the work of the Operation 55 foundation he started during his five seasons as a starting middle linebacker for the Detroit Lions mean as much to him as the players he tackled.
And there were plenty of both. He hit hard on the field, and he worked hard away from the field to help those in need.
Head coach Jim Caldwell referenced a quote by the legendary baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson in paying tribute to Tulloch’s work on and off the field at his retirement press conference Thursday.
“A life is not important except in the importance it has on other lives” was Robinson’s quote.
“I think that without question, Stephen’s life personified that particular quote,” Caldwell said. “Nobody impacted more people in this community than he did.
“I think it says a lot about Tully that he wants to make his announcement here, where he made a difference in the community. He impacted so many people.
“Not only was he an outstanding player, he was a better man off the field.”
Tulloch, 32, played 11 NFL seasons, from 2006-16. He spent the first five with the Tennessee Titans, who drafted him in the fourth round out of North Carolina State. Tulloch signed with the Lions as a free agent in 2011. He was released after five seasons as a co-captain and four-time team leader in tackles.
Tulloch’s last season was 2016 as a backup with the Eagles.
It was fitting, and more than symbolic, that Tulloch wanted to announce his retirement as a Lion in a touching ceremony Thursday afternoon at the team’s Allen Park headquarters.
His gritty style as a key member of a group of players who made the Lions a relevant contender in the NFC North matched the turnaround of the city’s fortunes.
“My heart is here in Detroit,” Tulloch said, his voice heavy with emotion as he referred to his former teammates and the team’s fans. “I know how much these guys put in to their craft, and how much they mean to me. To be able to come back here means a lot to me.
“I love Detroit a lot. Not just the organization, but the community.”
In addition to Caldwell, members of the coaching staff front office were in attendance at the press conference. Also with them were Tulloch’s mother, Mercedes, and a number of people – either cancer survivors, or relatives of those who’ve been struck by the disease – who have been assisted by Tulloch’s foundation.
Operation 55’s mission is to provide educational assistance to Detroit’s public schools, and also help families who are affected by cancer.
Tulloch’s efforts reach beyond Metro Detroit. He was scheduled to fly to Haiti on Friday to help build schools with former Lion and current Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Cliff Avril, and running back Marshawn Lynch, who is in the process of returning to football after a one-year retirement.
“That’s what motivates me,” Tulloch said of his foundation’s work. “It’s not all about the accolades. It’s about the impact you have on people’s lives. It’s about the legacy you leave behind. When you go, you leave a legacy behind. That means more to me than anything.
“I’m able to say I gave everything I had, on the field and off the field. I want to make a difference. I don’t want to just talk the talk. I want to walk the walk.”
Tulloch had good memories on the field.
He joined the Lions in 2011 and became part of a group who led the team to a 10-6 won-lost record and the team’s first playoff appearance since 1999. The Lions started that season with a five-game winning streak.
The biggest moment for Tulloch was the victory over the Chargers in Game 15 at Ford Field that clinched a playoff berth. He felt the joy of the fans matching the team’s emotion.
That first year in Detroit was the beginning of a career-long connection.
“The people of Detroit are first class people,” he said. “They have your back. I’m glad I made the decision to come here. From the front office down, it’s awesome.
“I played a long time. I know class. This is a class organization.”