A year ago today, Tim Hightower’s childhood dream was fulfilled when the Alexandria native donned a Redskins jersey a day after being acquired in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals.
A day shy of 12 weeks later, Hightower suffered one of a running back’s worst nightmares. After he already gained 88 yards on just 17 carries less than five minutes into the third quarter at Carolina, Hightower planted his left leg to cut back inside and his knee collapsed. He had torn his ACL. His welcome home season was history after just six games and five starts.
Today, Hightower, although his knee isn’t yet 100 percent, is in the midst of a battle for his job with Roy Helu and Evan Royster, who, as rookies, combined for five 100-yard games in his absence.
“I hadn’t thought about it being a year until you told me,” said Hightower, who hadn’t endured a major injury while at Episcopal High, the University of Richmond or with the Cardinals. “It does feel like a year. I’ve been away from this game being hurt. I need to be back.”
But while Hightower has looked quick in the practices so far in training camp, he has yet to prove to himself or to coach Mike Shanahan that he’s all the way back. Those doubts about Hightower’s knee led the Redskins to only offer a one-year contract when he re-signed in May.
“I’ve got some work to do, but I feel better,” said Hightower, who barely participated in team drills during the spring. “It feels good to finally go out there on the field and not watch. It’ll get better with time and it’ll get better with training camp. I’m not worried about it. I’ve talked to as many people as I could talk to (backs who’ve come back from torn ACLs) about how to take care of the body, mentally what they were going through, and the whole process of what they did throughout the season to take care of the body. All I know is, when they put me in there, I’m full speed. I gotta be smart about it. If I’m not able to give my team an opportunity to win, I’m not gonna be in there.”
Hightower wasn’t quite so sanguine when he was benched for the since-released Ryan Torain during the St. Louis game last year. Torain started the next week against Philadelphia before Hightower got the job back at Carolina.
“It definitely motivated me,” Hightower said. “When I got back out there, I didn’t want to let that thing go. As players, we’re so competitive, I’m not thinking four games down the road. The great thing about having coaches who’ve had success, they can see the bigger picture. If he’s seeing me not as (healthy), he’s looking down the road, (saying) this game is not gonna make or break our season.”
Shanahan isn’t worried that Hightower isn’t fully himself yet more than nine months after the injury.
“I don’t want to overdo it,” Shanahan said. “As I told Tim, ‘I’ll try to get you ready for the regular season.’ Any time, you’ve (torn) an ACL, it’s going to take you a while to cut naturally. If we think he’s able to go in the 95 percent range, we’re going to give him some more reps for it to become second nature.”
Asked if Hightower reclaims the job he lost because of injury, Shanahan said, “Tim was starting out with the first team before he got hurt,” before praising the work that Helu and Royster did last year.
Hightower, who’s hard not to root for because of his upbeat attitude, smarts and passion for football and the Washington area, is certainly not counting on starting because of sentiment.
“I was injured last year,” he said. “If I wasn’t, it would be very tough not to be out there (with the starters all the time). “Helu and Royster are very talented. They’re doing the best with their opportunity. And when I come in there, I’ll do the best with my opportunity. We’re not on the buddy system. ‘Hey, you don’t have to practice, but you’re gonna play.’ No. I have to earn my job.”
But is there time for Hightower to earn it if his knee won’t fully cooperate before the end of the month?
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin