WASHINGTON — By the time Jim Brown and Gale Sayers were Tim Hightower’s age, they were within weeks of retirement from the National Football League. But the former Washington Redskin and Richmond Spider is within weeks of trying to jump-start his NFL career for the third, and likely final, time.
Fully healthy for the first time in four years, Hightower is back on the gridiron, trying to earn a roster spot at the New Orleans Saints’ OTAs. With his ACL injury in the rear-view mirror, the only thing that he has to worry about is learning a new offense and latching on.
“I was nervous, just very anxious to get going and carry a football and catch a football,” Hightower told the New Orleans media. “A lot of emotions I hadn’t felt before. Some that I used to feel that came back.
“And a lot of excitement, too.”
There was excitement for a change of scenery last time, in a place that felt more at home.
After the 2011 NFL lockout ended, the Cardinals went all in on Beanie Wells, trading Hightower to the Redskins for aging 4-3 defensive end Vonnie Holiday. At 6-0, 222 pounds, Hightower passes the eye test as an NFL running back, and has a good mix of elusiveness and power. He rose to the top of Mike Shanahan’s depth chart after averaging 6.8 yards per carry in the preseason, and tallying 59 carries for 209 yards in the first three games of the regular season.
Against Carolina in Week 7, he had the best start of his career, piling up his most yards of any first quarter. Then, on his 17th carry of the day, Hightower’s season was cut short when his knee buckled, snapping his ACL.
“You think ACLs these days is a pretty routine surgery,” Hightower recalled. “You’ve got great doctors. Guys come back in six months.”
But six months later, Hightower was still battling to get healthy, a first for him at any level.
“To go from never missing a game, never missing a practice, being real durable, to, ‘What’s going on with my body? Is this how I’m going to be the rest of my life?'” Hightower quipped. “It was scary to not have answers.”
Redskins general manager Bruce Allen, a fellow Richmond alum, brought him back as a free agent, but Hightower was unable to compete. First he lost the starting position to rookie Alfred Morris, then his roster spot at the end of the preseason.
Hightower saw every knee specialist possible, looking for an answer to the injury that wouldn’t heal. He admitted: “There were days that I questioned if I would ever have another opportunity the older I got.”
It was not until a doctor diagnosed him with an infection that was slowing the healing process, a diagnosis that saved his career. Now with the Saints, four years later, he has the opportunity to do what he wasn’t allowed to do in Arizona and couldn’t do in Washington: be an impact player.
“Hey, I’m 29. You know, I was 24, 25 the last time I played. Can I still receive? Can I still go out there and practice 100 percent?” Hightower mused. “Those kind of thoughts go through your head now as opposed to, is my knee going to hold up?”
After all he went through to get back, Hightower isn’t considering the possibility to not making the final 53-man roster.
“I plan on being here. My expectations are not to just go out here and be a guy,” Hightower said, “but to be one of the key guys out here.”