Zac Boyer will be entering his third season covering the Washington Redskins for The Free Lance-Star this fall. Make sure to follow Zac on Twitter (@ZacBoyer) for the latest updates or e-mail him with any questions at email@example.com.
Return Home Provides Tim Hightower With Fresh Start, New Opportunities
This story appears on page B1 of Friday’s Free Lance-Star
ASHBURN – The package arrived in Dave Clawson’s office a little over six weeks ago with a postmark from Arizona and a familiar address on the return label.
Clawson wasn’t expecting a delivery, but knowing Tim Hightower, he should have. When the head coach at Bowling Green opened the box, one large enough it would be more suited for moving than shipping, he pulled out an Arizona Cardinals jersey autographed by his former player as well as a variety of hats, T-shirts and other trinkets for his assistants.
“The fact that he sent it here and he knows I have three coaches from Richmond, and he’s been in the NFL for three years – he’s just a good guy,” Clawson said.
Hightower thought back to his days playing for Clawson at Richmond and the stories the coach would tell about Brian Westbrook, who played at Villanova for two years when Clawson was the offensive coordinator.
Like nearly every other collegiate player, Hightower dreamed of the day when he’d be able to play professional football. Having now reached that level, the package served as a ‘thank you’ to Clawson for helping him achieve that goal.
“You can’t buy your appreciation for somebody else, but you do certain things to show somebody, regardless of whatever happens, ‘Hey, I appreciate the coaching, I appreciate the support, I appreciate whatever it is,’” Hightower said. “Without that stuff, I wouldn’t even be in the position that I am today. To me, it was almost a no-brainer. I was almost upset at myself I didn’t do it earlier.”
The opportunities to reconnect with his past have been plentiful as of late. The weekend Hightower mailed the box, he, too, was sent packing, traded from Arizona to the Washington Redskins, signing a one-year, $1.2 million contract after the deal to return to an area where he spent his high school years.
One final chance to complete the transition comes Sunday as the Redskins host the Cardinals at FedEx Field. Though he won’t have many family members or friends in the stands, he’ll have a lot of people watching.
That’s the way he likes it.
While Hightower claims Waldorf, Md. as his hometown, he is quick to admit he’s “a little bit of everything.” Born in San Diego, Hightower moved to Tulsa, Okla. for kindergarten when his parents, Lewis and Nikkie, took classes at the Rhema Bible Training Center and Oral Roberts, then headed further east to Maryland to get involved in the ministry before starting the seventh grade.
It was at Episcopal High School in Alexandra when Hightower started to make a name for himself in football. Named team captain his senior year, he rushed for 1,083 yards and 12 touchdowns before breaking his foot, which scared off a lot of colleges showing interest – Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia Tech among them.
Interest was so low that Hightower feared he wouldn’t play football at a high level in college. Mark Gowin, his high school coach, then told him one morning assistants from Richmond had stopped by and wanted to have breakfast with him, and Hightower was quickly sold.
He committed to play at the school and was one of only three freshman Clawson did not redshirt his first year, instead seeing Hightower’s vision and strength as an asset in the Spiders’ zone-blocking scheme.
“Tim was just so motivated to want to be great,” Clawson said. “He wanted to be the strongest at everything and he wanted to be the fastest and he wanted to be the quickest. … He had very specific goals for what he wanted to accomplish and was willing to work for them.”
Hightower wasn’t the primary running back until his junior year, but again, his senior year put him on the map. Richmond advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals, where it lost to eventual champion Appalachian State, and Hightower set school records with 1,924 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns.
Chosen by Arizona in the fifth round of the NFL Draft the following spring, Hightower rushed for 399 yards and 10 touchdowns, including the winning score against Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game.
He started 31 of 33 games for the Cardinals over the next two seasons, but slowly fell out of favor with the club. Deciding to go with Chris “Beanie” Wells and rookie Ryan Williams of Virginia Tech, now out for the season with a knee injury, at running back, Arizona traded Hightower to the Redskins on July 31 for defensive end Vonnie Holliday and a sixth-round pick in next spring’s draft.
“It was not an easy decision to trade him, but in order to be fair to Tim and give him an opportunity to be a starter, based on what he projected his role to be here, we thought it was a good move for both teams,” said Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt. “You never want to allow one of your good players to leave your team, but I have so much respect for Tim and what he did for us. I care about Tim, and I know he wanted to be the guy and have an opportunity to do that.”
A Hero’s Welcome
Hightower readily admits that if he played for the Redskins right after college, he might have struggled with adapting to the nuances of the professional game. Heading to Arizona essentially offered him the chance to grow up on his own.
“I don’t want to say I needed it, but it was best that I went away for a little bit,” Hightower said. “It would have been too much for me. You get a lot of requests, you get a lot of people pulling on you, you get a lot of demands. Now I’m three years in and I’m a little more comfortable handling things, telling certain people no, telling certain people, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Hightower often brings his own meals to Redskins Park rather than eat at the team cafeteria. He enjoys expressing his thoughts by writing, which helps him control his emotions. Having watched “The Green Lantern” over the summer, Hightower was taken by the message of using willpower to combat fear, and he has worn both a Green Lantern T-shirt and his own customized burgundy-and-gold version.
Once he gets established, he looks forward to working with his Tim Hightower Foundation to help mentor children.
“To be really honest, my biggest thing that I love doing is community work,” Hightower said. “It keeps me accountable, appreciative and grounded, but also, I remember being that kid that felt like I didn’t have that way out. You come from whatever and you felt like all you needed was a little bit of hope and a little bit of inspiration.”
That’s why the return comes at a good time both for Hightower and the Redskins, who were in need of a consistent running back. Hightower rushed for 72 yards on 25 carries last week in his debut, a victory over the New York Giants, and only missed two of 65 plays on offense.
Hightower likes to be the center of attention – for positive reasons, he emphasized – and insists he’s more thrilled with a victory than any arbitrary rushing line he may produce.
Being a leader is a role he’s embraced. Being humble is a trait he’s maintained.
“He’s made it, but he hasn’t allowed himself to get too big for the people that were there for him when he started to make a name for himself,” Clawson said.