Through Trying Times, Tim Hightower Focused On Redskins Return
ASHBURN – Tim Hightower had never experienced a significant injury before tearing his ACL midway through last season, and in the weeks that followed, he proclaimed a belief in himself and a confidence in his rehabilitation that he would return not only stronger than ever, but ahead of schedule.
His first conviction is uncertain. The second one, now eight months later, was untrue.
“I never lost focus,” Hightower, the Washington Redskins’ running back, said Tuesday. “This thing is a lot more mental than I thought it was.”
Hightower, who tore the ligament in the third quarter of the Redskins’ loss at Carolina on Oct. 23, returned to individual drills for the first time since sustaining the injury during the team’s first mandatory mini-camp session on Tuesday.
Even then, Hightower was limited. Though contact is not permitted during offseason workouts, the running back didn’t participate in organized team drills and his carries, even in individual drills, were limited.
Regardless of how meaningless the carries were, the 6-foot, 222-pound Hightower still showed pride in his work. When he hit “the hole” – in reality, merely the line of scrimmage – his steps quickened and he showed a burst that his coaches no doubt were hoping to see.
“I’m trying to be smart, I guess, is what they call it, and also listen, be obedient to what the trainers are telling me to do,” Hightower said. “But for me, I’ve only known one gear, so I’m working on that, but we’ll see how that goes.”
Hightower was on his way to a career year in his first season with the Redskins since arriving via trade from Arizona. He had 321 yards on 84 carries – a mark that was below his career per-game average, but only because he was, for the first time, an every-down back – and had 88 yards on 17 carries against the Panthers before sustaining the injury.
Months of uncertainty followed, which only bred doubt and self-pity. He considered himself fortunate to be in the Washington area, where he grew up, where he could rely upon his family and other close friends for emotional support.
“In times like that, it’s important to have people that know how to talk to you, who know how to motivate you, who encourage you – not just people who are telling you words,” Hightower said.
“I mean, you appreciate people who reach out to you and patting your back, but there are people who know you, know the road that you’ve gone through and they know how to pray for you, how to support you.”
Adding to Hightower’s misery was his status with the Redskins. An unrestricted free agent after the season, Hightower was without a contract – a disconcerting place for a running back coming off a major knee injury.
Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen each professed their desires for Hightower to return, though with the team’s salary cap situation – it was docked $18 million this season for transgressions dating to 2010 – finding the money to bring Hightower back was complicated.
“I know I wanted to be here,” Hightower said. “I’ll say that. This is a great fit for me. The coach, the staff, the team, the general manager, the owner, the city, the style of football – this was me. … As far as did I know? I would be lying if I said I knew this was where I was going to be.
“You never know in this business. There were days where I was like, ‘This is where I’m going to be,’ and then there were days like, ‘I don’t know. What’s taking so long? What’s the deal? What’s the dilemma?’ It was a learning process.”
Hightower eventually agreed to a one-year contract with the Redskins on May 13, which eased some of the pressure. He reported to Redskins Park, and has, over the past month, been limited to rehabilitation – until Tuesday.
“I think he’s really wanting to practice right now, but he does have five, six weeks [until training camp begins],” Shanahan said. “A lot of our players, I think, could practice right now, but at this time, I think an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Just throw him in there right now, he tweaks it, and you’re asking yourself, ‘Why did I do that?’ He’s got an extra five weeks of rehab. They’re looking good right now.”
The next task for Hightower is to get his endurance up. Instead of running for 20 minutes a day, it’s half an hour, then an hour, then an hour on consecutive days. Instead of running in a straight line, it’s cutting to his left, or his right, or cutting at full speed.
Yet somehow, it’s all cerebral, as Hightower has learned.
“You’re beat up and this and that, but just mentally, that’s when all the thoughts go through your head – the what-ifs, the question marks,” Hightower said. “You go from frustrated, upset one day to motivated, pumped up and encouraged. Mentally, you just go from so many extremes – highs and lows and kind of all over the place sometimes. I think that’s the biggest thing for me.”