Hightower's return to form no surprise
From the first time, when I saw Dont'a Hightower play football at Marshall County High School in 2006, I knew nothing he did on the gridiron would surprise me.
When Hightower delivered a blow on the football field, you could feel the pain suffered by the unlucky recipient on the sidelines.
Hightower was in control and the opponents' heads were on a swivel, watching out for the biggest hit they would ever take.
In a Christmas interview that year, Hightower was clear, confident, and concise about where he was going and I was convinced.
That season, under new coach Don Thomas, Hightower was a force on both sides of the ball, leading the Tigers to an 8-4 record and a first round 21-14 playoff win at Jackson Southside.
The following season, the heavily recruited Hightower was a dominate force on defense and still a major contributor on offense as Marshall County went 8-3, but were upset at Lexington 24-20 in the first round of the playoffs.
It was no surprise when Hightower earned Mr. Football his senior season and it was no surprise when Alabama head coach Nick Saban made Hightower one of his top recruiting priorities.
To the outside observer, it was a bit of a surprise when Hightower chose Alabama, but those close to his family were not surprised by his decision, because all along, Hightower wanted to be a member of the Crimson Tide, his grandfather's favorite team.
In the 2006 interview, Hightower stated that he had always wanted to be a college football player and he wanted his family to watch him on television on Saturdays and Sundays.
The Saturday part of the dream came true for Hightower in the fall of 2008 when he was just one of two true freshmen to start for Saban's defense versus Clemson in the season opener.
Hightower would start 12 games his freshman year and would play in every Crimson Tide contest that season, earning several awards, including All-American linebacker by the FWAA, second-team Freshman All-American by The Sporting News, midseason Freshman All-America selection by Rivals.com, and Freshman All-SEC selection by league coaches.
In 2009, Hightower started the first four games for Alabama before he suffered a season ending knee injury versus Arkansas.
Saban decided to redshirt Hightower and he torturously had to watch from the sidelines as the Crimson Tide went undefeated and won the national title.
Hightower worked tirelessly at his rehab to get back into form, getting his motivation from his usual source, his mother L'Tanya, who had toiled in factories for over 20 years, fighting the pain of her lingering injuries as her son watched her pick herself up and go to work every day, for them.
It was no surprise to anyone close to the Hightowers when Dont'a recovered months ahead of schedule and took the field for the 2010 opener, and even though he was clearly not one hundred percent healthy, the sophomore earned second team All- SEC honors by the Associated Press and SEC coaches.
At the recent Alabama Football Media Day, Crimson Tide Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart said about the difference in Hightower this spring and summer compared to last year.
"It is a big difference. I tell him all the time, there was a point in time last year in camp when he had two knee braces on and really struggled on loose plays. He had a hard time getting backs on the ground. It was noticeable because it wasn't the Dont'a that we all knew. Throughout spring ball and even going into fall, although he has only been in shorts, he looks a lot faster and quicker. He has changed his body a little bit. He has lower body fat percentage. His weight is similar, but he has better composition. Dont'a really has a good attitude, and I think he has more confidence in his leadership skills when he plays well, and he is playing well right now. He has to continue to do that. We are excited, and I'm happy for Dont'a because it was hard on him. He knew that he wasn't playing as well as he could have last year."
Hightower has been so good he won the Lee Roy Jordan Headhunter Award in the spring and has been named to several pre-season All-SEC First Teams.
2011 will more than likely be Hightower's last year at Alabama and once again, he has taken on the leadership role, evidenced by Smart's comments when asked, Is there a quarterback on defense this year like Rolando McClain was in the past and he answered, "Sure. Dont'a Hightower. He's the guy. He wanted to be that last year. He could just never get around to doing it because he wasn't 100 percent."
No surprise there, Hightower has always been a leader, on the field, in the classroom, and in his family.
I am going to watch a lot of Alabama football this year as all indications point to number 30 entering the NFL Draft next year.
The Crimson Tide could win the SEC title, and with that, get a chance to play for the BCS title.
No surprise if Hightower leads the way and gets that coveted crown he missed out on before his Sunday dream comes true when gets drafted, late in the first round, or early in the second round.