Donta Hightower's excelled at every level

Friday, August 17, 2012
Foxboro, MA - #45 Dont'a Hightower gives #34 Shane Vereen a push as he runs with the ball during Patriots training camp at Gillette Stadium. Boston Herald staff photo by John Wilcox.

FOXBORO -- When Don Thomas took over as coach at Marshall County High in Lewisburg, Tenn., in December 2006, he was faced with an enviable challenge: Where should he play Dont'a Hightower the following season?

Blessed with size, speed and instincts, Hightower dominated wherever he lined up -- running back, wide receiver, tight end, kick returner, defensive end or linebacker.

Hightower had been a force on both sides of the ball as a junior, but Thomas decided his star player's skills would be best utilized primarily at linebacker.

"He definitely took me out of the offensive side and let me play defense," Hightower said. "Obviously he knew what he was doing. I knew I'd probably excel a little bit better on defense than I would offense at the next level. The way it turned out, I'm not mad about it at all."

The Patriots [team stats] are equally pleased with the results. The team traded up to select Hightower with the 25th pick in April's draft.

Hightower has worked with the first-team linebackers at times during training camp, and if history is any guide, he'll likely make the most of the opportunity.

Mother knows best

Growing up in Lewisburg, a town of about 10,000 in central Tennessee, Hightower excelled in football, basketball and baseball.

L'Tanya Hightower, a single mother of two who often worked two jobs at automotive factories, appreciated her son's enthusiasm but eventually suggested he direct his energy into one sport.

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I have another Bo Knows," L'Tanya said, referring to the Nike ad campaign featuring two-sport star Bo Jackson. "After wearing me down for a little bit, I said, 'Look, find out where your heart is at and just put it all in one basket and go for it.' And he chose football. He just always loved it."

Hightower didn't get his break in high school until late in his sophomore season when the team's starting running back quit. Hightower stepped in and rushed for more than 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns in the final four games.

Hightower was a two-way force as a junior, but when Thomas took over, the two had a discussion. Hightower said his goal was to be named Mr. Football, which is awarded to the best player in the state.

"I said, 'If you want to be Mr. Football, you have to be dominant and run the game from the defensive side,' " said Thomas, who was an All-American linebacker at Middle Tennessee State in the 1980s. "He bought into that and that's exactly what he did."

Hightower had 165 tackles, five interceptions and five forced fumbles as a senior, while maximizing his limited opportunities on offense.

"He touched the ball 77 times, whether it be on kick return or running the ball or a reception," Thomas said. "In 77 touches, he scored 19 touchdowns."

At the end of the season, Hightower was named Class 3A Mr. Football.

Turns to the Tide

Hightower was recruited by a number of SEC programs, but Alabama moved to the top of the list in the spring of his junior year when coach Nick Saban and recruiting coordinator Curt Cignetti checked out a Marshall County practice.

"We watched about five plays and Nick looks at me and he says, 'What do you think?' " Cignetti recalled. "And I say, 'I think we've got to offer this guy.' He said, 'I do, too.' "

Hightower, now 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, made an immediate impression when he arrived at Alabama. As a freshman in 2008, he was a regular starter at outside linebacker for a team that went 12-0 in the regular season.

"He was game-ready coming on campus," said Patriots defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick, a teammate for two years at Alabama. "He was a big, athletic, fast, strong kid and he had instincts for the game and a nose for the ball."

Hightower recorded 64 tackles and was named to the freshman All-SEC team. He suffered a setback the following year, tearing the ACL in his left knee in the fourth game of the season.

The Crimson Tide went on to win the national championship, while Hightower devoted himself to rehabbing his knee.

"I think what beat him up the most was not being able to get out there and play," L'Tanya said. "As far as his rehab and everything, I knew that he was going to be right back where he was at because he's just that dedicated."

Hightower was back on the field ahead of schedule, but didn't truly return to form until last season when he was named a first-team All-American as the leader of the nation's best defense. He capped the season with four tackles, including a sack, in the Crimson Tide's BCS national championship game victory over LSU.

Time to give back

Hightower had a year of eligibility remaining, but decided to turn pro so he could reward his mother for all the sacrifices she made working years of overnight shifts.

"My dream has always been to get to the point in football to where she doesn't have to work in a factory anymore," Hightower said. "I wouldn't be in this situation today if it wasn't for my mom and my sister (Quenette) being my backbone.

"The reason that I do what I do is because of them, to take care of my family."

L'Tanya Hightower doesn't plan to retire, but her days on an assembly line are over, as she recently completed schooling to become a medical assistant.

Dont'a Hightower's career is just beginning, and those who know him best expect him to make the most of his latest opportunity.

"It will be hard to keep him off the field," Thomas said. "He has a competitive edge that whatever you need, you'll get out of him and he'll find a way to make it on the field."