The condensed version of Hightower’s story is this: His singular dream appeared thwarted when he suffered an injury during his senior year of high school. He took the only college scholarship offered him, even though it wasn’t from a Division Ischool. He played a position for which he didn’t believe he was suited. He eventually broke out in his final collegiate season, but still wasn’t so much as invited to the NFL’s scouting combine.
Yet Sunday, his family will gather at FedEx Field, the same stadium they used to avoid because of the traffic on game days, and watch Hightower against yet another perceived doubter — the Arizona Cardinals, his former team. “The road less traveled,” Hightower calls his route, and that’s fair.
Hightower had no backup plan should the NFL not work out. That could be perceived as impractical. Hightower speaks of it with a measure of pride. He would allow no other discussion. He would play in the NFL. He would play in the NFL. To heck with the naysayers.
“It got to the point where if you told me that I wasn’t going to do it,” Hightower said, “you almost instantly became the enemy.”
There were, it seemed, as many enemies as there were reasons to believe Hightower wouldn’t reach the pros. He wasn’t particularly fast. He wasn’t very flexible. The yards he racked up at Richmond came against Towson and Northeastern, not Tennessee and Nebraska.
“We would pray with him and believe in him,” said Mike Freeman, Hightower’s pastor as both a child and an adult. “But with all the adversities and the uncommon route and track he’s had, it was almost, at times, difficult for us to keep up with his belief.”
His belief in himself, in his ability to attain his dream, colored every one of his interactions. Hightower remembers sitting in a dorm room with a girl his sophomore year.
“I don’t mean any disrespect,” she said, “but you’re at Richmond. Have you ever thought about that? What if it doesn’t happen?”
The question almost didn’t register.
“But what if it does?” Hightower responded.
“What if it doesn’t?” she shot back.
They volleyed perhaps 20 times, Hightower recalled. Neither budged.
“What if it does?” Hightower said. “What if it does?”
“The more she asked, ‘What if it doesn’t?’,” Hightower said, “the angrier I got.”
‘Big man on campus’
If Hightower’s path to the Redskins was unorthodox — Arizona selected him in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, and he spent three seasons there before arriving in a July 31 trade for defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday and a sixth-round draft pick — his high school career was downright strange. He began as a freshman at Friendly in Oxon Hill. As a sophomore, he started at DeMatha, the Hyattsville football power. After a month, he went back to Friendly. A month later, he was off to Westlake in Waldorf.