Tim Hightower wears a black rubber bracelet on his right wrist that bears the words “Purpose Driven.” On his back, he wears a shoulder-to-shoulder tattoo — the same saying, bracketed by wings. In front of him sits his next, best chance to become what he has told folks he would become since he was a fifth-grader in Fort Washington: a star in the NFL, right here with his hometown Washington Redskins. You have evidence to the contrary? Don’t dare approach him with it.
“When you understand your purpose, that purpose will drive you,” Hightower said last week. “That focus, that goal, it drove me to the point where that’s all I could think about. That was it. That was my purpose, to get to the NFL.”
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.”
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.
The reasons, Hightower said, were complex. His mother, Nikkie, worked as a teacher and school administrator, and she wasn’t particularly impressed with the Prince George’s County schools. When he enrolled at DeMatha, he found the athletic competition he wanted.
“But at that point at DeMatha, we had a program in place,” said Redskins cornerback Byron Westbrook, who used to pick up Hightower so they could schlep off to Hyattsville together. “He was good, but you didn’t just come in and play. The seniors played. You had to wait your turn.”
Hightower has never been much for waiting his turn. There were financial concerns as well, he said. As a junior, he finally settled at Episcopal High School, a boarding school in Alexandria. He was following his sister Victoria, the youngest of the Hightowers’ four children.
The adjustments were significant. He couldn’t go home. The academics were challenging. He knew no one. But in football, he found himself.
“It was cool because — and this is the selfish part of me — I got to be the center of attention,” Hightower said. “They treated me like I was the big man on campus.”
In the summer before his senior year, Hightower trained three times a day, going from the basketball court to the track to the football field. “It was insane,” he said. It cost him. He suffered a stress fracture in his foot. Though he began the season playing, he could hardly walk after games. Inevitably, he ended up at the doctor. He got the news — his senior season was over — and broke down, sobbing.
“I felt like I let my whole family down,” he said. “It’s like I had this one goal that I worked at, worked at, worked at, and somebody just snatched that out from under me. I was crushed, man.”
Despite what the doctors told him, Hightower returned that season. He even managed 1,100 yards in the six games in which he played. But the recruiting calls from the schools he wanted to attend — Maryland and Virginia Tech and Wake Forest — stopped coming. Mark Gowin, Episcopal’s coach, tried reaching back out, selling his player not only on ability, but on attitude.
“He was such a tough kid,” Gowin said. “It was a frustrating time for both of us. He knew he could play at that level. I knew he could too. And no one was buying it.”
When Hightower arrived at Richmond as a freshman, he was both grateful for the opportunity to play college football — anywhere — and bitter that he wasn’t doing it with a higher profile. That mix intensified as his college career moved on. His purpose was still to play in the NFL. But as he was moved to fullback, as his chances at recognition passed, his personality changed.
“I was so angry,” Hightower said. “I was just so angry and bitter.”
This led to a series of internal conflicts. “I never saw Tim say a bad word about anybody,” Gowin said. But inside, the accumulation of slights both real and perceived burned.
“I felt like I was always kind of searching for an identity,” he said. “I grew up in a Christian home, so I knew certain ways that I was supposed to be living. I wasn’t really upholding those standards.
“What do you do with all these emotions? I was taught not to have sex before marriage. Okay, so what do I do when I’m having sex now? Am I bad? I’m going to go to hell now? I’m supposed to walk in love toward these people. Well, I’m angry. They just pissed me off. He just told me I was never going to play professional football.”
Eventually, Hightower handled it by working. He spent so much time with Brandon Horrigan, Richmond’s strength and conditioning coach, that “my wife probably thought I was having an affair,” Horrigan said. Hightower would return to school early from Christmas break to train. But not merely to get in shape. Each workout had a purpose. He needed to be more flexible. And he needed to pick up speed. He joined the track team, and competed against the women, because if a girl beat him, he wouldn’t live it down. He used plyometrics. Whatever Horrigan asked, Hightower did.
“He had aspirations and dreams, but he also had a ticker in him that kept him going to fight to get better, to be the best,” Horrigan said. “A lot of guys, they have so much potential, but they never had that type of drive. He was so driven.”
Before his senior year, Hightower approached Charles Bankins, Richmond’s new running backs coach who had worked with runners such as Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson in the NFL. Hightower wanted to know his chances as a pro.
“You’re a good back,” Bankins recalled telling Hightower. “You’re a tough back. But you don’t have breakaway speed. If you’ve got a shot, you’ll be a free agent,” meaning he wouldn’t be selected in the draft.
“And he just shook his head,” Bankins said. “He walked out and said, ‘Okay.’ ”
In Richmond’s second game of the year, Hightower broke through for a 90-yard touchdown run in the first quarter at Northeastern. When he got to the sideline, he went straight to the phone to the press box, where he reached Bankins, who was coaching from his perch.
“Coach,” Hightower said. “That enough breakaway speed for you?”
He finished the day with 246 yards rushing and four touchdowns. By the end of the year, he had a Richmond record 1,924 yards and 20 scores.
So here is Hightower now, coming off a 25-carry, 72-yard performance against the New York Giants in his first game as a Redskin, one he realizes could have been much better, one that showed how far he still has to go.
Here’s how he sees his goals, his purpose: “Until I got a couple championship rings on my fingers — a couple, I said a couple — and until I walk across the stage getting a yellow jacket, I won’t be satisfied in this career.”
Those are the purposes that drive Hightower now. Be a multi-time Super Bowl champion. Become a Hall of Famer. Sound crazy? Just don’t tell him.