Trainers help Tim Hightower after he tore his left ACL Oct. 23 against the Carolina Panthers. (Scott Halleran/GETTY IMAGES)

Then Mike Shanahan took the podium and was asked about Hightower, who has spent the last nine months recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL.

“It’s good news,” Shanahan said. “If there’s no setback, he’ll play Saturday. I’ll get a feel before the game how he feels and then I’ll determine how much time he gets.”

When Shanahan wrapped up his press conference a few minutes later, Hightower was still sitting outside, relaxing on a bench, shoulder pads at his feet, cleats untied.

Informed of Shanahan’s announcement, Hightower looked surprised and in the direction of Shanahan said, “I’m playing? Coach Shanahan, I don’t care what they say about you, man!”

Hightower stood up to talk to reporters and became a little emotional. He paused to collect his thoughts, took a breath and then spoke.

“This is huge, man. Wow. I don’t even know what to say,” Hightower said. “ I’m sure it’ll hit me Saturday when I get down on that field, the nerves and everything. It’s a blessing. I’ve definitely been working a long time, so it’s a huge step for me.”

Hightower has spent the last four weeks of the preseason limited primarily to individual drills. Thursday represented his fourth full-speed practice, and he said that his surgically-repaired left knee responded well. Observing Hightower, Shanahan came to the conclusion that the fifth-year pro was ready for game action.

“We allowed him to go full-speed this week in both starting [offense] and the scout team, and he’s really done a good job, making different cuts,” Shanahan said. “It looked like he was going full-speed. . ..He’s ready to go.”

Hightower still is not 100 percent, and Shanahan said that he definitely will not start the game. But the coach said Hightower does remain in contention to earn the starting running back job for the regular season. Hightower walked a little gingerly after practice, and iced down both knees. He would not rate his current readiness, saying only that he expects progress to continue.

“I’m not really thinking much about my knee,” he said. “I’m putting that in God’s hands, and I have a great strength coach and trust their plan. I just want to be a part of these guys. They’ve been out there building, and I’ve been watching them from the sideline, watching them build something special here, working every single day, taking steps forward, and I just want to be part of that progress.

“It actually felt better today than it did yesterday during practice. It’s funny, man. It’s been a roller-coaster. You wake up each day and you really don’t know how you’re going to feel. My mind is ready to practice, to play, to do everything, but you kind of take it day to day.

Hightower last played on Oct. 23rd. He said he expects a wave of emotion to hit him when he steps out of the tunnel and is greeted by the fans at FedEx Field. It’s a scene he has imagined many times over the last nine months. Now he’s eager to live it out.

“I think about it a lot. I do think about it a lot,” Hightower said. “I guess I’ve had enough time away from it that you just replay so much in your head and you try to anticipate what that first carry’s going to be like and just hearing the crowd, your home fans, and everything, just put it all together. I think I’ve replayed it in my head a million times, and I’m excited to see how it’s going to turn out.”