Knee injuries cut short Tim Hightower’s 2011 season and prevented him from playing in 2012. (John McDonnell – The Washington Post)

As Robert Griffin III writhed in pain on the messy surface of FedEx Field Sunday, former Redskins running back Tim Hightower watched on television in anguish. He has been in the same situation, having torn his ACL 15 months earlier in the Redskins’ Week 7 meeting with the Carolina Panthers.

Hightower hates to see any NFL player go down with an injury, especially since his own  forced him out of the league this past season and has him still working to come back. But seeing Griffin, of all people, the victim of such an injury caused greater discomfort and sadness.

“ACL surgery, there’s a lot of guys that can do it, and Dr. Andrews is the best in the field. It’s not impossible to come back from,” Hightower said. “But it’s just knowing that it’s a long grind ahead of you, it’ll require a lot of focus and discipline, and I hate to see guys go down. …That kid has rose to every occasion that’s been presented to him. And to see it, it was very unfortunate.”

Hightower spent roughly four months as a teammate of Griffin’s. Washington drafted the quarterback last April, and re-signed Hightower in May although his recovery from his injury remained incomplete. Hightower remained on Washington’s roster until Aug. 31, when, with his knee still slowly recovering, the team released him.

From spending time with Griffin, Hightower has a good understanding of what makes the quarterback tick, and because of that, he says, “If there’s anybody that can come back from it – from Day 1, he’s come in with an attitude and a mindset that not a lot of people have – so it’s him. He’ll be OK.”

When the Redskins released Hightower, his ACL was structurally sound, but he had a damaged meniscus in the same knee that required surgery. Hightower’s recovery has gone at a slow, but gradual pace. His knee is much improved, but he still has work to do before he returns to football shape.

Hightower fielded inquiries from a number of teams, but elected to take a cautious approach by not rushing back to action this season. “When you haven’t performed at a high level and you’re doing more rehab stuff, now it’s getting your body back to running full-speed and doing all the cutting and everything over and over and over in a repetitive manner,” he said. “I know I have a great offseason ahead of me. It hasn’t been a feeling of, ‘I’m there.’ It’s just like small battles. Each day, you win small battles, and you feel different and you progress more and more each day.”

Hightower, like Griffin, had his surgery done by orthopedic surgeon James Andrews. The Redskins believe that the quarterback could return to action during the 2013 season, and coach Mike Shanahan pointed to Adrian Peterson’s speedy recovery when discussing his hopes for Griffin’s recovery.

But as Hightower’s situation indicates, the same surgery can require a longer recovery by one player than another.

“Every ACL is not the same. It is, but it’s not, a protocol,” said Hightower, who now regrets his decision to decline the Redskins’ offer to place him on Physically Unable to Perform List at the start of training camp so he could have rehabbed at a more gradual pace. “They go in there and find out what other things are or are not, or have or have not been compromised, different ligaments, cartilage. It’s about understanding where you are, what happened to your body and where you are. The most important part mentally, was forming a team of people around you that you trust, who have been through this, who have helped you come back from it, who have seen variations of what could go wrong, different things that go right. Just forming that team of people, and mentally putting yourself at ease and saying, ‘OK, the surgery is behind me, I know what needs to be addressed, and I trust these people to help me get back to what I want to do.’ Most guys in this league – and Robert is no different – they work tremendously hard and work passionately to get back. So, that’s not an issue. It’s typically the mindset you have to have to get back.”

Hightower continued: “You’ve just got to pay attention to your body. For me, the more I was able to do, I set limits on myself and set boundaries to know. That comes back to trusting the people you work with. When you’re starting to feel better, us athletes, we have this type of warrior mentality to push our body to new extremes and demand more out of our body every day. That’s OK when you’re healthy. But when you’re coming off of surgery, it’s not OK. Coming off of surgery, the biggest thing is to do what you can do, and then let your body rest. I think the tough thing for me was to actually do that: to rest.”

As he watched the Redskins-Seahawks game, Hightower understood the position Griffin was in as he told the team’s trainers and coaches that he was still fine to play, even though his knee had worsened. Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said he trusted Griffin to tell him when he wasn’t able to continue. But Hightower believes that Griffin’s youth and feeling of indebtedness to his teammates clouded his judgment.

“I think that’s something that comes along with maturity,” Hightower said. “My rookie year, I would look at all the veterans, and they might sit out practice or a game, and as a young guy, you’re sitting there, saying, ‘these guys are lazy. They’ve already gotten paid, they don’t want to play.’ But the longer you’re in it, you understand, no, these guys know what it takes to stay in it and continue playing at a high level. They know when to push and when to shut it down. As a young guy, you don’t understand that. You think you can just push it, and you think you’ll recover from anything. And when you’re in the heat of a battle, it’s tough to think of long term.”


But Hightower refused to criticize Shanahan for allowing Griffin to remain in the game.

“That’s over-stepping my boundaries. Regardless of what I feel like should or should not have been done, he’s the head coach of that football team, and he’s coached them very well this season,” Hightower said.

He added that had Griffin remained in the game and emerged victorious, Shanahan would have been praised for making the right call. Or, if Shanahan had pulled Griffin early, and Washington had lost, Shanahan would have been criticized for that as well.

“That’s a decision he had to make. It’s the same thing if it’s third-and-1 or fourth-and-1. …As a coach, you flirt with that fine line as you do what’s best for your team. But you also trust the leaders of your team and trust those guys. I don’t know what conversations were had on that sideline, but he obviously trusted the fact that Robert could go in and help the team win. So, I don’t think that’s for anybody to say what he should or shouldn’t have done when they weren’t in that heat of the battle.”

Asked about what advice he could offer Griffin, Hightower said Griffin already probably knows what he needs to do to recover.

But he did offer: “That surgery or injury doesn’t define you. It just is an opportunity to define you, which is talented and determined, and the things that make Robert Griffin special. I would just encourage him to make sure he has the right people around him – friends, family, trainers, medical staff. As long as he has the right people around him and the tools to get better, the other intangibles, he has the things he needs to get back to where he needs to be.”