As he worked to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Hightower entertained interest from other teams and even visited the New England Patriots in April, before re-signing with Washington on May 14.
“I’m a Redskin, man,” he said. “They say, ‘Home is where the heart is.’ From the day I set foot in the facility last August, I loved it. I love the community, and what [General Manager] Bruce Allen and Coach [Mike] Shanahan are doing, and this is home. It is a business, so I had to explore all options, just like they explored theirs, but I always told my agent, ‘This is where I want to be.’ And here I am, and I’m just working my way back.”
The Redskins will hit the field on Monday for the first of 10 offseason practice sessions known as organized team activities. But Hightower must wait a bit longer for his own return. While his teammates run through drills and plays, he will continue to work with the team’s trainers, rehabbing from the surgery that repaired the tear he suffered to his left ACL in the fifth game of the 2011 season.
But he will do it at home, with the team he grew up supporting here. And that’s all that matters to Hightower right now.
The 6-foot, 222-pound Hightower has managed to develop a balance between working with a sense of urgency and maintaining patience. During the final 11 weeks of last season, as he watched Redskins games on television, Hightower began to see the game in a way he never had before.
“Now I’m watching different formations, cues, and blitzes,” said Hightower, who last season rushed for 321 yards and a touchdown on 84 carries and also had a touchdown reception. “Before, I’d just watch the game. . . . When talking about the greats, they always say it’s as if they’re coaches because of their knowledge. But I wasn’t at that perspective yet. But now, watching the game, it’s deeper than running up and down the field. It’s deeper than that.”
Hightower’s drive and experience are among the reasons the team values him so highly as it ushers in rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and develops two other young running backs.
“Tim is a good leader,” Allen said Friday. “His knowledge in all aspects of the offense have been valuable for the players, and he’s a great teammate that we wanted to have back.”
Second-year wide receiver Leonard Hankerson agrees.
“With the experience that Tim has, he’s a great leader. Being that this is going into his fifth season, it helps out a whole lot,” said Hankerson, who has been rehabbing a season-ending injury of his own alongside Hightower. “I remember last year, first game, I guess I was struggling a bit, and he was talking to me, telling me he wanted to see me do well. He’s one of those guys that’s going to keep you going, give you that confidence and build you up, and that’s what we need at Redskins Park.”
An official timetable on Hightower’s full recovery has yet to be announced. But both player and team fully expect that he will be back on the field by the start of the 2012 season.
“Everything’s on course and he’s put a lot of work into it,” Allen said. “And Dr. [James] Andrews will tell you he’s never seen someone more dedicated than Tim has been through his recovery.”
It remains to be seen if Hightower opens the season as Washington’s starting tailback, but if he’s healthy, it would appear that his chances are good.
The Redskins are high on second-year backs Roy Helu Jr., who started five games, averaged 4.2 yards a carry and scored three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving), and Evan Royster, who made two starts and averaged 5.9 yards a carry and 7.6 yards per catch.
But during the offseason, Shanahan has described Hightower as the Redskins’ “potential starter.” Of Washington’s three backs, he is the most complete player.
Hightower expects stiff competition from Helu and Royster, but doesn’t view reclaiming his job as starter as a daunting task.
“To see them get their opportunities was great,” he said. “I was their biggest cheerleader. . . . Now, the competitor in me did feel a little bit of that fire and that motivation. You always aim to be the starter, and I do, just like they do.
“Confidence is all I have to go by,” Hightower added. “I know when you put your all into something, you’ll succeed. I’ve made a lot of improvement, and I know I’ll be ready come September, when we kick that football off.”