Hightower mov­ing past un­likely come­back story

Saints RB grate­ful for sec­ond chance af­ter long lay­off

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SPORTS - By AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS in Me­tairie, Louisiana

Clus­tered on a shelf in Tim Hightower’s locker at the New Or­leans Saints train­ing cen­ter this week were three foot­balls — sym­bols of how far he’s come since a 2011 knee in­jury that side­lined him for more than three sea­sons.

Two of the foot­balls were car­ried into the end zone by the 30-year-old Hightower last Sun­day in Ari­zona, the place where his NFL ca­reer be­gan as a fifth-round draft choice out of Rich­mond in 2008.

The other was given to him by coach Sean Pay­ton in the locker room af­ter New Or­leans’ 48-41 tri­umph over the Car­di­nals.

“That’s the place where it re­ally started for me,” Hightower said.

“It was pretty cool for it to come back around full cir­cle. It was a re­minder to me of why I fought through the dif­fer­ent ob­sta­cles and what hap­pens when you con­tinue to stay fo­cused and stay driven.”

Hightower has rushed for 490 yards and three touch­downs this sea­son as a backup to Mark In­gram. He’s also caught a 50-yard scor­ing pass this sea­son.

If he can have a cou­ple more solid per­for­mances to close the sea­son, start­ing on Sun­day against Tampa Bay, he won’t be far from match­ing his pro­duc­tion from 2010 — the year be­fore his ca­reer-threat­en­ing in­jury — when he gained 736 yards on 153 car­ries and scored five TDs.

Hightower doesn’t want to say how much longer he thinks his NFL play­ing ca­reer might last, but he talks like a run­ning back still in his prime.

In­deed, while age 30 of­ten marks the twi­light of a run­ning back’s ca­reer, Hightower wasn’t get­ting hit at all from age 25 to 28, when he was out of the game and re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing his knee.

“My knee’s com­pletely healthy. My body’s com­pletely healthy. I feel like I’m still get­ting bet­ter,” Hightower said.

“I still feel like I’m grow­ing in this game, the knowl­edge of this game, un­der­stand­ing my role in it.”

Part of his role now ap­par­ently in­volves lead­er­ship. He gave a mo­ti­va­tional speech to the Saints in Ari­zona the Satur­day night be­fore their vic­tory there.

This week, team­mates voted Hightower the re­cip­i­ent of the Ed Block Courage Award, an honor each NFL team gives to a player seen as a source of in­spi­ra­tion and an ex­am­ple of courage and sports­man­ship.

“There’s a lot of dif­fer­ent ac­co­lades on the field, you know, sta­tis­ti­cally and stuff like that,” Hightower said.

“But to have some­thing like that, where guys have rec­og­nized the path you’ve taken, they re­spect the kind of guy you’ve been and the ex­am­ple that you’ve set, it means a lot.

“There were plenty of times where I didn’t even know if I had it in me to keep go­ing,” Hightower said.

“I’d wake up go­ing, ‘I don’t even know how I’m go­ing to make it through this day.’ You go through yet an­other surgery, yet an­other set­back, you rely on the goals you wrote down, you rely on the peo­ple in your cor­ner.”

Pay­ton said he liked Hightower’s tough run­ning style and had heard a lot of good things about him when he was com­ing into the league. So when he heard Hightower was at­tempt­ing a come­back in 2015, the Saints coach fig­ured he would give him a shot.

Hightower was on and off the ros­ter early in the 2015 reg­u­lar sea­son, but when other New Or­leans run­ning backs started to get hurt, he be­came a fix­ture and fin­ished last sea­son strong, earn­ing a con­tract for this sea­son.

Pay­ton said Hightower’s con­tri­bu­tions on and off the field have ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions.

“What we know now was not ob­vi­ous to us or some­thing that we were aware of with all the makeup and tough­ness,” Pay­ton said. “He is just a spe­cial guy.”

With praise com­ing from coaches and team­mates alike, the week got even bet­ter for Hightower when his wife, Rikki, sent him a long con­grat­u­la­tory text.

“She’s been with me through the ups and the downs. Where most peo­ple have just seen smiles, she’s seen the tears. She’s seen where I’m throw­ing things across the room in frus­tra­tion,” Hightower said.

“She’s seen me wak­ing up in the (op­er­at­ing) room. She’s seen me look­ing at the MRIs in the doc­tor’s of­fice.

“To have her send me a text and hav­ing her re­spect and her love, it means a lot.

“This week has been awe­some. Hope­fully it sets the tone for the rest of my ca­reer.”

CHRIS­TIAN PETERSEN / GETTY IM­AGES / AFP

New Or­leans Saints run­ning back Tim Hightower cel­e­brates af­ter scor­ing a touch­down against the Ari­zona Car­di­nals at the Univer­sity of Phoenix Sta­dium in Glen­dale, Ari­zona, on Dec 18. Hightower has re­bounded from a se­ri­ous knee in­jury that side­lined him for more than three sea­sons.

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