Dont’a Hightower never had a “Welcome to the NFL” moment, where a grizzled veteran knocked him to the ground and delivered an equally menacing scowl. Instead, Hightower’s NFL debut five years ago could’ve come from a fairy tale—or a highlight reel.
In front of more than a dozen friends and family members in his native state of Tennessee, the rookie linebacker made a quick impact in the second quarter. Jake Locker, the opposing team’s quarterback, prepared to pass, and Hightower’s fellow rookie Chandler Jones knocked the ball out of his hand. With the ball bouncing around, Hightower alertly scooped it up on the 6-yard line and headed for the end zone, where he rumbled in for what stands as the only defensive touchdown of his career.
“I tried to make sure that I timed the bounce so I could pick it up and not get hit. And it just so happened that I did that, and at the same time Rob Ninkovich came out of nowhere and ended up taking a bullet for me,” Hightower says. “It was a great game, and it was a great play. Me and Chandler still talk about it to this day.”
From the time he arrived in Foxboro, the first-round pick’s performance was never in doubt. In the two Super Bowls that Hightower’s played in, he’s made game-saving signature defensive plays that helped secure both wins. Last season, he earned second-team, All-Pro honors and was recently named one of NFL Network’s Top 100 players in the 32-team league. Now, months after signing a four-year, $43.5 million contract, Hightower recalls that finding his footing in the cold, sports-obsessed Northeast corner of the country took some time. But currently set to enter his sixth season with the Patriots, the veteran is comfortable as one of the faces of the Patriots champion defense and he has stepped his game up off the field as well, boosting diabetes awareness with his burgeoning charity efforts. Those two factors are enough to get the self-described Southern Gentleman in a New England state of mind for the foreseeable future.
“I have to get out of my shell,” says Hightower, 27. “It’s not anything like home, so I had to definitely get used to that the first couple of years, but I love what New England has done for me in the past, going on six years. And I appreciate everything around it.”
Hightower remembers how the on-field adjustment seemed easy, going from a well-oiled national title contender at the University of Alabama to a well-oiled Super Bowl contender. It was figuring out how to handle his personal independence that was more difficult.
Dont’a Hightower. Photo Credit: Jim Mahoney
“Football wasn’t too hard. Nick [Saban] and Bill [Belichick] are two peas in a pod,” he says. “But just learning how to be a pro and how to manage my time and going through all that stuff, and getting used to the weather and the area. It’s a little different in the South.”
Teammate and fellow defensive captain Devin McCourty joined the Patriots two years before Hightower. He says the combination of Hightower’s size and knocked the ball out of his right hand. The Patriots recovered the loose ball and scored a touchdown within minutes, making it a one-possession game in what would become the biggest comeback victory in Super Bowl history.
Hightower made a similarly important play in Super Bowl XLIX against Seattle. With about a minute left in the game, the Seahawks were on the 5-yard line when they handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch. Hightower broke free of his initial blocker and stopped Lynch 36 inches away from a game-winning score. That tackle set up Malcolm Butler’s famed end-zone interception, which stymied Seattle and clinched the first Super Bowl in a decade for the Patriots. It’s those types of plays that give Hightower a reputation as a big-game player, a label that he brushes off.
“I’m just trying not to let my teammates down. There was a game in 2013 when we were playing Miami. Long story short, Marcus Thigpen ran this ridiculous route on me and caught the ball. It just so happened that if we would’ve won that game, we would’ve had a better playoff percentage [and played the AFC Championship at home],” Hightower says. “We ended up getting to the AFC Championship game and losing at Denver. After that game with that play, I always told myself that I wouldn’t be the reason why we lost.”
That one play, in a regular season full of them, still sticks with Hightower years later. It’s that fear of letting down his teammates that quietly drives him to chase perfection in his work—something that’s yielded favorable results for the Patriots.
Photo Credit: David Silverman
“That [Super Bowl] play with the Seahawks, when that came up. Everyone in the stadium knew what play it was. I think they ran it about eight or nine times. … I knew if I didn’t make the tackle, it wasn’t going to be anyone else’s fault but mine. I knew the game would be over, and there was no way we were coming back from that. I was trying to make sure that it wasn’t going to be my fault that we lost.”
A comparable desire to shoulder the load carries over to Hightower’s charity work, where he’s hustling to raise money for the American Diabetes Association. It’s a cause that’s close to Hightower: His mother, L’Tanya, was diagnosed with diabetes in 2015, sparking him to get involved. He’s held Monday Night Football watch parties and also hosted a Wonder Woman screening this summer to benefit a group of women impacted by diabetes. His efforts landed him Sports Spectacular’s Spirit Award this April in a Los Angeles ceremony.
ALL SMILES: Dont’a Hightower attends a charity event with teammate Devin McCourty. Photo Credit: Eric J. Adler
“Whenever I started doing this, I wasn’t trying to start something crazy and make it bigger than what it is. But it grew into something much more, and a lot of people appreciate it here,” Hightower says of his diabetes-awareness efforts, which will include his third annual Monday Night Football Watch Party on Sept. 25. “We’ve had a lot of success in the past couple of years, and that motivates me to want to do more and give back more and do a little bit more each year.”
That sense of off-field comfort that Hightower has developed in New England weighed in the Patriots’ favor when he was a free agent this March. “It wasn’t just the way the money went,” Hightower says. “I’ve been here for a while, and at the end of the day, the better go-to for me was to come back.”
Hightower’s found a home in New England, rising to the challenge in the team’s biggest moments and more than happy to leave the hubbub behind when the game ends. In an organization that’s bursting with superstars, one of the most important players to its success has settled in under the radar.
“I wasn’t really a fan favorite during college and I’m not too worried about being a fan favorite now. I love my teammates and I love what fans I do have,” Hightower says. “I’ve never really cared about being liked. I don’t need the Jules or the Tom or the Gronk attention. I’m OK being me.” ◆