Mon, 05 Jun 2023

Hightower was always best when lights shined brightest

New England Patriots
22 Mar 2023, 19:34 GMT+10

After nine memorable seasons in Foxborough, Dont'a Hightower officially retired on Tuesday, leaving a legacy of big plays in the biggest games behind.Paul Perillo

Bill Belichick has developed a reputation for trading down in the draft, especially in the first round. So, when the Patriots legendary coach traded up in 2012, actually twice, fans were anxious to get a glimpse of the players worthy of such a change.

They would not be disappointed.

Belichick had his eyes on a pair of defensive players and slid up to grab both Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower and it didn't take long for them to make an impact. On opening day in Nashville against the Titans, that tandem combined to produce a touchdown when Jones stripped-sacked quarterback Jake Locker and Hightower scooped it up and rumbled 6 yards into the end zone.

It would not be the last impactful play of Hightower's terrific nine-year career that officially came to an end Friday when he announced his retirement. Hightower did not play in 2022, so the news did not come as a shock, but it does put an end to a quietly effective career for the linebacker who always seemed to be involved in the key moments.

His initial flair for the dramatic in Nashville wasn't his last. While baseball has Reggie Jackson's Mr. October, the Patriots version of Mr. February might very well be Hightower.

He took part in three Super Bowl victories and came up with impactful, game-changing plays in all three. The first came in Arizona in Super Bowl XLIX against Seattle. After Tom Brady rallied the Patriots to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to take a 28-24 lead, the Seahawks looked poised to win it in the closing seconds with the ball at New England's 5.

On first-and-goal, Marshawn Lynch took a handoff and shot through a gap on the left side and appeared to be ticketed for the end zone. Hightower shook off a block and managed to bring down the bulky back at the 1, allowing Malcolm Butler the opportunity to shock the world on the following play with his clinching interception.

Two years later the circumstances were even more dire as the Patriots trailed Atlanta, 28-3, in Houston in Super Bowl LI. Halfway through the fourth quarter the Patriots still trailed 28-12 when Hightower turned the game in New England's favor for good. On third-and-1 from Atlanta's 36, Hightower shot into the backfield and strip-sacked Matt Ryan, allowing Alan Branch to recover at the Falcons 25. Five plays later, it was 28-20 and NRG Stadium was in a frenzy.

Hightower was heavily involved once again two year later when he hounded and harassed the Rams Jared Goff in Super Bowl LIII. Hightower sacked Goff twice, knocked down a pass and hit him on another occasion as the Patriots defense suffocated the high-powered Rams all night.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the one unsuccessful Super Bowl trip during his career came in 2017 when he missed the playoffs while on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle.

While Hightower wasn't the team's most-decorated player, whenever the stakes were highest, he was always at his best. The 6-3, 260-pound linebacker out of Alabama came to Foxborough with an NFL mindset and his professionalism was noticed immediately. He wasn't a frequent talker in the locker room but when he did offer his thoughts they generally carried weight.

Many of his younger teammates raved about his ability to diagnose plays and understand the concepts of the defense. Ja'Whaun Bentley in particular has often credited Hightower with helping him in that regard.

"Dont'a has definitely been a piece to that puzzle, for sure," Bentley said early in the 2021 season. "Just watching all the guys play and their thought process and how they break down plays. It's always pivotal. I've learned so much from him in terms of how to approach the game."

Belichick himself often expressed how impressive Hightower's instincts were and how instrumental he was to the overall success of the defense.

"Sometimes, players, maybe they can't even tell you how they know what the right thing to do is, they just know what the right thing to do is," Belichick once said of Hightower. "Sometimes they anticipate it. Sometimes it just comes to them just instinctively. High's a smart player. He can play multiple positions. The mental part of the game seems to come very easy for him."

So, while Hightower doesn't leave a laundry list of Pro Bowls (he made appearances in 2016 and 2019), his tenure as a captain and inspirational leader will be missed. His penchant for making big plays under the brightest lights will always resonate in New England, and from Day 1 he made Belichick's decision to leave his comfort zone and move up in the first round a good one.

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