When Marshall County (Lewisburg, TN) High School principal and assistant football coach Keith Stacey is asked to recall Dont'a Hightower, one memory jumps out at him.
"We were playing Columbia Central High School. They were in a bigger conference. It was a Friday night game, and we were not picked by many to win. We did end up beating them," Stacey began, almost as an afterthought.
"They ran an iso [play], and Dont'a was playing MIKE. He met the fullback in the A-gap and ran through him. I mean he just tackled the fullback and knocked the tailback for a loss at the same time… Totally blew the play up. That wound up on his highlight reel… it was devastating. He folded the fullback up right in the hole."
Stacey said he has countless other stories about Hightower making a big hit, knocking the ball loose, running with it and scoring or just getting the ball back for the offense – an area Hightower, the ferocious linebacker, knew a thing or two about.
You see, his talent on the field wasn't just limited to defense. As a sophomore, Hightower, according to Stacey, was competing for the starting running back job as well as his natural linebacker position. The role eventually went to a senior.
"I don't think anyone ever doubted that Dont'a could win the job," Hightower explained. "He'd go in and spell the starter, often play slot receiver, too. He was a man among boys. He could've been the starter at running back from Day One. The other guy was just older, and a lot of times, they get the bulk of reps. And Dont'a always played defense anyway."
However, late in the year, that senior running back suddenly quit the team. So, Hightower finally had a chance to play both ways.
All he did, in Marshall County's final four games, was rush for more than 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns. That drew national interest in Hightower, the phenom from a small, small town an hour south of Nashville. He eventually settled on Alabama for college, but always made a point of going back to his hometown.
When he did, it was clear to those who knew him that he was destined for the NFL.
"I think he matured a lot at Alabama," Stacey continued. "Physically, he got bigger. First time he came back, his freshman year at Alabama, he just looked so much more massive. He had become a man. We thought he was a man when he left us, but he was even more so. His attitude was very focused, he was of a singular mind, and very driven. When he tore his knee up his sophomore year [in Tuscaloosa], it gave him more resolve and determination to return better than ever."
That's exactly what Hightower did, and today, he's about to embark on his professional career in earnest by taking part in his first Patriots practice.
To read more of Stacey's reflections on Hightower and a profile of each of New England's 2012 draft picks, *check out the current issue of Patriots Football Weekly that's on newsstands now. To subscribe call 1-800-494-PATS or go to PFWonline.com*