FOXBOROUGH — Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower sounds excited to return to football — and slightly peeved by the repeated questions about his status for the upcoming season.
Hightower, who did not play last year because of concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, made it clear Tuesday he opted out of the 2020 season and only the 2020 season. He reiterated that he decided to sit out for the betterment of his family, as he and his wife Morgan welcomed their first child, a baby boy named Grayson, last summer.
“All them rumors about retirement and stuff, y’all had me thinking somebody was trying to kick me out,” Hightower joked after New England’s second minicamp practice. “[The opt-out] was literally just for the season. I wasn’t planning one or two steps ahead or anything like that.”
The Patriots already have lost safety (and fellow 2020 opt-out) Patrick Chung and wide receiver Julian Edelman to retirement this offseason. Hightower has offered no signs he will soon follow in their footsteps.
Asked explicitly about whether he intends to play this season, Hightower quipped, “I wouldn’t be out here doing this for free.”
Asked once more about his commitment, Hightower, again, pointed to his attendance as a strong indication of his plans.
“I don’t know what y’all want me to say, man,” he said. “I’m here. I’m working. I’m in minicamp, bro. I’m not here to write a story for you, dog. I’m here to work, man. I’m here. I don’t know what else y’all need me to say. If I wasn’t here, then I think that would be something to talk about. But I’m here. Hopefully, that knocks all those questions out.”
Through two days of mandatory minicamp, Hightower’s presence is hard to miss. During Tuesday’s 11-on-11 drills, he leaped to intercept rookie Mac Jones on a short pass over the middle. The pick delighted the members of the defense, some of whom started yelling “Boom!” — Hightower’s nickname — as part of their celebratory cheers.
Moments later, when linebacker Kyle Van Noy picked off another pass from Jones, Hightower was right there to hug his teammate. And whenever he’s not actively participating in a drill, the 31-year-old veteran is often chatting with coaches Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia, or with younger players, such as second-year safety Kyle Dugger.
“Having him back in the building, back out there making plays, I think it gives everybody a lift,” said safety Devin McCourty. “It’s been great to have him back.”
Added Belichick: “High’s worked right in very quickly. He’s obviously a smart player with a lot of experience and has a lot of leadership force on the team.”
Entering his ninth NFL season, Hightower rejoins New England’s revamped pass rush with Van Noy and defensive end Matthew Judon. Second-year linebacker Josh Uche and third-year defensive end Chase Winovich could also play important roles.
Hightower noted he hopes to lead by example and serve as a resource for younger teammates.
“You’re only as strong as the weakest link,” he said. “I don’t want to keep any secrets to myself, as far as taking care of my body or how I diagnose plays or what my schedule is or whatever. Whenever it comes to a young guy, I’m essentially here to help.”
In 15 games in 2019, Hightower logged 71 tackles, including eight for a loss and 5.5 sacks. Only Jamie Collins finished the year with more tackles, with 81. Hightower also ranked second on the team in quarterback hits, with 13.
During his season away, when he wasn’t spending time with his family, Hightower still stayed active, working out, watching film, and keeping in touch with his teammates.
“I love my wife, and I love my son, but I’m pretty sure that she was ready for me to get back out here, too,” he said. “Talking football into her ear and her head. I’m glad to be back, glad to be around all the guys.”
Nicole Yang can be reached at email@example.com.