FOXBOROUGH — It was a scary time when Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower opted out of the 2020 NFL season because of COVID-19 concerns. He made the decision July 28; his newborn son, Grayson Dash, was less than 2 weeks old. The future was uncertain. The three-time Super Bowl champion was unsure whether he had played his last down.
“We didn’t have vaccines,” says his wife, Morgan Hightower. “We really didn’t know what the long-term effects would be. It could very well be a last game for everybody.”
Hightower spent his opt-out year hunkered down in his Tennessee home with his wife, son, and puppy. He has zero regrets.
“My primary goal at that time was to take care of my family, and I felt like I did the right thing,” says the defensive captain. “If I had to do it again, I’d definitely do it the same way.”
But now the man in the middle is back, just like the groundhog scurrying around his Foxborough backyard.
“I love it,” says Hightower, flashing a smile. “I enjoyed my time with my family and I’m excited to be back in camp with everybody and get to work.”
His goals this year are simple: “Win every game and don’t get hurt.”
This was the first time in more than a dozen years that Hightower, 31, had a full year to rest and rejuvenate.
“Football was all he did all the time, every day, and not just mentally, but physically,” says Morgan. “He hasn’t had 365 days a year to rest his body. I think it will be good for him.”
The two-time Pro Bowler, who is fully vaccinated, reported to camp in great shape and is thrilled to start terrorizing quarterbacks and making tackles again.
One thing is for sure: There will be no special treatment for the Tampa Bay quarterback when he returns to Foxborough Oct. 3.
“It’s going to be good to see 12 again,” says Hightower. “I’ve been going against him in practice for so long, I’m looking forward to playing against him.”
He doesn’t deny that it would be special to sack Tom Brady, but would he consider maybe gently ushering him to the turf, for old time’s sake?
“Oh, you mean, like, ‘soft sacking’ him?” he says, frowning. “Nah, you can’t do none of that stuff with him, man. He’s trying to throw touchdowns.
“No, in between the lines, it’s football. I’m sure he wouldn’t expect anything different.”
Hightower quickly batted away a question about whether that game is also going to be about Bill Belichick’s legacy.
“I’m playing to win,” he says. “I got nothing for you on that aspect.”
The joys of fatherhood
Hightower is more comfortable talking about last year’s highlight reel: Grayson’s first crawl, his first wobbly steps, and his first words.
“His first words were ‘da da’, and I was, like, ‘Yeah! Ka-ching, baby, ka-ching,’ ” says Hightower, raising a clenched fist in the air as if he had just strip-sacked Matt Ryan.
He also married Morgan in a small, family-only wedding in his Tennessee backyard at the end of May.
Hightower says the biggest surprise of the year for him was fatherhood itself.
“The overall enjoyment and joy that you get from it,” he says. “A lot of guys tell you there’s nothing like being a dad, but you don’t really know what it means until it happens to you.”
For Hightower, raised by a single mother who worked two jobs, it means something special.
“I didn’t have my father around when I was growing up,” he says. “So I just want to be there for him and show him right from wrong and build his moral compass and give him the right directions on his journey through life.
“I’ve been blessed in my life in a lot of different aspects, but being a dad tops them all.”
The Hightowers shared parental chores. Dont’a was the starter, jumping out of bed on the rare times that Grayson cried. Morgan was the finisher, although both read him bedtime stories. She also sang the lullabies.
“Mom has a better voice,” says Hightower. “I hummed.”
Hightower would watch every Patriots game with his son perched in his lap, mesmerized.
“He would sit down and just stare at the TV and watch football,” he says. “That made my job a lot easier.”
Hightower provided a running commentary of the game.
”I was just enjoying myself like a normal fan,” he says. “Yeah, I like football and beer just like everyone else.”
But his wife says watching a game with him was anything but normal.
“He was annoying as hell,” she says with a laugh. “It was like I was in the locker room, because he would know all the plays and coverages and tell me why they did this and why they did that.
“The worst was being quizzed on things that he just said that I did not understand. It was like a foreign language to me.”
Despite the isolation, Hightower watched film and kept in touch with his younger teammates, including Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, and Ja’Whaun Bentley.
“Just talking to them and telling them what I see on film and asking if they had any questions,” he says. “I was a part of it as much as I could. I couldn’t be a leader. It’s not like being here and being actually involved in the meetings.”
He was sorely missed on the field. The Patriots posted a dismal 7-9 record — their first losing season since 2000.
“The season was tough, with a lot of guys taking the opt-out and then a lot of the new guys coming in and having to learn that stuff on the ropes,” says Hightower. “But you know what? You try to move past that.”
Hightower also stayed in shape. He hates to run, so he got a Peloton and worked out hard. He lifted weights. He worked out with his cousin, a trainer in Nashville.
He also started studying Active Release Technique (ART), a soft-tissue treatment, and took an online class in anatomy and physiology. He wants to be able to talk to doctors and avoid injuries.
Could the TB12 Method be getting some competition?
“You never know,” he says with a laugh. “I find it intriguing.”
A happy camper
Back in Foxborough for minicamp, Hightower looks rust-free, intercepting rookie quarterback Mac Jones on the second day.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been out there, and it just felt good,” he says.
He was impressed by Jones, the Patriots’ top pick out of Hightower’s alma mater, Alabama.
“He’s a smart kid, works hard, very diligent,” says Hightower. “He’s literally a sponge, man. I’ve only been here a few days, but from just watching him always being around [Brian] Hoyer or Cam [Newton] or Stee [Jarrett Stidham], you can just tell that he just wants to learn.”
Hightower also loves the vibe and energy that Newton brings.
“I love Cam,” he says. “I obviously know how dynamic and how explosive a player he is.
“We went really hard those two days, and sometimes you need a little extra juice. And guys like Cam really help push the whole team. He’s tired, and you know he’s tired, but he’s still pushing and pushing and trying to get everybody going. And you need that on the team. Guys feed off of him.”
Now in his ninth season, Hightower knows that “NFL” is also an acronym for “Not For Long.” Will he allow Grayson to play football someday?
“If he wants to,” says Hightower. “I’m going to push some kind of sport on him because I definitely think that the things you learn in sports — like accountability, determination, preservation, discipline, integrity, and teamwork — also are important in life. I’m a big, big believer in that.”
He recently discussed football safety with his wife, who has legitimate concerns. Her cousin broke his neck playing football in high school.
“Ultimately, it’ll will be up to him if he loves the game the way his dad does,” says Morgan. “I’m not going to stop him from doing something he loves.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.