FOXBOROUGH — The last time Dont’a Hightower lined up in a live game, he made the most memorable play of his career.
With less than nine minutes left in Super Bowl LI, and the Patriots trailing, 28-12, Hightower strip-sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. The Patriots recovered, and the momentum continued to shift amid their historic 25-point comeback.
Hightower is ready to turn the page, but he will always cherish his play that factored into the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
“Somebody asked me the one play I will never forget, and that would probably be the one,” Hightower said. “But that was last year. I am not trying to live in the past as much as I love to.”
Seven months later, Hightower is fully focused on returning to the field after sitting out nearly all of training camp with an undisclosed injury. He didn’t play in any of the four preseason games.
However, he wasn’t listed on the team’s first injury report of the season, released Monday evening, indicating he is good to go for Thursday’s opener.
Now, he’s trying to make up for lost time.
“In all reality, each day you miss you lose a day on your craft,” Hightower said. “With the young guys learning as much as they are now, you aren’t trying to let anybody get a step on you.”
Hightower has experienced injury issues throughout his career. He has played in all 16 regular-season games only once and missed 11 games in the past three seasons.
In June, Bill Belichick reached across the AFC East landscape to scoop David Harris, one of the most productive middle linebackers in the past decade. Harris and Elandon Roberts will help alleviate some of the pressure on Hightower, who could see more time on the edge with the recent attrition and inexperience at defensive end.
Hightower has helped Harris, the third-leading tackler in Jets history, transition into the new system. It helps that their lockers are side by side.
“There’s no person I would rather be next to than him,” Harris said two weeks ago.
“He has been the leader and a great linebacker on this defense for a long time. It helps with him being next to me so I can ask him questions about certain things.”
Hightower said he has been working throughout the offseason for Thursday’s opener, despite missing the majority of practices. He said the first game is the hardest because of the unknowns and uncertainties surrounding the opponent.
Now that he is fully cleared, he is focused on making plays similar to his unforgettable strip-sack in February.
“It has been a long offseason,” Hightower said. “I have been working and hopefully this progress will take me into Thursday, and we will see from there.”
Karras happy to be back
Guard Ted Karras was one of the surprise releases on Saturday as the Patriots trimmed their roster to 53 players. As a rookie, Karras was a member of last year’s Super Bowl-winning team.
After his phone rang and he was told he had been cut, Karras spent the day speaking with his agent, parents, and fiancee about what the future may hold.
“It’s never fun to deliver bad news, especially about yourself,” Karras said. “We were just speculating on what kind of plans need to be made. There is nothing you can do until noon on the next day.”
The 31 other NFL teams had the opportunity to claim Karras within the 24-hour window before noon on Sunday. Karras sat and waited, hoping he would return to New England, an organization he says he loves and enjoys being around.
Karras wasn’t claimed, and the Patriots quickly secured him as a member of the 10-man practice squad, much to his relief.
“Your career is in the balance,” Karras said. “It didn’t work out on that final day for me, but I was ready to go whenever I was called. I am thrilled to be back here, and I am really happy it all worked out.”
One of Karras’s favorite parts of football is developing relationships with teammates and coaches. He has established a friendship with rookie offensive tackle Cole Croston, whose locker is situated next to Karras’s.
Croston, an undrafted rookie and former Iowa walk-on, made the initial 53-man roster on Saturday. Karras has welcomed him to New England, away from the locker room, too.
“He is going to come live with us at the house,” Karras said about Croston. “We have some rooms open, and you have to save money out here, man.”
Brandon Bolden, one of the Patriots’ best special teams players, was a surprising cut Saturday. Bolden wasn’t subjected to the 24-hour waiver claim period because of his status as a vested free agent (players with at least four years of NFL experience). He became a free agent immediately after he was released.
The Patriots kept injured linebacker Shea McClellin on the 53-man roster for one day before reportedly moving him to the injured reserve, freeing his spot for Bolden.
According to NFL rules, those placed on injured reserve can only return to the field if they are included on the 53-man roster for a day. McClellin can return after sitting out the first six weeks on the injured reserve. Bolden rejoined the Patriots and practiced on Monday.
Aside from McClellin, Cameron Fleming and Vincent Valentine were the only nonparticipants in Monday’s practice. Nate Solder, who hasn’t practiced with the team for the majority of training camp, wasn’t listed on Monday’s injury report. The players included on the report are: Fleming, Valentine, Adam Butler, Nate Ebner, Harvey Langi, Malcolm Mitchell, and Matthew Slater.