NEW ORLEANS -- At the time, fate dealt what seemed like a cruel blow to linebacker Dont'a Hightower four games into Alabama’s 2009 national championship season.
He tore both the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, not to mention suffering meniscus damage, and was done for the season.
“A lot of guys don’t bounce back from reconstructive knee surgery and return to be the player they used to be,” Hightower said. “I knew I had that working against me.”
Hightower worked feverishly to rehabilitate his knee and made it back quicker than anybody could have imagined. He was back on the field in time for spring practice in 2010 and played the entire season, although he admits now that he was only a glimmer in 2010 of the player he was before the injury.
“Just in being able to move, I couldn’t do the things I wanted to,” Hightower said of his 2010 season. “One of the strengths of my game is being able to diagnose running plays and play-action passes. It doesn’t do much for you, though, if my mind can read the play, but my legs can’t get me there in time to make the play.”
As frustrating as that whole process was for Hightower, he looks back and says it might have been a blessing in disguise.
Had he not been injured in 2009, he’d probably be playing in the NFL right now and not getting ready for LSU on Monday in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.
“I was there with the team in 2009, but I didn’t get to play in the game,” Hightower said. “So this one means a lot more to me. I get a chance to be out there with my teammates and a chance to win a second championship.”
Even more importantly, hanging around an extra year also gave Hightower a chance to fulfill a promise he made to his late grandfather, John Hightower.
Upon signing with Alabama, Hightower promised his grandfather that he would be the first member of the family to graduate from college.
Sadly, Hightower’s grandfather passed away before he ever had a chance to see Hightower play in a game at Alabama.
“I promised him I would graduate,” Hightower said. “I sat back (after the 2010 season) and realized that I didn’t have the season I wanted to have and also had the opportunity to come back and graduate and go out with another national championship.
“I just set my mind to it, that I was going to go out there and finish the rest of my dream.”
Sure enough, Hightower graduated in December, and to do so, he took 19 hours last semester, which is unheard of for a football player.
“That’s a lot, definitely the hardest semester I’ve ever had,” Hightower said. “But it was worth it.”
There again, had he not gone down with the knee injury, he probably wouldn’t have been around to take those 19 hours last semester, and at the very least, would have had to delay finishing school.
“God works in mysterious ways,” said Hightower, who leads Alabama this season with 81 total tackles. “My mom and everybody around me kept telling me that everything happens for a reason, and I’m going to take what God has given me and come out on top.”
It’s already been a memorable season for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Hightower, who was a consensus first-team All-America selection and finalist for several national defensive awards.
Plus, when he watches himself on tape now, Hightower says with conviction that he looks like his old self. In fact, he said it’s the strongest and fastest he’s felt going into Monday’s showdown with LSU.
“I was watching film of last year’s LSU game, and there were about seven or eight plays that I would have made this year that I didn’t make last year,” said Hightower, who handles all of the play calls and checks for the Crimson Tide on defense. “More than anything, it’s just my explosiveness. I have it back now.”
Hightower isn’t the only Alabama player who will have a shot at a second national championship “thanks” to an injury.
Senior safety Mark Barron said he was all but gone last season before suffering a torn right pectoral muscle in the regular-season finale against Auburn.
“I felt at the time I made the right decision, and getting a chance at a second national championship only makes me feel that much better about my decision,” said Barron, who also earned consensus first-team All-America honors this season. “Now we’ve got to finish this thing off.”
Hightower said he and Barron reminded each other recently how it was meant to be for both of them this season.
“It might have been different if we hadn’t gotten hurt,” Hightower said. “But we did, and we both fought back. I can promise you’ll we both be ready come [Monday], too.”