You don't need a diploma from the University of Richmond to realize the Arizona Cardinals did not want Tim Hightower anymore. The year after he arrived, they drafted another running back in the first round. Two years later, they drafted one in the second.
"That's how it is sometimes in the league," Hightower said this week outside of Redskins Park, his new home. "One guy fits a scheme a certain way, another guy doesn't."
Now Hightower believes he's where he belongs. After being traded to the Washington Redskins on July 31, he has returned to his roots. He's in an offense that suits his talents with an opportunity to be the featured running back.
What's more, he plans to remind the Cardinals what they gave up on when they visit FedEx Field on Sunday.
"I'm looking forward to being 2-0," Hightower said.
Hightower's path to Washington was a circular one. He earned all-state honors in his last two seasons Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., which is located about halfway between FedEx Field and Redskins Park.
The man who lives by the motto "Purpose Driven" was determined back then to earn a scholarship to a Division I-A school such as Virginia Tech or Maryland, but a broken foot his senior year in 2003 left Richmond as his only suitor.
Looking back, it was serendipitous. Coach Dave Clawson ran an outside-zone scheme similar to the one Redskins coach Mike Shanahan uses. As a freshman, Hightower tried simply to outrun defenders. But by his junior season, he had honed some of the talents required to thrive in that system.
"In the zone game, a lot of times the running lane isn't going to be defined pre-snap," said Clawson, who's now the head coach at Bowling Green. "The effective zone runners have the vision to see that lane and the physical skills to put their foot in the ground and attack it vertically. That is Tim's strength."
Hightower's production proved that. He set school records for career rushing yards (3,617), all-purpose yards (4,448), and touchdowns (39).
"When Tim gets his shoulders square and his body is low, he's an absolute hammer," Clawson said. "He's one of those backs who the more carries he got, the more effective he was. He could just wear people down."
Even after Clawson left Richmond to become the offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee following Hightower's senior season, he campaigned to pro scouts. "The tailback I had at Richmond was legit," he would say.
Hightower, 25, was not invited to the NFL scouting combine after his senior year, but the Cardinals drafted him in the fifth round anyway. Those in Arizona learned in 2008 what the Redskins have learned during the last six weeks.
"He's a good spiritual guy, always positive," said Cardinals defensive end Darnell Docket, one of Hightower's closest friends on that team. "I always admired him. He definitely works hard and runs hard."
Hightower scored 10 touchdowns as a rookie and had eight the following year, but he also developed a reputation for fumbling. He averaged one every 33 carries over his second and third seasons.
By then, the Cardinals had drafted Chris "Beanie" Wells 31st overall. Then in April, they selected Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams. Hightower had become expendable.
"You never want to allow one of your good players to leave your team, but I have so much respect for Tim and what he did for us and I care about Tim," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said, putting it as diplomatically as possible. "I know that he wanted to be the guy and have an opportunity to do that. Part of it was giving him that opportunity."
Arizona dealt him to Washington for 35-year-old defensive end Vonnie Holliday and a late 2012 draft pick, the NFL equivalent of a Blue Light Special.
"I'm glad it happened," Hightower said. This was the fresh start he wanted, and he took advantage by averaging 6.8 yards per carry during the preseason and earning the starting spot.
Now he's back in the area in which he grew up. He signed a restricted free-agent tender this summer, so he's under contract only until the end of this season. But this is a long-term project for Hightower.
His new purpose is to help restore the Redskins' good name, and the next step is beating his old team.
"Every once in a while it'll cross my mind just the fact that I'm back here living a childhood dream," Hightower said. "But I'm not thinking about, why did it happen? I'm thinking about the opportunities moving forward."
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