- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009

About 12 miles separate Episcopal High School and Friendly High School, but in September 2002, it felt like much farther to Tim Hightower.

He didn’t like attending the Alexandria boarding school instead of the Fort Washington public school.

He didn’t like being away from friendships forged when he moved from California before his eighth-grade year.

And he didn’t like the reality of continuing his football career in another uniform.

“I was bitter,” Hightower said. “I rebelled because I wanted to be back in PG County.”

Reflecting on his attitude more than six years later, the Arizona Cardinals running back now calls his two-year stay at Episcopal one of the defining times in his life, an unforgettable experience academically and athletically and the springboard to where he is now - on the cusp of playing in Sunday night’s Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“It was a college environment, and the atmosphere was a little more similar culture-wise to the University of Richmond,” he said this week. “Coming from a predominantly black public school, going to a boarding school prepared me to make the transition a lot smoother.”

Kind of like Hightower’s transition from college to professional football and dealing with the increased attention.

During Tuesday’s media day, Hightower was one of fewer than a dozen Cardinals players to get their own interview podiums, where he fielded questions about everything from his emergence within the offense to the type of music on his iPod.

“This is sinking in,” he said. “You can’t help but get here and see all the cameras. I’m not used to this. But it’s a good thing. It’s something every kid dreams of - playing in the Super Bowl in this environment.”

For Hightower, the dream began as a fourth grader in California when Tim told his mom he was going to end up in the NFL.

“I knew from the first time I started playing,” he said. “I told my mother I was going to play professional football. I didn’t blink when I told her. I looked her right in the eye. And I haven’t looked back.”

Hightower has been asked to look back at his improbable season several times this week, and he does so with equal parts pride and lack of surprise.

He expected it.

Others didn’t, especially right away.

As a fifth-round draft pick, expectations were low for Hightower. He had played at a small college program, and the Cardinals had a starting running back atop their depth chart, Edgerrin James, who is a potential Hall of Fam inductee.

But even though the Cardinals were winning early this season, James wasn’t producing. At the season’s halfway point, the Cardinals made Hightower the starter. He responded with 22 carries for 109 yards in an Arizona victory at St. Louis.

Hightower finished the regular season with 143 carries for 399 yards but hit the rookie wall; James reclaimed the starting position for the postseason. But expect to see Hightower on the field against Pittsburgh. In the playoffs, he has 34 carries and two receptions, including the game-winning touchdown catch against Philadelphia in the NFC championship game.

“I like to be able to say we saw it coming, but I can’t really say that,” Cardinals General Manager Rod Graves said. “We felt he was a strong prospect but, to be honest, he’s developed into more of a player than we thought he would be.”

Hightower, 22, is used to surprising people. He received no major college scholarship offers but ended his Richmond career with four school records, including rushing yards (3,712) and touchdown runs (34). But organizers of the NFL’s scouting combine deemed him unworthy of their event last February.

Every winter in Indianapolis, up to 335 players are invited to what is essentially a four-day job interview in front of every NFL team for draft-eligible players. It gives small-college players like Hightower a chance to impress.

“If you’re a competitor, you want to get ranked among the best players, and I felt I had earned the recognition to be with the best and when I didn’t get that chance, I was disappointed,” Hightower said. “It was one of the many motivators. I already felt I had enough motivation to keep going but I put it in my back pocket and in my mind, and it will be something that pushed me and will keep working at a high level for a long time.”

The Cardinals entered the draft process intent on selecting a running back in the opening three rounds. But they researched Hightower and became intrigued enough to send running backs coach Maurice Carthon to Richmond to interview and work out Hightower.

“I talked to him for about two hours, and what impressed me was that he was a good person who had a chip on his shoulder and those are the types of guys you want on your team,” Carthon said.

What Carthon discovered was a person who had been preparing for the NFL with intensity and through unorthodox avenues.

After his sophomore year in high school, Hightower’s parents, Nikkie and Lewis, decided to transfer Tim and one of his sisters to Episcopal. Later, to improve his flexibility, Lewis suggested ballet lessons for Tim, which later led to yoga.

“I was always looking for the next best thing, anything that could push me over the edge and give me a head up on the competition,” he said. “I want to be the best in everything I did and wanted to do what other people weren’t willing to do. I laughed about [ballet] at first, but it made me better.”

Next year, depending on James’ status, Hightower could end up with a larger role. But first up is the biggest game he’s played in. His parents, brother and two sisters will be among the family members in attendance.

“We’ve come this far,” Hightower said of the Cardinals, participating in their first Super Bowl, too. “We might as well win it.”

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