TUSCALOOSA _ He wasn't supposed to be back for a year. Then he wasn't expected to ready for spring practices, especially anything contact-related.
Yet there was University of Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower in the middle spring drills Monday, mixing it up and in his own words being probably "A little too rowdy."
It's only been 177 days since the promising second-year standout was lost for the 2009 season on a low hit by Arkansas guard Mitch Petrus, which not only threatened what turned into Alabama's national championship season but his career as well. Somehow both persevered.
Hightower sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus, known in orthopedic circles as the "unhappy triad." After surgery, he called it basically having a new knee.
Monday, it was almost as if he never had surgery.
"Any time you see someone go down with a knee injury like he had you question their future all together," quarterback Greg McElroy said. "You see a lot of guys come back from that injury not the same player, but not Dont'a. He worked as hard as he possibly could in the weight room, the rehab room. He comes back without having lost a beat."
That, more than anything, fueled Hightower to never be one of those guys that people said, 'if only.' It served him while putting on five more pounds of muscle, riding the exercise bike like he was training for the Tour de France, doing everything required and more. He never strayed from the team, was seen around the football building as much as any other player and even rooted the Crimson Tide along the Georgia Dome and Rose Bowl sidelines.
"Day in, day out," was what it took. "It felt like I didn't have a minute, any time to myself where I could anything," Hightower continued. "But I know I had to do it, to be where I am today.
"I feel great."
Imagine what that would be like, though, to watch the Tide rattle off wins and accolades, beat Florida and then Texas while not being able to contribute more. His abbreviated season ended with 16 tackles, four for a loss and one sack, giving him 80 career tackles and 6.5 for a loss, but he probably would have given them all up just to play one down in the BCS National Championship Game.
"It was very painful," Hightower admitted. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But you have to take what you've got. That's what I did. I was there for the team. I'm extremely excited that we won it and everything, but my goal this year is I missed out, hopefully we can get back to the same stage and take it back again."
"Donta was itching more than anyone to be on the field," quarterback Greg McElroy said. "He used that as motivation."
That and a whole lot more. The celebrations? They motivated him. That every team will be gunning for the Tide this season? You got it, motivation. That the Tide lost eight defensive starters?
"It motivates me a lot," he said. "I can't speak for everyone else, but we lost a lot of seniors and a lot of veterans. With the young guys we have in here this year, if we can teach them the techniques and to do things right I feel like we have a little bit more talent than we did last year."
It should be pointed out that Alabama had a record six first-team All-Americans last season, three on defense, and another former player who just might be a first-round selection in the NFL Draft in cornerback Kareem Jackson.
So to say there may now be more talent is no small statement, but with so many open jobs and opportunities the intensity has already picked up in practice.
"Everybody wants to play," he said.
Where Hightower might play, though, isn't clear-cut. During his rookie year, when he was named first-team Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America, second-team Freshman All-American by The Sporting News, and Freshman All-SEC by the league's coaches, he was the Tide's weakside (Will) linebacker alongside Rolando McClain -- who last season won the Butkus Award as linebacker of the year.
Now he's probably replacing him, if not purely in position perhaps potentially in leadership.
"He taught me a lot when I was a freshman and he's still teaching me things to this day," Hightower said.
"I'm looking forward to it. I think there are a couple of other guys who can do it just as well, so I hope all of us come up. I don't think I should be labeled as just the one leader of the defense. It should be 'Who wants to lead? Who wants to be great?' I'm looking forward to taking over that role."
The natural move would seemingly be to put Hightower in McClain's former spot in the middle, but he's also seen playing time at the Jack linebacker as a pass-rusher, along with Will where there's more freedom to move around.
Consequently, the coaching staff has a lot of options, which is why in part defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is having all the interior linebackers learn the play signals.
"I'm looking forward to being back," Hightower said. "Whatever he needs me to do, if he needs me to play the three-technique (nose tackle), I'll go play the three-technique. I'm just looking forward to being out there."
Hightower might not participate in any of the spring scrimmages as a precaution, although that has yet to be determined, which might help explain how the interior linebackers lined up for a drill Monday. The Tide went three wide with Hightower in the middle, Chris Jordan to his left and Nico Johnson on his right, apparently at Will.
That just leaves what it'll be like to finally make that first hit in a game, maybe against San Jose State in the 2010 opener Sept. 4, 166 days after Hightower's first practice back. He can't wait.
"I'm probably going to want to take someone's head off," Hightower said. "