Running back Tim Hightower (34) breaks loose on a 35-yard touchdown run -- helped by Larry Fitzgerald's block -- that boosted him to a career-high 148-yard game last weekend.
Standing on the sideline, Tim Hightower churned with mixed emotions.
At once, he was tugged in separate directions, happy to see his friend LaRod Stephens-Howling get a chance to run the ball more than he usually did yet pained to know it was because of his mistake it was happening.
Then, Stephens-Howling tired. Coach Ken Whisenhunt had no choice but to put Hightower back on the field. And in many ways, Hightower's season had reached its watershed moment. He didn't know how many more plays he might get.
To himself, Hightower thought, "I have to score this play."
He didn't score, but he came close. He burst off the left side for a 41-yard gain that nearly doubled his day's total and wore a smile caught by TV cameras after the play. Two more attempts and 15 yards later, Hightower did have his touchdown, and by the time the quarter was over, Hightower had run for exactly 100 yards in a period where he went from the depths to elation.
"Last year, it would've been, 'Gosh,' and I would have been beating myself down," said Hightower, who finished with a career-high 148 yards. "(But) to be able to do that and then have the end result like that, that's why I was emotional after that game."
Describing Hightower's season has not been simple. His playing time is intertwined with fellow running back Beanie Wells, as well as offensive struggles that have prevented long drives or caused large deficits that have pushed the Cards away from running in the first place.
The last two games, Hightower has emerged as the most productive back the Cards have, partly because Wells' illness kept him mostly sidelined last week. With three games left, Hightower already has set a season-high for rushing yards (667) and has an outside shot at 1,000. He also is easily averaging his career-high in yards per carry (5.2) and recently his pass protection has reverted to its quality form after some patchy problems earlier in the season.
The fumbles, however, have hurt. Two in the opener sent up red flags. One in Seattle – when he was on his way to a huge day, averaging almost 10 yards a carry – not only got him benched for the rest of that game but practically the entire next game against Tampa, when he had just one carry.
"It's a source of frustration for both him and the team," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
Admittedly already frustrated in a handful of areas earlier against the Broncos – a missed read by himself here, a poor block there, irritation at not getting more carries – Hightower then teetered on near shock after fumbling.
"After that fumble," fellow running back Jason Wright said, "he just felt like, 'I'm back at the bottom at this point.' "
The fumble run was three yards. Hightower piled up 97 more when he went back in. After his first touchdown – in which he bounced outside – coaches were quizzing him on what he saw as he went up into the line, and what he read to make him take it wide. Hightower couldn't tell them. "I was just trying to score."
In another game, with the Cards leading by so much, Hightower believes he would have even considered going down at the 1-yard line on both his touchdowns in an effort to burn even more clock. Caught in the moment, not only of the game but of the season, that didn't occur to him, thinking, "when you are struggling and your team is struggling, you feel like you are a part of the problem instead a part of the solution."
All Hightower wanted was to be part of the fix.
"To be able to make a play after a downer like that, instead of just playing it safe, to go for it and finish the way he did, I think it shows he's matured and is officially a veteran," Wright said. "The last few games, that's the best I have seen him run."
Wright and Hightower sat at their lockers after the game, deep in conversation. Hightower looked somewhat overwhelmed by the circumstances, and sounded as much when he finally met with the media. It's an emotional game, and Hightower is, admittedly, an emotional player.
"My whole mindset was, I didn't care where I was on the field, I was not going to be tired, not going to come out of the game, not going to be hurt," Hightower said. "I was going to score every single time I touched the football."
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