Tim Hightower, here scoring the game-winning touchdown in the NFC Championship, did everything he could -- including ballet -- to improve in football.
Being better than the next guy – being better prepared – was what was driving Tim Hightower.
He was at Episcopal High School, a prep school in Virginia, searching for that something extra. Going to the weight room three or four times a week with the other football players wasn't enough, so he would go to the gym for an extra workout many nights.
One night, he spied the ballet teacher – Laurie Kaden, although Hightower didn't know her at that point – and saw her doing some flexibility work, movements that he thought would relate to football. He remembered what his father had long told him, that while Hightower was explosive and strong, he wasn't flexible enough.
"I told her, 'I don't know you and you don't know me, but I go to school here and
play football and I want to find out what you are doing,' " Hightower said.
The workouts went on as Hightower prepared for and then played his senior season. Intense 90-minute workouts started with aerobic work and moved into stretching and ballet movements, working Hightower hard enough that he'd go through three shirts because he was so drenched in sweat.
But Hightower thought it was worth it. His senior year was curtailed by an injury, but he kept up with the extra work, even enrolling in a ballet class when he first arrived at the University of Richmond even though "everyone laughed at me."
Hightower knew Pro Football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann once took ballet to help in football, and the benefit outweighed the criticism.
"To me it was a confidence thing," Hightower said. "Even if you don't see the results right away, it's a psychological help on the field. I know I have an advantage on the opponent."
Hightower admittedly ran into a "rookie wall" a couple of times this season. His physical prep work still wasn't enough to counter what has turned into a 24-game year.
But the Cardinals' running back situation has come full circle, something that may have helped Hightower. Edgerrin James was the starter until Hightower took over in midseason, sending James to the bench. But starting with the regular-season finale, James became the primary ballcarrier again and Hightower became more effective in the change-of-pace role.
That may have not been more apparent than in the NFC Championship, when Hightower converted a crucial fourth-and-1 and then ran in the game-winning touchdown on a third-and-8 screen pass.
"He's gotten a lot better – I'd agree with that – as Edge has come back," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "It's taken a little bit of the spotlight off him and he's been able to role play a little bit more."
Just getting to this point, in whatever role, is satisfying to Hightower, who still has strong feelings about not being invited to the NFL's scouting combine and going in the fifth round of the draft.
"I don't think anyone predicted this outcome and I think a lot of people don't want this outcome," Hightower said. "They don't want to see a guy from a small school, no combine. Say whatever you want, that I didn't have the speed, didn't have the skill, whatever. This just proves I am where I am supposed to be.
"It was frustrating then, but I am loving it now."
Hightower's preparation has been the difference.
Kaden continued to work with Hightower on and off once he went to college, until she got a job in Idaho. Now running a ballet company in Vancouver, British Columbia, she got a chance to see Hightower when the Cardinals visited the Seattle Seahawks earlier this season.
"Who would have thought?" Kaden said in an e-mail. "A running back and a ballet teacher. It just goes to show that Tim would stop at nothing to get where he wanted to go."
Contact Darren Urban at email@example.com. Posted 1/23/09.