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October 28, 2009TUSCALOOSA _ For University of Alabama sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower, it wasn't what he felt when the injury occurred, or even following the season-ending surgical procedure.
The real pain comes on the sideline every Saturday.
"The worst part about this is out on game day, on the field watching them play without me, knowing that the most I can do is coach them up in between plays and between series," Hightower said Wednesday in his first interview since sustaining a major knee injury against Arkansas on Sept. 26.
"Next year I'm going to have to come back with a relentless attitude, knowing that in practice and even in drills you can't take a play off because at any given time it could be taken away from you."
Although team officials had never disclosed the extent of the damage to his left knee, Hightower said it included a torn anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus, known in orthopedic circles as the "unhappy triad." A common football injury, it's what New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady endured last year.
"I pretty much have a brand new knee," he said.
Hightower added that team doctors tell him that his recovery is ahead of schedule and the prognosis is good.
"Hopefully I'll be back a couple of weeks before fall camp," he said, adding that he plans to participate in the spring practices whatever way possible.
Even then it won't be that easy, especially after the long layoff.
"Your instincts are a big part of football," said senior linebacker Cory Reamer, who had a major knee injury his freshman year. "They say you don't lose those, ever, but when you're not out there seeing things all the time, you don't see them as quickly as when you're playing all the time. Sitting out for nine months, six months or however long it is, it's not easy to jump right back into it and be the same player that you were, it takes easing back into it and you have a knee you haven't been using.
"It's difficult, but I don't expect Dont'e to have too much trouble. He's going be ready to go back when he's healthy enough to get out there and practice."
An instrumental part of the defense, the sophomore made two tackles, including a brutal combined hit with junior middle linebacker Rolando McClain, before sustaining the knee injury late in the first quarter against the Razorbacks. Hightower was moving to his right on a short carry by Arkansas running back Michael Smith when he took a low legal block from pulling senior guard Mitch Petrus.
"They ran a toss and I went to take the guard out to make him bounce back to Rolando (McClain), he just cut me," Hightower said. "I didn't play it well enough. Coach (Nick) Saban and I keep watching it and it's just one of those plays. I couldn't do anything about it.
"I guess he was a better cutter than I was playing the cut. I thought he was going to take me high and he just dropped down and got my legs."
Although Hightower was the starting weakside (Will) linebacker, he stayed on the field in nickel formation and became a pass-rusher in dime formation.
The Tide initially did a three-man shift to replace him with Reamer sliding over from strongside (Sam), senior Eryk Anders switching from Jack (the hybrid end/linebacker spot), and plugged in sophomore Courtney Upshaw.
However, when Alabama gave up a season-high 133 rushing yards to Kentucky, that plan was abandoned in favor of Reamer and Anders playing their usual positions and true freshman Nico Johnson at Will. Saban is still looking for the right fit at pass-rusher, with junior Chavis Williams getting a shot against Tennessee. Sophomore Jerrell Harris might be next considering he went through Tuesday's drills with the outside linebackers.
Meanwhile, Hightower has been rigorously using an exercise bike during practices, although mostly just the upper-body part, working out in the weight room and even attending team meetings.
"It's really going to help him," senior end Lorenzo Washington said. "Except for a couple of teams, he's pretty much playing all the of the same teams next year."
Teammates say his approach and optimism has been rubbing off, and Hightower's been especially helpful to the younger linebackers, including Johnson.
"The focus number one is for Dont'a to do the things that he needs to do to get healthy again and not have an issue relative to his future as a football player," Coach Nick Saban said Tuesday. "But he was such a big part of our team in terms of how he contributed, what he did and how he was respected. I think it's great how he's sort of taken it upon himself, he comes to practices, he comes to meetings, he encourages the players. I don't think this is something you can make a guy do, but it is appreciated."
Hightower finished the season with 16 tackles, four for a loss and one sack, giving him 80 career tackles, 6.5 for a loss. He also might have played his last game with McClain, depending on whether the junior decides to make an early jump to the NFL.
"No, I'm not bugging him to stay," Hightower said. "We've talked about it and it's up to him. I don't want him to feel obligated to stay just because of me. Whatever he does it'll be the best for him."