Return to Tennessee sparks poignant memories for Dont'a Hightower

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Sometimes the passage of time can spark unexpected emotions, and that’s what happened with linebacker Dont'a Hightower this past week in the Patriots’ locker room. When it was mentioned that a road game in Tennessee brings him back to where his NFL career officially began in 2012 -- and also close to his hometown of Lewisburg -- his eyes began to moisten.

Hightower made an immediate impact that day, returning a fumble for a touchdown in a 34-13 season-opening victory, which was a poignant memory to revisit seven years later.

“A throwback,” he said, with a smile. “Getting to be at home, playing in front of my family and friends, just kind of brought a lot to mind right now. Not that my journey is over, but that’s where my dream started, and I’m finally here -- at home. I have tears coming to my eyes right now. It was amazing.

“All the rookies I came in with, who I still talk to today, had big plays in that game: Chandler [Jones], Tavon [Wilson] That meant a lot to me, coming home, with my mom, my sister, my aunts and uncles and cousins all there.”

Hightower and safety Nate Ebner are the only players still on the club from the 2012 draft (Hightower was the No. 25 overall pick).

Hightower expects about 10-15 family members to attend Sunday's game (tickets were limited) and also had been in touch with several of his high-school teachers and friends in the past week. As it turns out, this is the first of back-to-back trips to Tennessee for him.

“Bye week, I’m heading back down to Nashville,” he said, noting how the Patriots are off next weekend. “It’s home, I love everything about it. Hopefully I’ll be able to come back with a ‘W’.”

1b. A huge Patriots contingent is expected to be present for the team’s road game against the Titans on Sunday, and, of course, the game is a homecoming for Nashville-born Bill Belichick. In his conference call with Tennessee media, Belichick lauded the area, noted that he and girlfriend Linda Holliday have a residence in Franklin, Tennessee, and how they’ve frequented two landmark establishments: Tootsie’s and Puckett’s. “We just love the people and the atmosphere,” he said.

2. Sunday marks just the Patriots’ fourth game in Tennessee during Belichick’s Patriots tenure, and each has been memorable, for different reasons:

  • 2002: A Monday Night Football loss in mid-December, 24-7, in which Tom Brady threw a pick-six in the third quarter. Steve McNair scored on runs of 11 yards and 1 yard, while Brady himself had a 10-yard touchdown run. The Patriots fell to 8-6 with the loss and ultimately missed the playoffs by splitting their final two games.

  • 2006: The final game of the regular season, Belichick inserted veteran quarterback Vinny Testaverde into a 40-23 victory late, which allowed Testaverde to set a record for most consecutive seasons with a TD pass (20). Some Titans weren’t crazy about it, but Belichick himself was irate over something else: receiver Bobby Wade’s block on safety Rodney Harrison that injured Harrison’s knee. To this day, some in the Patriots organization wonder if they would have beaten the Colts in the AFC title game had Harrison been available.

  • 2012: Jones and Hightower, two first-round picks, making a signature play (strip sack returned for a TD) in a blowout victory.

3. One of the nicest parts about social media is how it can connect people in a positive way. That was my thought after Julian Edelman made a statement after Sunday night’s game with his hat (the video had more than 1 million views), and the Steelers -- arguably the Patriots’ biggest rival -- tweeted him the following message:

4. One point Brady made in his weekly Westwood One interview that he seemed particularly proud of: He hasn’t missed a practice all season. That’s a notable change from 2017.

5. If the Patriots plan to activate second-round draft choice Duke Dawson (hamstring) from injured reserve to the 53-man roster, they have until Wednesday to do so. Dawson, a cornerback out of Florida, has been practicing for the past two weeks. If the Patriots don’t move him up to the 53-man roster, Dawson would revert to IR.

6. A humorous follow-up to last week’s in-the-locker-room switch to orange shorts: True to his Georgia roots, Bulldogs alum David Andrews looked at them with semi-disgust and said, “Those are Tennessee colors.” The Patriots starting center wasn’t putting them on. No chance.

7. When Belichick grants a “Victory Monday,” as he did last week after Sunday night’s victory over the Packers, it is usually celebrated by players in that they aren’t required to be in for meetings that day. For wide receiver Chris Hogan, it was especially sweet, because it opened the door for him to return home to Long Island to see his wife, Ashley, and twins, Parker and Chase.

8. The old core of Patriots linebackers who formed the heart of the defense in the first half of Belichick’s coaching tenure referred to themselves as the ‘Backerhood, and that togetherness still stands out today. When Mike Vrabel’s Titans were playing Monday night against Dallas, I could almost feel Tedy Bruschi’s pride coming right through the computer screen.

Vrabel has a powerful and commanding presence on the sideline that separates him from many of his head-coaching peers. I was impressed with how he handled Kevin Byard’s celebration on Monday night -- saying it wasn’t what the Titans want to represent -- and Byard’s response spoke volumes to me about the respect Vrabel has among his players.

9. A nice touch from Colts owner Jim Irsay, who stood out as the lone NFL owner to have a congratulatory note in a dinner program for Robert Kraft on Wednesday night, when Kraft was honored by the World Jewish Congress in New York. At the event, Kraft announced plans for a spring soccer match in New England between the Revolution and Chelsea FC that would be a fundraiser against anti-Semitism.

10. Patriots defensive playcaller Brian Flores was honored at the Hockomock (Massachusetts) YMCA 13th Annual Legends Ball on Tuesday, as his passion for and commitment to inclusion for children and individuals with disabilities through the YMCA’s Integration Initiative were acknowledged. With Patriots players Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Kyle Van Noy and Adam Butler in attendance to show their support, along with former Patriot Rob Ninkovich, Flores delivered a message to the crowd that included heartfelt thoughts about his mother, who is battling cancer. This has been a particularly challenging time for Flores, who has called his mother the toughest person he knows. Thoughts are passed along to him and his family.