Photograph by Lindy Rodman/VCU University Marketing

Early mornings are old hat to Tim Hightower. For the past year, he’s been up before dawn, logging more than 1,000 hours of rehabilitation and physical therapy.  

His routine starts with physical therapy at VCU Sports Medicine Center and continues through strength conditioning at the gym, stretching, yoga, and grabbing a bite to eat on the way to his job in commercial real estate.

Hightower is undeterred in chasing this comeback. Three surgeries and seemingly countless hours of rehab later, he remains set on achieving the same goals he wrote down in the hospital in 2011 after a torn anterior cruciate ligament halted a promising start to his career. He hasn’t played an NFL game since.

His path to recovery hasn’t been easy. Hightower remembers rock bottom. The New York Giants had called him for a workout, and he knew he was in no condition to do it. He called his wife, Rikki, to tell her he couldn’t take any more. He was done.

“It was tough emotionally. It was tough physically. It was draining,” Hightower says. “I went through a lot of emotions, as we all do in life when we’re tested in a major way. My faith had been tested. And it was tough.”

Rikki pushed back, keeping a promise she made to hold him to the goals of recovery and playing again that he first wrote down in the hospital.

“When those goals seem at times unattainable, I look at my wife, I look at my son, and I look at those people who were counting on me,” Hightower says. “I know they’re depending on me, and I want to make them proud. That’s what keeps me going.”

Hightower knows he’s making a big bet in the Big Easy during the Saint’s off-season program and training camp this summer. Nothing is guaranteed, but he’s planning to beat the odds to earn a spot with the Saints. Both he and New Orleans are no strangers to being underdogs. Both are aware of the grit it takes to come back from devastating tragedy.

“Not making the team is not a possibility,” Hightower says. “I’m not allowing myself to think like that. There’s no way I can give it my all when I’m even considering that. I’m prepared to go down there and win the job.”