Football journey: Dont'a Hightower

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower has made a favorable impression in his first season with the Patriots, earning a starting role on the strong side of the team's 4-3 scheme.

Hightower has played 42 percent of the team's defensive snaps, a total that would be higher if he didn't miss almost three full games with a hamstring injury. Coaches have credited him with 45 tackles (31 solo), which ties for the fourth-highest total on the team, to go along with his three sacks.

Strong against the run and still developing his game in pass coverage, the 6-foot-3, 270-pound Hightower doesn't carry himself like a rookie. Teammate Jerod Mayo previously referred to him as an "old soul."

The 22-year-old Hightower shared his "football journey" with ESPNBoston.com:

When he first started playing football: "As soon as I was able to run around, that's when I started. A few of my older cousins did around '97, and that's when I did."

First positions: "Linebacker and tight end."

Favorite memories at Marshall County High School (Lewisburg, Tenn.): "In 2008, winning Mr. Football in the state meant a lot. That was definitely one of my goals growing up. I had an older cousin, Ray Hightower, who won it in 2002. Through high school, I wanted to match everything he did and try to do it better -- from the weight room to the field."

Why he attended the University of Alabama: "I'm from a small place, from the country, so we're real big on tradition. Alabama is a really good school, education-wise and in football; Nick Saban has done a great job everywhere he's been. It came down to Alabama and Vanderbilt."

Top memories at Alabama: "My last year, winning a national championship. We had won it in '09, but I wasn't on the field."

Selected by the Patriots in the first round of the 2012 draft (25th overall): "It was a great experience. I feel like I've landed at the perfect spot. It's a lot like Alabama, big on tradition, great coaches and everybody is humble and comes to work every day. That's what I went through in college and it's something I hoped to come to in the NFL. I'm blessed."

What he loves about football: "Everything about it. The teamwork, the communication, and everything that goes in with it. Definitely the physical part; it would stink to be a big, fast guy and not be able to use it. I definitely try to use my size (6-3, 270) to that nature."

Favorite players as a youngster: "Growing up, I didn't really watch a lot of NFL. But when I did, there was a guy named Jason Gildon, an outside linebacker who played for Pittsburgh. I always liked watching him. Ironic as it sounds, I used to watch Mayo when he played at Tennessee. I used to love watching Patrick Willis play at Ole Miss. I took a [college] visit there, it was his last year, and I almost committed. Those are the three guys I loved watching play."

Favorite teams growing up: "I didn't really have one. I was a fan, more or less, and liked watching different styles of defense. I loved Dick LeBeau, so when I was going through the whole draft process, I got to finally meet him. I used to love watching what he does on the defensive side of the ball."

Role models in his life: "My grandfather [John Hightower] was always there for me, taking me to practices in baseball. He took care of me. I lost him in 2008, when I was just starting at Alabama. One of the things that made that easier was that he got to watch me. He's still with me in spirit and I know him and my grandmother [Lillian Hightower] are looking down on me now."

Summing up his football journey: "Definitely a dream come true. I couldn't ask for anything more from it, starting out small to now. God has given me all the valuable resources to do it, given me a great mom and sister, a great family. My girlfriend and her family did a really good job of taking care of me, looking out for me, making sure I'm still humble. Then just my friends, and my teammates with the Patriots and in college, it's kind of hard to mess up or not be focused and do the right things whenever you have Vince Wilfork and Tom Brady, Mayo, [Brandon] Spikes, Brandon Lloyd, [Niko] Koutouvides -- all the right guys around you to bring you up. I'm definitely glad I've been put in the situation with all these great players around me."