FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As part of the evolution of a professional football team, rookies often latch on to more experienced players to learn the ropes, before the torch is eventually passed to them as the years go by.
With the New England Patriots, first-round picks Richard Seymour (2001), Ty Warren (2003) and Vince Wilfork (2004) looked up to the likes of Willie McGinest and Co. upon their arrival. Deion Branch (2002) initially had Troy Brown, while Jerod Mayo (2008) could turn to Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel.
And on and on it goes.
The examples are countless, and there is usually a defining moment that one can mark when those younger players graduate to the level where others rely on them to lead.
That came Tuesday for linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who was voted a team captain for the first time. For a player who looked up to Mayo after arriving as a 2012 first-round draft choice, this designation meant a lot. Hightower was flashing a few smiles Wednesday while saying the most meaningful part of being named a captain is that it was voted on by his teammates.
Photo: LB Dont'a Hightower says the biggest honor of being a captain is that it was voted on by teammates. pic.twitter.com/gENtOM8tUw— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) September 7, 2016
The captaincy sparked Hightower to do something he hadn't yet in 2016: be available for an extended media interview at his corner locker.
Hightower had mostly been keeping a low media profile this year, an approach that traced back to the spring, when he responded to multiple questions by repeating the same answer ("just trying to get better"). That was a noticeable change in approach for Hightower, who while not entirely comfortable with microphones in front of him, has always been approachable and thoughtful with his answers on most topics. He later explained on sports radio WEEI that he was attempting to steer clear of interviews, in part because he didn't want to answer questions about being in the final year of his contract.
All of that was put to the side Wednesday in a passing-of-the-torch leadership moment. Part of serving in the captain role, just like linebackers Bruschi and Mayo had before him, is making one's voice heard in the locker room through the media, in good times and bad. That can, among others things, deflect pressure off others in those situations.
"This is a little bit different and I have a little bit of prep work, but I'm definitely looking forward to it and will do my best and try not to let my teammates down," he said in front of his new locker, a corner spot previously occupied by Mayo.
Hightower said he still talks to Mayo and acknowledged he has "some big shoes to fill."
"I had the luxury of being a sponge under him for four years and I watched his mannerisms and how he went about things, so I'll definitely do my best to [follow] that," Hightower said.
That process officially began over the last two days, with Hightower noting he's not a vocal leader who regularly will be giving team speeches. He's more of a lead-by-example type.
"Sometimes you can kind of look at a guy and just tell he's a leader," he said, "and I appreciate my teammates thinking highly of me."