FOXBORO -- There’s an episode of “The Office” in which Phyllis says she and coworker Stanley are close with one another, to which Stanley cruelly and hilariously responds, “We sit close.”
Proximity-wise, two of Super Bowl LI’s participants definitely sat close for a number of years. From 2008 through 2011, Dont’a Hightower played inside linebacker in Nick Saban’s defense at Alabama; Courtney Upshaw played next to him at outside linebacker. They roomed together. They won a BCS National Championship together.
When the two entered the NFL draft in 2012, they were once again close. Mike Mayock ranked Hightower the 15th-best player in the draft and Upshaw was 23rd. The Pats drafted Hightower 25th overall; Upshaw went 35th to Baltimore.
So Hightower and Upshaw, the latter of whom is now in his first season with the Falcons, have always been close, whether positionally or in ranking. They’ve been through a ton together. As for the other kind of close?
“That’s my ace,” Hightower said Thursday at Gillette Stadium.
Coming into Alabama as a true freshman from Lewisburg, Tenn., Hightower was one of only four defensive players from Tennessee on a roster dominated by Alabama natives, Upshaw among them. He says he became fast friends with Upshaw, a relationship that translated into ample success on the field.
“[He’s] one of the few guys that we actually got real close to, coming in together,” Hightower said. “Coming to Alabama, there was only like three guys from Tennessee that actually went out of state or whatever.
“Me and Upshaw got pretty close. We talked the other day, or whatever. We’re still pretty close.“
Then there’s the aspect of them getting in each other’s way. Hightower and Upshaw’s teams have met twice in the postseason since they reached the NFL, with each beating the other once en route to a Super Bowl; Upshaw’s Ravens over Hightower’s Patriots in the 2012 season and the Pats over the Ravens in the 2014 season.
On Feb. 5, they’ll face each other in the Super Bowl for the first time. Perhaps they could have played in this game as teammates, as Upshaw received interest from the Pats as a free agent before taking a one-year deal with the Falcons, where he moved from outside linebacker to the defensive line.
Hell, the Patriots needed an edge rusher in that 2012 draft, so they in theory could have made Upshaw the player they coveted rather than Hightower, or even drafted them both. Bill Belichick chose right, moving up to take Chandler Jones and then trading up again for Hightower.
So much of what Hightower accomplished in his football career has been tied to Upshaw and vice versa. Their play together won Alabama a championship and at least on some level raised one another’s draft stock. While Upshaw hasn’t become the star that Hightower is, they’ve both achieved success on their own.
Now comes the latest chance to beat one another. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
“There’s going to be some [word-that-Tom-Brady-must-be-teaching-his-teammates]-talking after the game, whether it’s win or lose, but definitely, it feels good to see [him],” Hightower said.
“We literally grew up together as far as the football aspect of it goes. It will be fun. It will be good. Hopefully I’m on the right side of it, but it’s always good to have another guy on the opposite end just to talk a little smack during the week.”