John Hightower didn’t even make his junior college football team back in 2015.
Five years later, the Eagles drafted him.
This is how it happened:
Back in 2015, Hightower left his Maryland home and traveled to Raymond, Mississippi to join the Hinds Community College track and field team. While Hightower was a two-way player at Riverdale Baptist High School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, he was also a track star. And he was heading to Hinds to join their impressive track program.
But when Hightower arrived to Mississippi, he decided track wasn’t enough. He wanted to try to make the football team too.
The problem was that Hinds was only allowed to have a limited number of out-of-state players on their 55-man rosters and those spots were already reserved for other talented players. The coaching staff wanted the speedy receiver, but they just simply didn’t have a spot for him.
“We knew he could run. We knew he had special talent,” Hinds offensive coordinator Kelly Murphy said to NBC Sports Philadelphia. “It just becomes a numbers game, so to speak. That’s really what happened to him. After that, there was no doubt that he could play. He was one of those guys you knew as soon as (Chicago Bears receiver Javon) Wims was going to roll off the roster in 2015, you weren’t going to go recruit somebody to fill that spot because you knew what you had.”
So that first year at Hinds, over 1,000 miles away from home, Hinds ended up just running track with a mission to make the football team in 2016.
In 2015, Hightower finished sixth the 400-meter hurdles at the NJCAA outdoor nationals. Less than two years later, he would give up on track for good to focus on his budding football career.
“I just wanted to stick with it,” Hightower said to the Idaho Press in 2018. “It was something I knew I could accomplish and I don’t like failing at stuff, so it just made me sit there and think, ‘I have to grind harder so I can make the team next year.’”
Attempts to reach Hightower for this story were unsuccessful.
JUCO is no picnic
When Hightower didn’t make the football team in 2015, the coaching staff at Hinds made sure he knew they wanted him in 2016.
When Hightower showed up in 2016, he was even better.
According to Murphy, Hightower had a growth spurt and also packed on more muscle weight training. His body was already beginning the transformation from a track athlete to a star football player.
It’s not easy to pack on muscle at junior college, even one with a good football team. While NCAA Division I athletes are set up to succeed on the field, JUCO athletes have to do a lot of that work on their own. And Hightower also had to deal with the culture shock of moving from Landover, Maryland to Raymond, Mississippi, population under 2,000.
“Let me tell you something about junior college: it’s hard,” Murphy said. “It is just a different animal. Especially those out-of-staters, they don’t get to leave campus much. They don’t get to go home. John is from Maryland and you’re down there in Mississippi, so you get to go home maybe three times a year.
“So it’s just hard for him, it really is. To make those different adjustments and what you’re dealing with. You gotta go eat at the cafeteria all the time. It’s not like the NCAA where you get an allowance to stay in an apartment. You’re staying in a dorm with another guy all the time. It’s difficult. Those guys come out and that JUCO grind is just different. All those guys in the NFL can tell you that. I think they’ll tell you that it helped them prepare for tough times. I think that’s what John will tell you too. Because he knows how hard it was.”
Hightower played football and ran track in 2016, but by 2017 he was a full-time receiver ready to make the jump to a Division I school.
His time at Hinds
The first thing that the Hinds coaches noticed about Hightower is one of the same attributes that made him attractive to the Eagles: speed.
Murphy put it in the simplest terms possible: “When you throw the ball to him, he’s faster than the guy covering him.”
But even when he made the football team at Hinds, it wasn’t like Hightower became a star. In fact, his numbers during his two years in junior college weren’t even that impressive:
2016: 18 catches for 273 yards and three touchdowns
2017: 13 catches for 236 yards and four touchdowns
See, that team back then was stacked at the receiver position. They had guys like Stephen Guidry (Mississippi State), Chris Blair (Alcorn State), Ra’Meik Wallace (Jackson State) and DeMichael Harris (Southern Miss), who all went on to Division I FBS or FCS schools. Guidry and Harris were signed by the Cowboys and Colts, respectively, this offseason.
So, there were a lot of mouths to feed in those offenses. And that’s the point the Hinds coaches made to Boise State when they began recruiting Hightower.
“They were just like anybody; they want to see numbers,” Murphy said. “But then when you start looking at the depth that we had, trying to find a way to put those pieces of the puzzle together, they were like, ‘Coach this guy is the real deal.’ Yeah, I’m telling you it’s a no-brainer, get him on the field.”
Expectations for Hightower in the NFL
Murphy has a favorite story about Hightower. He doesn’t even remember who they were playing but he dialed up a deep pass to Guidry and they didn’t complete it, so Hightower ran to the sideline and got on the headset with his offensive coordinator.
“Coach, you know,” Hightower said, “Kills is not the only one who can catch the deep ball. I’ll go get it.”
So the next play, Murphy called a deep ball for Hightower. Touchdown.
To Murphy, that story kind of illustrates what Hightower is all about to him. Tell him he can’t do something and he will. He’s always had that type of confidence in himself.
Now, Hightower is a fifth-round draft pick coming into his rookie season in an offseason that has been one of the most unusual in NFL history. He hasn’t even had a chance to work out with all of his teammates yet or even meet his coaches in person.
But Murphy has seen a lot of his players have NFL careers and he has no doubts about Hightower.
“He’s one of those guys when you tell him he can’t do something, he goes out and tries to prove you wrong,” Murphy said. “Just like in every level. Just like when he went from high school to Hinds, when he went from Hinds to Boise and now going to the NFL. The talent level steps up and you’ve got to step up your game. And he’ll do that. That’s what he’s about.”
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