TAMPA, Fla. — Tim Hightower walked through the bowels of Raymond James Stadium exchanging hugs, handshakes and daps with everyone he walked by en route to the locker room.
He smiled big. Then, when he went inside the locker room, he was presented with a game ball for his performance during Sunday’s 24-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Saints were without star all-purpose back Mark Ingram, but they had the ultimate journeyman on their side, and his will helped deliver New Orleans its first win in four weeks.
His teammates were aware of how big the moment was.
“Tim has traveled a really interesting road — really being out of football for a while, with what a lot of people thought was a career-ending knee injury,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “He continued to fight and believe and battle his way back.”
It’s almost unfathomable to think Hightower was even on the field. It was his first start since Oct. 23, 2011, right before he suffered a knee injury that flummoxed doctors and required multiple surgeries before a lingering infection finally cleared in 2013.
He had some tryouts and visits after then but didn’t finally get a real shot until the Saints added him to the roster this year. And even then, he was released and re-signed by the team and didn’t get a real chance to show his abilities until Sunday, after Ingram suffered a torn left rotator cuff.
As he stood at his locker after logging 28 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown, including a game-sealing 4-yard run on a pitch to the left side of the field, it was hard for Hightower to hide his smile as he scrolled through his phone, trying to read every text he had received during the game. He joked that he would never get through them all and admitted he was overwhelmed by emotion.
That’s why he was saving the best interaction for last, once he finally got away from some people and could allow himself to truly enjoy the moment.
“I’m trying to hold it in, because I don’t want these talking about me,” Hightower said. “But I’m sure when I call my wife and son on FaceTime, they’ll get a couple (tears).”
After a week of outsiders debating whether it would be Hightower or C.J. Spiller receiving the bulk of the carries, it seemed as though that question was never really up for debate with the Saints. While Spiller only played around 15 snaps, on par with his season average, Hightower was the workhorse of the backfield.
He didn’t light the world on fire, averaging 3 yards per carry, but he got the yards he was supposed to gain and took advantage of the opportunities afforded to him. Hightower was blown away after the game when he heard how many carries he had logged.
The Saints did a good job of getting him into favorable situations, and Hightower was able to gain 46 yards on 10 carries when there were six defensive players in the box — nine plays of which came when New Orleans was operating out of its three-receiver personnel.
Hightower struggled a bit when there were seven or more players in the box, averaging about 2.2 yards per carry. The majority of those carries came out of two- or three-tight end sets, which typically signify a running play.
But even though Hightower had more success running out of passing looks, the Saints did a good job of mixing things up. New Orleans ran an even number of plays out of its three-receiver sets and two-tight end sets (30 each). New Orleans also ran five plays with four receivers on the field and two plays without a tight end, which was a change from the norm.
“It was just a changeup. We have really good receiver and really reliable guys,” receiver Willie Snead said. “So for us to be in there with four wide receivers, it just shows that we’re versatile and everybody can play different spots.”
Hightower knows things are still a work in progress. One area where he said he’s looking to get better immediately is in pass protection; he surrendered a sack after failing to pick up a blitz. Spiller had some of those responsibilities early in the game, but it was mostly Hightower later.
“I’m a little rusty, man,” Hightower said. “Some of the looks, the linebackers were playing with me a little bit. I have to be better. I gave up one on Drew. It’s very uncharacteristic; it can’t happen.”
Still, Hightower will have plenty to celebrate. In some ways, this was the moment he was seeking when he refused to give up the game when it looked to everyone else that he would never make it back to this level.
That’s why he was so emotional after the game. His teammates saw it, too, which is why everyone stopped to shake his hand and why coach Sean Payton gave him a game ball, along with defensive tackle Kevin Williams and Brees.
But Hightower made it a point to say he was not going to use this game as validation of his journey back.
“One thing I know about this league is that there’s no such thing about being a one-hit wonder,” he said. “This league is about consistency. We have three games left. Anyone can have a good game — one game. This team, we lost four, we won four — it’s not about one game.
“I’ll be able to reflect on this when the season is over with. I’ve got to go back to work and finish this season off strong.”
The Saints need that, too. But this was a solid way to start.