The writing was already on the wall.
At age 33, and after spending the entire 2022 season without a team, Dont’a Hightower coming back to the NFL never appeared to be a realistic option. The only question was when he would officially pull the plug on his career.
Earlier on Tuesday, he did just that. Hightower announced his retirement, ending a career that spanned 11 years and 134 regular season and playoff games — all with one franchise.
A first-round draft pick by the New England Patriots in 2012, Hightower developed into one of the team’s most important players rather quickly. He started 15 games his rookie season, and laid the foundation for what would become an impressive career: three Super Bowl rings, two Pro Bowl nominations, and one fitting nickname.
Hightower earned the moniker for making game-changing plays in all three of those Patriots Super Bowl wins. In fact, an argument can be made that the organization would not own six championships without Hightower’s contributions.
Take Super Bowl XLIX, three years into his career. At that point, there was no denying his importance to the Patriots’ defensive operation; he had not yet been voted a captain — that honor still belonged to Jerod Mayo at that time — but was a starter and leader both on and off the field. He also was a player able to come through in the clutch.
The late fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks was a perfect example of that, and the first of his game-changing plays. With the Patriots defense facing a 1st-and-goal from its 5-yard line with a minute left to play, Seattle gave the ball to bruising running back Marshawn Lynch.
However, Lynch only advanced to the 1-yard line. Right there, he was taken down by Dont’a Hightower:
“The most unsung, but the biggest play of the Super Bowl,” then-Patriots assistant coach Brian Flores later told NFL Films about the tackle.
One snap later, cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to preserve New England’s 28-24 win. Butler became a household name, but Hightower’s tackle — which he made on a torn labrum in his shoulder — made his pick possible in the first place.
The same can be said about the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history two years later.
After falling behind 28-3 against the Atlanta Falcons, the Patriots slowly started to climb out of that 25-point hole in the late third quarter. By the mid-fourth, however, they were still down 16 points with Atlanta in possession of the football.
Enter Mr. February and his penchant for making big plays in big moments:
Hightower speeding past running back Devonta Freeman to get into the backfield and strip-sack quarterback Matt Ryan gave the Patriots’ comeback campaign a much-needed boost: Alan Branch recovered the football, and New England’s offense set up shop in prime field position.
The team scored a touchdown shortly thereafter, eventually taking Super Bowl LI to overtime and winning 34-28.
“I thought Hightower’s sack was a huge play for us,” Patriots head Bill Belichick said after the game. “We really needed that even after our two turnovers offensively in the first half. It’s hard to beat Atlanta, who is a very opportunistic and good turnover team. We turned the ball over … so to be able to get one back was big.”
Hightower, who was a captain at that point in his career, spoke in a pretty business-as-usual tone after the game.
“I took advantage of the opportunity,” he said. “That was really kind of the thing. We had to make a play, whether it’s going out and being overly aggressive or taking advantage of those small opportunity windows. And we definitely did that.”
The Patriots would miss his game-changing abilities in their Super Bowl trip the following year — Hightower missed most of 2017 with a torn pectoral — but his return one season later brought familiar results. The veteran defender played a key role in New England not just advancing to the Super Bowl, but actually winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy again.
There was no single moment like those above in Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams. However, the Hightower-led Patriots defense went scorched earth against one of the most potent offenses in the NFL that season: the unit surrendered just three points en route to a 13-3 victory.
Of course, the veteran linebacker still had his fair share of big plays in the contest: he had two sacks, two tackles for loss, and a pass deflection.
Like he did in those previous Super Bowls, Hightower set the tone for the rest of the team — once again living up to his well-earned nickname.
At that point, even Bill Belichick had caught on: at the ring ceremony following New England’s win over the Rams, he referred to Hightower as “Mr. February” during a speech he gave to the organization.
“When I heard it, I was like, ‘Did he really just say that?’” Hightower would later recall (via The Athletic). “It was cool, man. It was a good way to cap off the end of the season to get a compliment like that.”
Hightower’s contributions to the Patriots obviously went beyond his exploits on the game’s biggest stage. 117 of his career games came in the regular season, and he had 27 sacks, 569 tackles, five fumble recoveries, an interception, and two touchdowns outside of the postseason.
That said, his ability to make big plays under the most pressure set him apart and might have made him one of the most impactful defenders of his era.
“I just want my name to be known as — say whatever you want about the regular season, but when s–t matters and it’s crunch time, you can’t ever say I won’t be [making plays],” he said in 2019. “I want my name to be that. I’m going to show up when it’s time to show up.”
Show up he sure did.