Running back embraces process of returning from ACL tear

ASHBURN -- The memory fades once he steps into the huddle. In those times, the ACL tear, the surgery, watching games from his couch and the rehab all evaporate from Tim Hightower's mind. The problem is those times haven't occurred enough.

So while the Redskins running back recovers from his torn left ACL, he's like many others, curious to see how he will fare. He wonders about his level of play, about escaping the reality of running backs recovering from such an injury.

"Sometimes they say the best thing after a loss is another game," Hightower said. "You can play and put that behind you. It's been hard at times when I'm watching. You do think of stuff, and it is in the back of your head once in a while.

» Running back Roy Helu (sore Achilles tendons) participated in Wednesday's full-pad workout but did not do much, coach Mike Shanahan said. It's uncertain whether Helu or running back Tim Hightower (knee) will be ready for the Sept. 9 season opener. "I really don't know yet," Shanahan said. "You never know. They could be fine by the first game. Keep our fingers crossed."
» Linebacker London Fletcher practiced and will play Saturday barring any setback, Shanahan said. Fletcher missed a full day of practice and did not play against the Bears because of an undisclosed illness.
» Shanahan said he won't take into consideration possible yearlong drug-related suspensions for left tackle Trent Williams or tight end Fred Davis when he puts together the 53-man roster. "I trust both of them," Shanahan said. "I'd be very disappointed if they let me down or their teammates down. I really don't think along those lines."

"But when you're just playing, you're so caught up in what you're doing and what we're building that you don't have time to think about what happened last year or where you were."

Hightower practiced in full pads Wednesday, but the key is how his knee feels Thursday. Even now coach Mike Shanahan said he's not sure whether Hightower will be ready to open the season.

But to reach even this point, Hightower passed through several stages of emotion following his ACL tear Oct. 23 at Carolina. It occurred in the midst of a strong game; he had rushed for 88 yards on 17 carries and seemed like he was finding a groove in coach Mike Shanahan's one-cut system.

First came denial as Hightower couldn't dare think of not doing what he had always loved. Acceptance followed and quickly turned into anger. And that finally segued into motivation.

"I was frustrated for a while," he said. "You don't know how you'll come back. You don't know when. You saw all these running backs who don't come back from this or that. I got determined. This whole process for me is every single day overcoming adversity, whether it's me doubting myself, whether it's critics, whether it's my body hurting."

His coaches are confident in him for one reason.

"Well, belief," Redskins running backs coach Bobby Turner said. "No. 1 he believes, and then I believe it. Yeah it's tough, but I'm not worried about that part. We expect him to come back and play at that same level. ... His work ethic, his attitude from day one has been outstanding. It starts with that."

Hightower talked to NFL buddies, primarily ex-Arizona teammate Edgerrin James as well as receiver Terrell Owens, both of whom tore ACLs. They preached the same message: Stay consistent with the rehabilitation process, whether you're feeling good or bad. Treat it as an ongoing journey.

"I can't use this injury as an excuse," Hightower said. "This team needs me to be better than I was last year. But it's hard not to [think about it]; sometimes you look at cuts [on film] and you feel different."

James also told him to focus on his entire body. In the year after his ACL, James rushed for 3.6 yards per carry -- the lowest figure in his first seven seasons. James told him that was partly because he wore down at times. So Hightower hired a chef, started getting more rest and began receiving massage therapy.

Still, Hightower knows it has been less than 10 months since his surgery. And that life is difficult for backs coming off ACL tears.

"For me to ignore it, that would be ignorant," he said. "The only way to change something is to understand it and embrace it and you work to change it. ... I won't shy away from it. I love challenges."