The New England Patriots saw a league-high eight of their plays exercise the Coronavirus opt-out clause last summer, but only a fraction of them will be back with the team in 2021. Among them is linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who made his practice debut last week and also is a full participant during this week’s mandatory minicamp.
His return was a confirmation that he would indeed intend to play after missing the entirety of last season — a topic he also touched on during a media conference call on Tuesday.
“I wouldn’t be out here doing this for free,” Hightower said.
The 31-year-old, who has been a cornerstone of the Patriots’ defense ever since his arrival in 2012, therefore joins running back Brandon Bolden and tight end Matt LaCosse as the Patriots’ only returnees off the Covid-19 opt-out list. Of course, unsubstantiated rumors originating on social media had painted a different picture before his comeback.
Hightower was rumored to plan his retirement, which obviously never happened. The team captain still had to address his commitment for 2021 on Tuesday, though, and he was not exactly thrilled to do so.
“I don’t know what y’all want for me to say. I’m here. I’m working. I’m in minicamp,” he said. “I’m not here to write a story for you, dawg. I’m here to work, man. I’m here. I don’t know what else y’all want me to say. If I wasn’t here, then I think that would be something to talk about. But I’m here. So, hopefully that knocks all those questions out.”
As for his mindset during his year away from the team, Hightower was also pretty clear: the opt-out was a one-year affair that would allow him to spend time with his family after the birth of his first son, Grayson Dash, last August.
“The opt-out was for  and that was ,” he said. “All the rumors about retirement and stuff, y’all had me thinking somebody was trying to kick me out. But I did what I did for what I felt was better for my family. Obviously, I feel a little different with the situation I’m in now. But if I had to do it again, if I had to go back and do it I would absolutely do it again. It was literally just for the season. I wasn’t planning one, two steps ahead or anything like that.”
Despite not being with his teammates for 17 months, the three-time Super Bowl winner did prepare for his eventual return during his time away. Hightower bought a Peloton exercise bike to stay in shape, and also kept watching film to keep his mid sharp.
So far it seems as if those investments have paid off. Head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged that Hightower “worked right in very quickly” following his return, and he also was a standout performer during Tuesday’s practice.
“I was aware of being away too long, but whenever the opt-out came, that was never my intention,” Hightower said after the session. “But I’d be naive to think that if I didn’t do anything that I would enjoy my time at home and fall too far out of shape and then whenever it comes time to actually get out and run, I’m looking around like, ‘I think I’m just going to eat these donuts and drink these beers and stuff.’”
While Hightower is officially back with the Patriots, five of his fellow opt-outs are not. Offensive tackle Marcus Cannon was traded; wide receiver Marqise Lee, offensive lineman Najee Toran and fullback Danny Vitale were released; safety Patrick Chung called it a career.
There was speculation about Hightower joining his long-time teammate Chung in retirement. Instead, he is spending his spring preparing for what will be his ninth full season as a Patriot.