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Pats' pick reflects on 'Bama tornado; Scary moments for Hightower.

Byline: Jennifer Toland

FOXBORO - The devastating tornado that blew through Tuscaloosa, Ala., last spring struck about 75 yards from Dont'a Hightower's apartment.

Hightower, the former University of Alabama linebacker whom the Patriots drafted in the first round Thursday night, and his friends hightailed it to the complex's clubhouse to ride out the storm in a bathroom.

"One of my best friends started sliding away toward the door," Hightower recalled on Friday, the one-year anniversary of the twister. "I kind of grabbed him, and we ducked up under the sink. Five or 10 minutes later, it was over, and we came out and checked how everything was gone.

"I couldn't even explain to you how scary it was," Hightower added. "You just never know when is your last breath. That definitely put me in perspective and made me change as far as my thinking perspective. I'm definitely blessed to be here today."

Hightower, for whom the Patriots traded up to draft at No. 25, and Chandler Jones, the former Syracuse defensive end for whom the Pats also moved up to take at No. 21, were formally introduced to New England Friday on the field at Gillette Stadium.

It was the first time Hightower, who grew up in Tennessee, had traveled farther north than Kentucky. The brisk spring breeze that evening definitely got Hightower's attention. Wait till December.

"It's definitely something I'm going to have to get used to," he said.

The 6-foot-3, 262-pound Hightower captained the country's top defense last season, anchoring the unit at middle linebacker, leading the team with a career-high 85 tackles and winning the national championship.

Hightower also played defensive end opposite Courtney Upshaw, a second-round pick of the Ravens, in the Crimson Tide's nickel package. As Patriots coach Bill Belichick noted, Hightower rarely came off the field.

"It's all about how you practice, and I definitely take pride in being on the field and all that, especially if it's for four downs for special teams," Hightower said. "I'm competitive, and I'm passionate about football. This is what I love to do. I'm going to do whatever I can to be on the field, whether it's special teams for the first couple of games, or if I'm on the field for three downs and on punt return or something. I'm going to do what I can to get on the field."

Hightower started a number of games at weak-side outside linebacker in 2008 and 2010, after coming back from a torn ACL in his left knee and reconstructive surgery in 2009.

Alabama coach Nick Saban, one of Belichick's pals, has praised Hightower for his work in the film and weight rooms. He was an immediate contributor at Alabama, starting 12 games as a true freshman in '08.

He finished his career with 234 tackles, 21 for loss, 5 sacks and 25 quarterback pressures.

"I think I'm tough, physical, hard-nosed," Hightower said. "I'm a big hitter. I'm going to get to the ball. When I get to the ball, I'm going to make sure whoever has the ball or whoever is around the ball, they're going to feel me. I'm definitely going to be an intimidator, definitely want to be somebody who, not even the running back or quarterback, but even the offensive linemen want to know where I'm on the field at all times."

Joining Jerod Mayo (Tennessee) and Brandon Spikes (Florida), Hightower could give the Patriots' linebacker corps an all-SEC flavor. While growing up in Tennessee, Hightower watched Mayo, and he faced Spikes' Gators teams twice in the SEC title game.

"I'm going to do exactly what I can to get on the field and as far as learning the playbook, I'm going to get into it as hard as I can," Hightower said. "Hopefully those guys can help me and take me under their wing and teach me some things. I'm definitely looking forward to getting out there on the field with those guys."

Hightower hasn't spent too much time with Belichick yet. He met him at the NFL Combine and caught up with him here Friday - but he already sees the similarities between him and Saban, which he hopes will make his transition to the NFL a little easier.

"You can definitely tell those two are two peas in a pod," Hightower said. "Everything about them from the way they run the organization to the way they get down and talk to you as a man and put everything out on the table and let you know what's going on."



CUTLINE: Hightower
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U6AL
Date:Apr 29, 2012
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