Dont’a Hightower’s Patriots Training Camp Appearance A Welcome Surprise

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FOXBORO, Mass. — Fears that Dont’a Hightower could miss the beginning of the New England Patriots’ 2015 season were put to rest Thursday when he made a surprise appearance at training camp.

Hightower played on a torn labrum for the final two months of the Patriots’ Super Bowl XLIX-winning season, and offseason shoulder surgery was expected to keep him out six to seven months.

“This is my first injury with the shoulder, and I’m just trying to all the strides I can,” Hightower said after practice. “The more they’re gonna let me do, the more obviously I’ll want to do.”

Hightower wasn’t the only Patriots linebacker back on the field Thursday. Jerod Mayo, whose 2015 season ended in Week 6 with a knee injury, and Jamie Collins, who missed most of organized team activities and minicamp for undisclosed reasons, also were back on the practice field, and the Patriots’ linebacker corps suddenly looked in much better shape.

With the starters out during the spring, second-year pro James Morris and newcomers Jonathan Freeny and Dekoda Watson received heavy reps. Having Hightower, Collins and Mayo back can help the new veterans and rookies Brandon King, Matthew Wells, D.J. Lynch and Xzavier Dickson ease into the defense.

“The wonderful thing about our veterans here is they approach every day like it’s a new day,” linebackers coach Patrick Graham said. “They come in, they work just as hard as they did two years ago when they were learning the defense. It’s a positive to have guys who have done it before. While I’m talking on something more conceptual, they can be hitting some of the fine points with the rookie who might have a question as I’m moving along, so that’s always a positive.”

Mayo’s return relieves Hightower of some of his leadership responsibilities, but the fourth-year pro still can show the Patriots’ rookies how to work on and off the field.

“Sometimes you lead by example without even meaning to,” Hightower said. “I feel like a lot of times with the older guys we have around here, with Jerod and Devin (McCourty) and Jamie and Chandler (Jones) and Rob (Ninkovich), a lot of those guys, they lead by example without even meaning to. I definitely feel like that’s part of something that all of us do is lead by example.”

That mentality forces Patriots newcomers to adjust or suffer the consequences.

“The culture of the room that starts with Mayo, who’s kind of the patriarch of the room,” Graham said “Then you got Jamie, High, and then Dane back in there, Chris White, all those guys. All of those guys work extremely hard, so you come in the room, you’re either going to start working really hard or you’re going to get embarrassed. All of those guys do that, so they’ve all stepped up to the challenge, and they understand our goal, our No. 1 goal in the room, and it’s also down from Bill (Belichick), is to get better everyday, not to get too far ahead, not look behind, get better everyday, and that’s really the motto. That and having fun out on the field. That’s really our mantra there in the room is to get better every day and have fun doing this.”

Hightower can start having fun again once he has his shoulder rehab in the rearview mirror.

“It’s almost like the season never ended,” Hightower said about the injury. “It’s always constant work, but that’s part of the grind, part of what I do, part of what you do. There’s always a grind, and it’s just part of my job. It sucks, but at the same time, it’s always good to work year-round to see the progress you make day in and day out. I’m trying to be positive about it, and that’s the only way to look at it.”

Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images

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