The Collegian
Friday, February 23, 2024

Former Richmond football players ready for NFL season

The NFL's opening weekend is just around the corner and two former Richmond Spiders have every reason to be excited. Tim Hightower, and Arman Shields -- 2008 Richmond graduates -- will suit up for their rookie years as NFL players.

A third former Spider football player, Stephen Howell, played with the Detroit Lions through much of training camp, but was cut Aug. 26.

Hightower, a running back for the Arizona Cardinals, has already established himself as a valuable part of the team's offense by scoring a touchdown in each of his first three preseason games and rushing for 52 yards against the Oakland Raiders. Because of his strong performance in preseason, there is a possibility that Hightower will split time with the Cardinals' current starting running back, Edgerrin James, said Mark Carney, one of Richmond's assistant football coaches. Several fantasy football Web sites have recognized Hightower's talent and potential by labeling him a "sleeper pick."

Shields joined the Oakland Raiders as a wide receiver, but didn't play in the first three preseason games because of a knee injury he suffered during training camp, said Carney, who coached Shields while he was still at Richmond. Shields was still listed on the team's injured reserve on Monday.

Howell, who went by the nickname "Country" during his time at Richmond, was not picked in the draft but worked his way into the pros. He had already made four tackles in preseason games as a defensive back for the Detroit Lions, said Russ Huesman, Spider football's defensive coordinator.

Because he had been playing as a free agent and had had to work his way up from a filler spot on the practice squad, Huesman called Howell a "semi-long-shot," and was impressed that he had made it as far as he had during training camp.

Before opening weekend, Howell and four other teammates were released. The Lions were required to cut their roster to 75 men by Aug. 26 and had to cut 22 more players by Aug. 31 to meet the NFL's 53-man roster limit.

Even though they are now spread out, the former Spiders have still kept in close contact.

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"It's weird because we're used to being on the same team," Hightower said in a phone interview. "We used to train together everyday. We're used to being on the same sideline.

"We try to keep contact though. It can get overwhelming, so it's good to have people to talk to that are going through the same thing. It releases some of the pressure."

Hightower described the Cardinals' training camp as a "whole different experience," than he had at Richmond.

NFL training camp is a month and a half of football all day, every day. Hightower said it had been time consuming and mentally taxing. The biggest difficulty transitioning to the NFL has been the degree to which football is mentally challenging, Hightower said. For four years, he operated under one system and set of coaches, but now he's expected to learn a new system and function as an NFL player.

"There's really no learning curve," he said. "There's so many people that want to play so you've got to be an adult and a professional. It's your job, so you've got to get it fast.

"You can make a mistake, but not the same mistake twice."

Richmond coaches talked about Hightower's, or "Timmy's," unrelenting desire to be the best and to continually get better.

Hightower, with Shields and Howell, continued to train at Richmond until they left for training camp.

Hightower would run three or four 300-yard shuttles, which weight-lifting coach Brandon Hourigan described as very taxing and designed to test not just conditioning, but mental toughness. When he arrived for training camp, Hightower scored second best of the Arizona team in the exercise.

But Hightower said he wasn't comfortable yet. He'll keep trying to do the small things, he said, like being consistent on the field, being the first out to practice and spending time watching film with his running back coach.

"I try to do the little things off the field that will help me on the field," he said.

Richmond basketball player junior David Gonzalvez, a friend of all three players, said he had been keeping in contact with Hightower as much as possible and watching his games on TV.

"I saw the game he scored his first touchdown," Gonzalvez said in an e-mail. "He is still the same Tim, only in the NFL now. It looks like he is faster and he runs harder and more precise now though."

Howell's preseason experience had been different from Hightower's.

Howell was originally asked to join the Detroit Lions in order to fill out their practice squad. In exchange, the Lions gave him the opportunity to try out. Howell was the only player they decided to keep from that group, Huesman said. Then through mini-camp and even more selection processes, Howell continued to climb his way up to the preseason roster, which demonstrated his work ethic, Huesman said. For now, Howell's NFL career is on hold.

Carney also acknowledged Shields' work ethic. Shields, who was a fourth round draft pick and has been injured for much of training camp, constantly left messages on the coach's voicemail looking for opportunities to improve while he was still at Richmond.

Shields was meticulous about taking care of himself and making sure he was physically the best he could be.

"Arman taught me a lot about taking care of my body and sacrificing certain things in my life to be the best I can be," Gonzalvez said. "He is one of the most focused individuals I've ever met. He has a very strict regiment of how to do things and he doesn't break away."

Oakland will take on the Denver Broncos at 10:15 p.m. on Sept. 8 on ESPN. The Cardinals will play the 49ers at 4:15 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 7 on FOX.

Until then, the work continues. Hightower said he was only looking ahead one game at a time, trying not to get caught up in the hype.

"Football's football," he said. "They brought me here to do what I've been doing, so I just try to relax and enjoy myself. You know, keep focused, pray and trust God in my abilities and my preparation."

Contact staff writer Jacki Raithel at jacki.raithel@richmond.edu

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