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John DeShazier: Fully healthy Tim Hightower ready to make NFL re-entry

Hightower will play against his old team Sunday

Photos of the Saints 2015 53-man roster. New Orleans Saints photos.

There are some physical changes that could make him close to unrecognizable, even to the Arizona fans who watched him play his first three NFL seasons with the Cardinals.

First, the dreadlocks are gone, snipped off earlier this year as the "new" man took on a new look. Second, there's the surgical scar on his left knee – the one in which he tore the ACL in 2011 and later developed an infection, the combination of the two helping to keep him out of the NFL the last three seasons.

What should be recognized, though, is the running style. Because by all accounts running back Tim Hightower fully is healthy now, having resumed his career as a New Orleans Saint, prepared to make his NFL re-entry in the same city (Glendale, Ariz.) and stadium (University of Phoenix Stadium) as he made his NFL home debut in 2008.

"I don't think I'm nervous," said Hightower, who ran for 1,733 yards and 23 touchdowns, on 439 carries, in 48 games (36 starts) as a Cardinal from 2008-10. He also had 238 yards and three touchdowns on 48 carries in six playoff games.

"This is where it all began for me," he said. "For our team, I think this is a huge first step. You get a chance to set a tone, and guys are excited. You go all summer – OTAs, training camp – but to be able to actually start putting games together that count and forming a team identity … for me, to have a chance start this thing back over, where it all started, I think it's going to be very special.

"I don't believe in irony, but it's different. Just to be fortunate enough to even make an NFL roster, to know how hard that is. But then to get a chance to do it in the place that gave you your first opportunity to play football, this is special. It's a great opportunity. I'm fortunate. I'm looking forward to it, I'm excited."

Hightower faced formidable odds to make the 53-man roster, given that the Saints had two returning backs (Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson), a significant free agent signee (C.J. Spiller) and a draft pick (Marcus Murphy) to consider.

But for the season opener, the roster will include all five after Hightower continued to improve and impress despite a career interruption that, historically, more often has led to retirement than to resumption.

"There's some flexibility with him, and history has told us that for us, to be a little deeper at that position," Coach Sean Payton said. "I thought his training camp was very good. Clearly he looked healthy and I thought his numbers, when we handed him the football, it was something that as the process wore on when we went from spring into training camp, you began to know this player more and more. I also think he's a real good teammate and he's got a presence about him that benefits our team.

"Any break in our league, for even a year – we see that a lot, a player is out for the season and he's back the next year – but I would definitely say that north of a season, players who are out for two seasons, there just aren't many examples of that."

That made the news that he would be on the roster all the more special for Hightower, who has had the experience of receiving such notification before – in 2008, when he made Arizona's roster as a fifth-round pick.

"It was a lot different," he said. "They both are special. It's hard to play in this league, it's hard to play for a long time. It's hard to make a roster in this league, because everyone's good.

"Coming out as a young guy, your dream is to play professional football. So to have all the years from grade school to high school and to get a chance to play, but then to overcome that long road of injuries and different things – you can't compare the two feelings. They're both special, they're just different."

So, too, is he, and in some ways he might barely be recognizable to the NFL fans who best know him. But in one way – the most important way – he pretty much will be the same.

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