Hightower thrilled to be back on Patriots’ defense

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Dont’a Hightower is clearly thrilled to be back on the field after the frustration of having to sit and watch most of last season on the sidelines.

After making one of the biggest sacks in New England franchise history when he separated Atlanta’s Matt Ryan from the football during New England’s Super Bowl comeback in February 2017, Hightower — who had missed three games the previous season with a knee problem — was lost five games into the 2017 schedule with a torn pectoral muscle. Coincidentally, he was hurt against the Falcons.

His absence, felt deeply by a team that came up short defensively in the Super Bowl, wasn’t easy for Hightower to handle — even if it’s something he had gotten used to.

“Absolutely,” the linebacker and defensive captain said Wednesday, following the second day of the Patriots‘ mandatory minicamp outside Gillette Stadium. “Being out last year and even a little bit more the year before that, it just feels good to be out here and be able to communicate, go through the worst part and embracing the (camp stuff), as they say, with my teammates.”

Hightower, 28, has failed to play a full schedule in any of his six years in the NFL. In fact, he has missed 24 of a possible 96 regular-season games since becoming a pro in 2012.

“It just (stinks) not being out there,” he said. “I know in my career in the league I’ve missed a lot of games. It’s definitely not anticipated and it’s not something I look forward to doing or want to do. But it’s part of it.

“Just not being out there during the regular season, let alone the playoffs, it (stinks) and it hurts.”

During his downtime, he said, “I just do what I can, whether it’s talking to (media), or going out to dinner and talking about some stuff.”

And he also remained part of the group of linebackers.

“We’ve got a group chat. We stay on that,” he said. “We’ve got a big old group chat. Whether it’s a funny meme or somebody’s got a question about football, or we’re talking about something happening on TV, or the (NBA) Finals or whatever. We’ve got a tight-knit group and we stay close.”

Asked if he might have done some coaching while not playing, Hightower said, “Not so much. There were small things I’d see during the games or whatever or I’d see on the IPad at practice, I might say something to them. Not so much as a coach on the sideline.”

So did it spark interest for him in a coaching future?

“Maybe,” he said. “Definitely not in the NFL, probably not in college, either.

“I’ve been away for too long, man. I don’t know if I can do that. I mean, I love football but I don’t know if I love it that much.”

NOTES: Rob Gronkowski caught a touchdown pass from Tom Brady in the corner of the end zone during one drill. Instead of his customary spike, he threw the ball out of the practice fields. . Gronkowski, in a great state of mind after his offseason of uncertainty, walked past the Hightower interview and was heard saying, with a laugh, “They trading me still?” . Day 2 and Brady remains quiet, with Thursday seen as a possibility for him to meet with the media.