Episode 111 – Tim Hightower, Talking About Race in the NFL

This week we continue our special series on the Art of Difficult Dialogue with former NFL elite athlete, Tim Hightower. Tim has one of the greatest sports comeback stories ever. After suffering an injury, he spent four seasons out of the game and in recovery. Miraculously, he made his way back to the NFL and will share his story with us today. In addition, Tim talks with Jessica not just to talk about his tenacity, but about his thoughts on how race is effecting sports, and how we can all learn to not shy away from the difficult truths and honest conversations.


Jessica: Hey, everyone! Welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Join me here every week for conversations on living lives of purpose by leaving comfort and going scared.

Thanks so much for those of you guys who have left reviews. I love what a AceGirl6 said. She says, “I always learn and feel inspired when I come tfo the Going Scared podcast. I truly feel like I’m pulling up a chair and listening to two friends chat about social impact, building businesses, and soul care all wrapped in one. My courage is always imperfect, and it’s in this space that I get weekly reminders that it’s okay because the small things still make a big difference.” Thanks so much, AceGirl6.

Alright, today. Today, today, today. This podcast came with some technical difficulties, but I have such an incredible producer that I know you’re not even going to know that there were technical issues going on. We are in week 4 of our Difficult Dialogue series where we are learning how to recover the art of difficult dialogue. And I hope you’re walking away from each episode as moved as I am.

So, let me tell you: today’s guest is Tim Hightower. I met Tim at a business conference a few years ago, and there were about fifty men and three women and guess what we did — we played paintball. But let me tell you, I was very glad to be on Tim’s team. He is a former NFL athlete; he’s played for the Saints, 49ers, and others, but he’s not just any football star. He is the only NFL athlete to have returned to play after missing four seasons due to injury. He is one of the most resilient people that I’ve had the opportunity to have on the show, and you know I’ve had a lot.

Off the field, Tim is an entrepreneur and founder of Hightower Enterprises where he uses his expertise to develop unique health and wellness programs. In this conversation, we get into what is race in the NFL. I mean, I go into uncomfortable waters. He knows I am not a big football person, but I have been very curious about the recent conversations around Black lives and the NFL, and I am so thankful that he was willing to go there. You are going to learn so much from today conversation with Tim.


Tim Hightower: Talking About Race in the NFL

Jessica: We met a few years ago at a business conference, and you were in the process to looking to diversify your career, while at the same time, you were training to play football again in the NFL after a serious injury. And this is one of the things that makes you such a unique and extraordinary individual is that you’re the only NFL player to return to play after missing four seasons due to your injury. So, I wanted us to start there. Tell us a little bit about your injury and then your decision to practice in order to give it another go again.

Tim: Yes. So, I thought it was a routine ACL meniscus injury, which is common, not just in football, but among sports in general, six to eight-month timetable, and I would be good to go. And that just didn’t happen. You know, it was one surgery, and then the infection, and then, you know, one surgery, six to eight months turned into almost four years. And you hit a certain point where you just say, "I’m all in." And actually, the more surgeries that took place, the more the resolve built and grew, that I’m going to come back and I’m going to do whatever it took. So, it was a long process, but it was definitely well worth it.

Jessica: So, tell me a little bit about that. What drove you in that time? Because I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of other teammates and a lot of other athletes, after a serious injury like that, they had to hang up their jersey. What do you say in football? I don’t know what you say.

Tim: Hang up the cleats.

Jessica: Hang up the cleats. Okay.

Tim: Right.

Jessica: So, I mean, I’m sure you’d seen a lot of your teammates or other athletes come and go at this time and hang up their cleats, and you decide, "I’m not going to hang up my cleats." What was it that was driving you at that time? Was it, "Oh, my gosh, I love football?" Was it, "This is the only career I’ve ever dreamed for myself?" Tell us a little bit about that part of your story.

Tim: Sure. Well, I mean, I remember my dad, growing up, my dad would always tell me to never live life with regrets. And I saw for him, he grew up, he was…When I was growing up, he was a professional boxer at a very, very young age, and he walked away from it for various reasons, and he always regretted it. And, you know, he loved his family. He loved… you know. He was happy, in a sense, but you could always tell that there’s something didn’t sit right with him, and he always wondered what if. And so, he would just instill that in me. And so, you know, when you get to this time, I’m thinking about my family, I’m thinking about future generations, I’m thinking about the legacy that I want to leave and what I want to represent, and so just that idea that I don’t want to live life with regrets. I’m going to give this thing everything that I possibly humanly can. And at least I can say, at the end of the day, that I did everything that I knew to do and more, and then I could at least look myself in the mirror.

Jessica: Wow. So, it really was about this value you had to persevere and stick with something.

Tim: Yeah. I mean, the more… and especially when I had a son. So, early on in the process, my wife and I, we had our first son and the information that my dad gave and told became more real. It hits home now because now you have a son. Right now, I have a son and now I could remember the conversations growing up and see his frustration and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want that. I’ve been very big with — I do a lot of work and I’ve always done a lot of work with just young people and it’s one thing to teach them theory or something that you’ve heard, but it’s another thing to teach them something that you’ve lived and you’ve experienced.

Like, I know what it feels like to lose everything, to lose hope, to lose confidence in yourself, to be at a point where you want to give up. And so, just that idea, again, once I had a child and then interacting with young athletes and young individuals, hearing their stories, and the common theme was, “How do I keep going? How do I develop confidence in myself? How do I pick myself back up after I’ve lost it all?” And so, just that idea that if I can somehow… I don’t want to live life with regrets, one, but if I can somehow figure out how to get through this, what I can represent for so many people.

“I know what it feels like to lose everything, to lose hope, to lose confidence in yourself, to be at a point where you want to give up.” Tim Hightower

Jessica: Wow. Tell me a little… Let’s step back, and I want to hear how did you start playing football? Were you, like, fifth grade with the ball or was it a high school interest? Tell me a little bit about the very beginnings of this budding athlete.

Tim: Yes. Well, I was a soccer player. I love soccer year-round, and the soccer coach told my father, he said, "Hey, I think you should let him play football, and I think he’d be a pretty good football player." My dad absolutely said no. He had a bad experience with football growing up and he didn’t want me to play, and so we see how well that worked out, but I finally tried it. I tried it. I was not used to getting hit. I didn’t like it at first. I’m like, "Wait, I’m used to running up and down the field with a soccer ball and no one hitting me," right? But there was something about when you put a ball in my hand, I loved it. I loved it. I fell in love with it from day one, and I said, "This is what I want to do," and so I played running back and I continued playing soccer all the way up until high school until you had to choose one in the Fall sports. But it was something about just that. I’m thankful for that soccer coach and seeing something in me that started that career because prior to that, I didn’t watch football. I didn’t have a love for football. It’s just a soccer coach recommended that I play football.

Jessica: Wow. That’s interesting because I have a sixth-grade boy who is all in for soccer. He’s obsessed with soccer and can’t care less about football, and it’ll be interesting to see what he ends up choosing. So, do the soccer coach think that you would be a more promising football player? Was he basically saying you’d be really good at football or was he saying you weren’t that great at soccer?

Tim: That’s a great question. I hope it was the first one, but you know what? I don’t know. And that’s the conversation that I probably should have at some point. And, you know, at the time we were living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We’ve moved since, and so I have not reconnected with him, but it’s one of those things it’s the value of… which is why I love youth sports. While it’s very competitive, the thing that you miss is that coaching, and especially when it relates to men and young kids, and, you know, father figures, and mentors, and speaking into their lives.

What would have happened if I did not have that experience? Someone who saw something in me to, you know, encourage me and bring something out of me? And so, I just think that’s just the power of sports. But I hope that it was the first one that he saw something good in me, but hey, I know I was a terrible baseball player, so it’s definitely possible.

“What would have happened if I did not have that experience? Someone who saw something in me to, you know, encourage me and bring something out of me? And so, I just think that’s just the power of sports.” Tim Hightower

Jessica: Rule that out easily. Oh, my gosh. My sixth-grader, he hated baseball. He hated, like, the whole thought of this ball coming at you that could hit you in the face. Okay. So, you did move around a lot. So, tell me about high school. Did you change high schools several times? What was your football career like in high school?

Tim: Yeah, so as you mentioned, we moved around a lot as a family. And so, we started out, I was born in California. My dad was in the Marines. We moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then we finally end up moving to Maryland to the East Coast, and so it was a lot of transition. So, football was the only and sports was the only… It was the common thread, right? It gave me kind of credibility wherever you go if you can play sports, right? You have somewhat… you know. You have a community.

Jessica: It’s an in.


When Life Throws You a Curveball

Tim: You have people who can… It’s an in, right? Okay. He can shoot the basketball, he can kick a soccer ball, whatever it is. You got kind of…You can bond that way. But high school, I get to high school, we’re there in Maryland and we start out at a public school. My mother was very big on academics, and so it was not a public school. Inner-city public school was not a strong academic foundation, and so she was adamant. She was relentless. She did everything she could to find out what opportunities were available for her kid, and so we transferred to an all-boys Catholic school, and then we transferred back to another public school, and my younger sister and I finally landed at a boarding school in Alexandria, Virginia. So, we bounced around four different high schools, but we found our roots at a boarding school in Virginia.

Jessica: So, was it an overnight boarding school?

Tim: It was 100% boarding. Yes, it was.

Jessica: Wow.

Tim: And you know what? It was probably one of the best experiences looking back that ever happened to me because it changed… It was a culture shock, definitely, at first. I was not used to… It was a completely different lifestyle, right? Just growing up the way I grew up. I had never experienced access to information and opportunities, and there’s a whole nother world out here.

There’s a completely different way people live, and even just the educational side of it, the support system that was there on campus, it was nothing like what I had experienced before. And I resented it first, being a young kid, because all I’m looking at is where you come from. You don’t come from money, you don’t come from having access to these opportunities, and so you kind of resent. At first, there’s a resentment, and you don’t feel like you fit in, but the more conversations you have and the more you kind of get to know people, you’re able to appreciate the opportunity and see the positives out of it.

Jessica: Wow. I did not. So, it’s one of these elitist kind of… I mean, look at me, already putting judgemental words to it. But, I mean, when I imagine an East Coast boarding school, I am, I’m imagining people that go on that, you know, they’ve been destined to go to Yale since the womb kind of folks, and then here you come. Yeah. Tell me a little bit more about how you did build bridges and how did your football career play out in that setting?

Tim: So, first of all, it was not a… I thought I was going there for sports, let me just say.

Jessica: Did your mom trick you?

Tim: She definitely did. It was a very strong Episcopal high school in Alexandria, Virginia.

Jessica: Smart mom.

Tim: I did not… Sports was really not a focus at that school at all. It was purely academic, a very strong academic school, and A, it was a culture shock as far as culturally, but also academically coming from inner-city public school or half the time you’re fortunate to have a consistent teacher for the school year where it wasn’t a substitute teacher half the time. To go to a college preparatory environment, you know, my junior year, it was a shock in a lot of different ways. And so, there was not an emphasis on sports. We had a football team, we had a basketball team, but it was kind of secondary. You had an option of whether or not. So, just the focus was different where, for me, football was my ticket. That was my way out, right? That was my way to a better lifestyle for myself and my family, where these kids were preparing, as you mentioned, for Yale, for the Ivy Leagues, for the Harvards and Princetons.

And so, the mindset was different. They didn’t understand my drive and my focus, where football was everything for me, and I didn’t understand these kids because I never even considered Yale, or Harvard, or Princeton or… So, it was trying to blend two different lifestyles. A lot of these kids… It was a culture shock for me in a sense that a lot of these kids had never gone to school with an African-American prior to high school, and they were maybe a handful of us at that school, and so it was different. It was the first time that I really had this interaction with the different… just the cultural differences, as well as the socioeconomic differences. It was a lot blended for me in high school, but, like I said, it was a valuable experience.

Jessica: Wow. Yeah. So, was that process when… I mean, I know code-switching. Was that something that you were even aware of at the time? Did you begin to sort of code-switch and “whiten” yourself in order to be accepted, or was there this journey of, "I’m going to be me and all my Blackness and bring my Black experience to this situation?"

Tim: That’s a great question. And I have never… If I could be completely honest, I have never been asked about code-switching by a white person, and I appreciate that question because I think that’s a… No, it really is because I think it’s a concept that is just being recognized and acknowledged now and I think it’s a great thing to bring awareness to that because that is very real. For me, I think that’s one of the reasons why I struggled early on because I refused to wear certain clothing, or listen to certain music, or pretend that I was interested in certain extracurricular activities when I just wasn’t. My parents didn’t hunt. They were not in any type of hunting clubs or golf clubs. I refused to kind of accept their norms and tendencies.

“[Code-switching is] a concept that is just being recognized and acknowledged now and I think it’s a great thing to bring awareness to that because that is very real. For me, I think that’s one of the reasons why I struggled early on.” Tim Hightower

And so, that was probably the reason why I did not kind of fit in at first, but then you kind of learn how to… you know. You’re learning how to be you, unapologetically you, without offending others, right? To listen to your music, to dress the way that you dress, all of these things without offending others. So, no, I don’t think there was any code-switching on my part, but it was definitely a challenge of if I’m going to succeed in this environment, I have to learn how to articulate and express myself in a way that’s not offensive to teachers, coaches, students because they just didn’t understand. They just didn’t understand. Again, if I’m the first Black kid they went to school with, they just didn’t understand why I talked, or thought, or did and behaved in certain ways.

Jessica: And at this point, are you thinking, you know, before you went off to this boarding school, are you thinking NFL already?

Tim: I told my mother in the fifth grade I was going to play professional football.

Jessica: Okay. So, the soccer switch happened early. You knew, "That’s going to be my dream."

Tim: This is what I wanted.

Jessica: Okay. So, she sends you off to this boarding school, and you’re thinking, "Okay, good. You know, I’m going to really get to focus on my sport," and then it’s a very academically-focused school. So, I can understand why there’s a little resentment there.

Tim: Oh, my goodness. So, my first semester there, my junior year, I think I had all Cs in my first… you know, about halfway through. They take away… It’s a college preparatory school. They take away all my free periods. I’m going to study hall. I’m like, "What prison did my mother just sent me to?"

Jessica: Oh, my gosh.

Tim: I just wanted to play football. I mean, academics were important, my parents stressed academics, but I just was not… These kids couldn’t care less about football. Every single day, I’m the first one there and, you know, they didn’t care if they won or lost. And yeah, it was a big difference from my expectation when I was going into the school. But what she knew, she knew that I needed to be in a place that was going to challenge me academically. She knew that I had a drive and a passion for football, and that was secondary to her. Education was the primary thing for her, and looking back at it, I appreciate that she didn’t compromise the education for athletics.

Jessica: I mean, that’s what you call tough love right there.

Tim: She is definitely the definition of that, for sure.


Roll with the Punches

Jessica: Okay. So, then you continue to… Did you think once you got there, “My aspirations are ruined?” Because how does that process look like? You definitely know you need to play college ball if you’re going to be going into the NFL. So, what did the process look like of where you decided to go to college?

Tim: Well, it was tough because I didn’t…and moving so many schools with the recruiting process, you typically go to camps, you know, summer camps and coach is able to follow you. You build a rapport with your coaches. Coaches build rapports and relationships with college scouts, and it’s a whole big process. And I didn’t have that. Just going to so many different schools, I didn’t have strong relationships with the coaches. I was not going to any camps, and I was not at this powerhouse college, so they’re not Division 1 or even 2 coaches knocking on our door to come recruit, and so it was a challenge in that sense.

But I remember just even more so, I think going into my senior year, I knew this was a year for me, and it was all or nothing and I was working out probably three times a day my junior season going into my senior year, and I ended up breaking my foot, just overtraining. I ended up breaking my foot, and I was devastated. And so, I missed a large portion of my senior season, and I remember just crying. This was the first time in my life I cried.

Jessica: Are you serious?

Tim: This was the first time. Out of all the stuff that I saw, this was the first time because this was the first time I felt hopeless.

Jessica: And you’re going into your senior year of high school.

Tim: I’m in my senior year of high school and I’m being told that I can’t play football. And so, for me, it was, well, where is my future? Right? I’ve been working hard. I’ve been working towards this. This is my way out since fourth grade, and I put everything into this, and now I can’t play. I have no scholarship, and where is the opportunity? So, this is the first time I felt hopeless because football gave me at least… It gave me hope that I could do better and I could, you know, succeed further in life. And it was challenging. And finally, I’m not sure how, but my high school coach convinced the University of Richmond, whom I had never heard of, a small school in Richmond, Virginia, to take a shot at me, and they came and took a look and I spoke with them and took a visit to the school. And that was my only scholarship offer and fortunately, that’s the only one that I needed.

Jessica: Wow. The University of Richmond.

Tim: That was it, Spiders, the only…

Jessica: Spiders.

Tim: …college mascot that’s a spider, the only.

Jessica: Oh, that’s a new one. That’s a new one for me, the Spiders.

Tim: Yes, the Spiders.

Jessica: I can understand why. So, now you go to college, and what’s that cultural experience like for you?

Tim: You know what? Richmond was actually a little bit bigger version of Episcopal, but it prepared me for Richmond. The Episcopal prepared me for Richmond, just the interactions. I matured a little bit. And so, the good thing about sports is you have to settle differences. You have to work through them for a common cause, right? Like when we go back to our dorm rooms, you know, we may not hang out with each other, when you go on vacation, or on the weekends, but at least for that period in the weight room, on the football field, you got to work together. So, it helps you form bonds with guys and learn how to interact with people who don’t look like you, who come from different backgrounds. And so, that prepared me for my time at Richmond because Richmond was not… It was not a diverse school either. It was a southern school, very strong academics, but there were… I think there were five Black kids in my recruiting class coming in.

“The good thing about sports is you have to settle differences. You have to work through them for a common cause, right? So, it helps you form bonds with guys and learn how to interact with people who don’t look like you, who come from different backgrounds.” Tim Hightower

Jessica: Wow.

Tim: But it prepared me for… I knew looking back when I graduated, I didn’t get the most out of that experience. I knew that as a kid, because I was very shut off and I just didn’t want to "assimilate." I just wanted to get a scholarship and I just wanted to play football. That was it. And so, I was a lot more open to building relationships in college, to interacting with other guys. And so, you know, it was a lot better experience, I would say, in college than it was in high school.

Jessica: Wow. And so, you’re in college and you tell your coach, "My eyes are on the NFL. That is my dream." Tell me about your relationships with your coaches in college.

Tim: Well, I was a very… My godmother told me one time, she’s a psychologist, she was a psychologist for years, and she told me something that just stuck with me. She said, you know, "Your greatest strength is also your greatest, and can also be your greatest weakness." And for me, my greatest strength was just this resilience from a young age. It was when I set my mind to do something, nobody… either you’re for me, or you better get out of my way because you’re going to get run over like you’re not… And that was… even my mother. You know, she placed that in me to never let anyone define you and never let anything to define you.

And so, that sometimes clashed when it came to coaches, right? Because I saw myself as this is what I wanted. This is how I was going to do it, and this is what I was willing to do to get it. And sometimes, you know, that can be… You got to learn how to be… I had to learn how to be coachable, but coaches didn’t see… They didn’t see whether they wanted to change my position, whether they thought I should run a play a certain way.

They saw the ambition, but it clashed. I clashed with a lot of coaches early on in my high school and collegiate career, and so I had to learn how to listen, and like I said, be coachable and to take that ambition, and the talent, and the work ethic that I had and allow somebody to mold it and shape it, and direct and guide it. That was something that probably didn’t take place until my senior year of college.

Jessica: Wow. Yeah. That took a while. That took a while.

Tim: It took a while. It did.

Jessica: What happened? Can you point to…? Was it just the maturity or was it a conversation with the coach, or was it, "Gosh, if I’m going to make it further, I need to be coachable?"

Tim: Yeah. That’s a great question. And here is one of the things that when you talked about, we were talking about high school, just the differences and not understanding the differences, and I’m not a victim by anything, and I know I never play a victim card. But one thing as a young Black male, when you see growing up and you see certain challenges that maybe your father comes up against, you hear conversations about how hard or certain opportunities that they didn’t have growing up, and you start to experience some of these things, you start to develop this mindset that is like the world is against you in that, like you’re not going to let anybody tell you, or define you, or limit you. You develop and you don’t know how to separate who is trying to help you, or yet, who’s trying to hold you back, or who’s trying to hold you back.

And I don’t think where… If you’ve never grown up with, like, on the defense, like why would you be…? The questions would be why are you so angry? Or why are you so defensive? Or why are you so…? But not understanding that… Again, not understanding the environment that you grow up in, right? But you drive to your neighborhood. You’re not seeing the hardships in your neighborhood. All I see is hardships in my neighborhood, so you become… Right. You start to take on that identity of just hardship and just pain, right? And so, in college, small things, just resisting if a coach is asking you to do something. There’s no need for me to resist if he’s telling me to tape my ankles and I don’t want to tape my ankles, like, "Just tape your ankles. We don’t have to have a debate about it." Or if he’s telling you to run a play in a certain way, or if he’s telling you the importance of doing the same thing that every other team player does.

It’s small things, but you just get so used to just fighting, right? Having to fight for everything in life and having to fight to prove that you’re better than, or that you’re equal to, and you don’t know how to turn that perspective off sometimes and allow the people who are actually… Because there were a lot of comments that would be made that, "Oh, well, you’re well-spoken. You’re different from the rest of “those guys”. You know, you’re not like those convicts at Virginia Tech. You went to Richmond, a smart school that speaks volumes about where you came from," not knowing me at all. So, you would hear these things on campus. And so, there were a lot of those perspectives, but not everybody was against me.

And so, learning how to… making a certain point, you asked me, what was it? At a certain point, you say, "Where am I trying to go?" As a young kid. "What do I want in life and where am I trying to go? And who can help me get there?" And when I started looking at it from that approach, my running back coach. And there was a coach, there was one time I was late for a test and he benched me in the game, and him and I got into a huge altercation and he pulled me aside and he said, "Look, I’m here to help you." And so, it was like you have these conversations and then you have this kind of this experience and this enlightenment where you’re saying, "I can’t go around fighting everyone. I can’t go around with this chip on my shoulder that the world is against me. At some point, if I want to get to where I want to be, I have to allow people around me, those who want to, to help me." And so, that’s where… It was a long process, but it started to kind of take shape and form in my senior year, fortunately, because I was a captain, in that I needed to be a leader for sure.

"I can’t go around fighting everyone. I can’t go around with this chip on my shoulder that the world is against me. At some point, if I want to get to where I want to be, I have to allow people around me, those who want to, to help me." Tim Hightower


It’s All About Perspective

Jessica: Wow. Wow. I’m just having this moment of, really, the experience of Black men in America, and that is the experience of, “is this guy going to hold me back or is this guy trustable?” You know, I mean, there’s just no escaping that experience simply because of the color of your skin. And so, it sounds like maybe your senior year, you opened yourself up to trusting.

Tim: I did. I did. Myself and the head coach, we clashed a little bit, but I was at least willing to listen, and I think that’s the biggest thing that… especially when I see young Black men and when people do not understand. For example, and I don’t want to make it all about the protests. I’m not sure if that’s what you brought me on here for, but there was… you know. I went to school in Richmond, Virginia, so this was a big topic of controversy, were the monuments, right? And so, a friend of mine, he lives down there where the monuments are, and he’s just disgusted that he’s walking out of his house now and there’s all this vandalism. It brought about… Like, he was depressed because, for the last two weeks, he’s just seen vandalism. And not that I condone that, right? But I said, "Can you imagine what my neighborhood felt like everyday walking home to that…”

Jessica: So, this is a white teammate.

Tim: Well, he wasn’t a teammate. He’s a friend of mine.

Jessica: But he’s a white guy.

Tim: Correct. And so, I’m painting a perspective, like, "You don’t want to see graffiti on a statue for a week. Think about going home to a neighborhood where it’s boarded up homes every day. The cops are nothing but patrolling up and down your neighborhood and the streets." You see, you know, the crack houses and the prostitutes, and there’s no hope, and you go back to that. You wake up to it, and no matter what, you can go to school or you can go to the football field, you can go wherever you… but you come back home to that same reality every single day. You started feeling depressed after a week. Can you imagine living in these environments year, after year, after year, after year? You start to become hard into certain things. Your perspective on life is completely different.

And so now, you come into this environment where someone is trying to… You’re trying to figure out who’s for you and who’s against you because you feel like, "Man, with the environment that I grew up in, how could anyone be for me if I just drive 20 minutes down the road and everything looks completely different?" Right?

And so, it’s not understanding… you know. In high school, kids don’t understand that dynamic, if they never came from that dynamic, they’ve never gone to these. They’ve never even driven by these neighborhoods, so they don’t understand the psyche and the perspectives of why kids are hard and like they’re… right? And so, for me, it’s just trying to talk to young kids, Black kids, and say, "Hey, your life was hard, yes, understand that, but at the end of the day, you still have to learn how to trust somebody." You got to learn how to trust people, and when you leave outside of that environment, you have to learn in order to get where you want to be, you can’t take that perspective. But that takes somebody who’s not judging, who understands where they came from, and says, "Hey, look, let me help. Let me help provide a different perspective to life that you’ve never had before."

Jessica: And this is what I want to ask you more about the conversations that are currently happening and that you had this kind of conversation recently with a friend of yours. Are you experiencing more a posture of listening from your white friends than you did say a few years back?

Tim: Yes and no. You see both extremes. You see, there have been some who’ve reached out to me and have just wanted to talk and ask, right? But there have been others who kind of go the opposite direction and just completely resist and say, "I don’t want anything to do with this. This is…" You know, there’s so much information going on right now, and they go the complete opposite way. And so, it’s pretty interesting the two differences of experiences, right? Like some people, they’ll remember certain conversations that we had in high school with certain experiences, and they’ll come back and they’ll say, "Hey, like, I apologize for this," or, "I’m sorry about this," or, "Do you remember this when this happened?" So, it’s been one of the two extremes.

I think the conversation that stuck out to me the most with a good friend of mine, he’s a professor at a university and we had a hard… He reached out to me just to see how I was doing, and he had a conversation about… He’s from Mississippi and his… we had a conversation about his father, and his father is… He had to admit that his father was racist, but he didn’t want to call it that. He called it ignorance. And he spoke of his father in a very… It was tough because he was very torn. His father is a very well-educated, successful man. And I told him, I challenged him, I said, "For you not to call it what it is," I said, "I respect your father because he is your father, and I understand the challenge that this is your father. This is the person who raised you, but yet, the reality is, as close friends that we are, if I walked into your home, he wouldn’t treat me in a respectful way. That’s racist."

And it was hard for him. He had to acknowledge, and he was in tears and he said, "It’s hard for me to call the man that I call my father a racist. And so, that kind of really showed me where we were kind of in society, that these are tough conversations that as people are wrestling with history, as people are wrestling with family members, and you understand something is wrong, but then to acknowledge it, does that paint your history, your family legacy? Does that change the dynamics, the relationship that you’ve grown up in things with customs and cultures that you’ve come to love, and know, and be comfortable with? And so, that was just a big… a moment, I would say.

“These are tough conversations that, as people are wrestling with history, as people are wrestling with family members, and you understand something is wrong, but then to acknowledge it, does that paint your history, your family legacy?” Tim Hightower

Jessica: Wow. I’m so impressed that you are able to enter into a difficult conversation, which this entire podcast series is about: recovering the art of difficult dialogue. And you were able to get him to see. I mean, he left that conversation open-hearted, and with a new perspective. What do you think it is in you? What are some of your conversation strategies or your listening strategies? I’m thinking back to that conversation you said, "Hey," you gave him an example, "If I walked into your dad’s home…" What are some of…? As you’re having so many of these conversations, what is it that you’re doing when someone is able to walk away and kind of feel a little bit differently than they entered the convo?

Tim: Listen. Listen. Right? At the end of the day, there’s so much stats that people want to pull up and, you know, articles, and you’re going to find an article that’s going to point, you’re going to find a research article that’s going to slant this way. You can find… And you’re not going to convince me based off of proving statistics, even though one would think that you could show that and say, "Hey, here, this justifies this action, or this feeling, or…" People don’t care. Right? We view life from our experiences. So, I have to listen. I may not like what you think, but I got to listen to what your experience is.

And so, even listening to him, what are you feeling? And hearing that, at the end of the day, his challenge was he was wrestling with how he interacts with his father. It had nothing to do with me. It had nothing to… For him, it’s like… and so me understanding and hearing his experience, and listening, and appreciating, and respecting that allowed him then to hear mine. And say, "Look, I have nothing against your father. I have nothing against your father. Look, I know the reverence and respect that I have for my father, but guess what? There are some things that I saw with my father growing up that are absolutely wrong." A man should never put his hands on a woman. That’s wrong. Period. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love my father. That means that I have to call that what it is because if I don’t call it what it is, then I can’t correct a wrong that I never acknowledge.

Jessica: Yes!

And so, like, it’s hard to have dialogues and we won’t just listen and just hear each other, like hear each other’s perspectives. And so, I think that’s the first thing, just hearing and sharing perspectives, and listening. That’s been the biggest thing. And then just provide scenarios like ‘what if?’ So, I had this one conversation with a gentleman, a much older gentleman to myself. He was probably in his late 60s, and very candid. It turned into about a five-hour conversation.

Jessica: Wow.

Tim: Yeah. I mean, because once the flood gates started, he had so many questions and he said, "Can I just…?” You know, this is a safe space. He wants to ask a lot of questions. And so, I said, "Look, you’re a very educated guy." He went to UVA, and I said, "Think about it." I said, "You could have grown up." I said, "From the time you were young, you went to private school all the way up. You went to a private school from kindergarten through to high school. You went to the best private school, the best college." I said, "You could have gone your whole life without interacting with a Black person. Think about that." And he’s like, "What do you mean?" I said, "Well, you went to this private school, right? So, did you have any Black classmates?" He said, "No." "It’s okay. You went to this high school. Did you have any Black classmates?" He said no. I said, "It’s your school. Did you graduate?" He said no. "So now where you work, do you have any Black co-workers?" He said no. I said, "You have a very successful life and you didn’t interact with someone who didn’t look like you."

I said, "Everyone who has helped me in life, not everyone, but there’s no way I could have had that same experience." And so, I said, "Just imagine that for a second. He said, "Okay." And I said, "Okay, now imagine this, right? Every time you turn on TV, they’re acknowledging the first woman to do this, or the first Black person to do this, or the first Latino to do this." And I said, "It’s kind of annoying, isn’t it?" And he looked at me, like, "You’re trying to set me up." And I said, "Well, just…you know." I said, "This is a safe space," and he said, "Well, it kind of is. I kind of feel like it’s overkill." And I said, "Well, can you imagine, do you think they’re the first person who’s ever tried to or the first person who was able to?" And he said, "You know, I never thought about it like that."

And so, it’s listening to people, but then providing, like, a scenario, like put yourself in that scenario, if as smart and educated as you are, somebody told you that you cannot go to UVA, you know. But you can’t have those conversations until you genuinely listen to someone else, regardless of how wrong or right you feel they are.


Race and the NFL

Jessica: It’s powerful to learn to listen. And everything is so heated right now. It’s so heated. I wanted to ask you about race and the NFL because it’s so interesting to me that you had this very predominantly white experience from your junior year all the way up through college, and then you go play in the NFL, which is 70% Black. How did that…? Was that like, "Oh, finally, I get to be around more of my people?" And what was that like going from predominantly white to then switching back and going to a predominantly Black environment?

Tim: I don’t know if I even thought about it in that way. You see the differences in the upbringings. Money magnifies who people are. They magnify their values, they magnify their tendencies, like, their ideologies, their viewpoints. And so, whether it’s me, as soon as I, you know, get my first check, I’m taking care of my mother, I’m helping my sister pay her college tuition. There’s a responsibility in the African-American community that, you know, if one of you makes it, you have a responsibility to, like, kind of bring up everyone else in your community. You don’t see that among your white teammates. They’re like…

Jessica: Everybody is making it around me.

Tim: Yeah. They’re not my responsibility. They could have did it themselves. And so, it’s small differences that you see in the NFL. It’s not necessarily like… It’s just the differences in upbringing are magnified when the expectations are different or seeing that even the people that you put around it, where… No one in my family ever made six figures growing up, so no one had accountants, and financial advisors, and attorneys. And my dad and mom didn’t have that team of people, but you could just see the differences in how they handled and managed their careers. I think that was the biggest thing, the support systems were different. Where I would see, in the NFL, when I was here in my first couple of years, African-Americans, the family structures, the friends that are having a hard time detaching from the communities that they really feel like made them, right? Because now you have all these people who want to be around you, all these, for lack of better, white financial advisors, and lawyers, and attorneys, and all these people who they want to help you out…

Jessica: Want a little piece of your pie, want to be there to…

Tim: Right. They… It’s the same thing that I talked about in college or in high school, learning how to trust people in college, learning how to trust people. And so, you have these young Black athletes who the only people they’ve ever trusted are the people in their neighborhoods because those are the only people who looked out for them. And so, now they’re trying to become a professional, but how do I trust these people? But yet, you need the wise advisors, and mentors, and people to help you manage money, say no to people, invest in… you know, make wise investments and decisions. And you do have to cut yourself off from some of the communities and some of the people and activities where you came from. You can’t take care of everyone in your family. And so, I think that was the biggest difference. That dynamic gets magnified whenever you step into that professional environment.

Jessica: Let me ask you this with that context in mind that the African-American young NFL player is thinking, you know, "This paycheck is going to pay for my mom. I’m finally going to get her to get that house," or, "My younger brother that’s still in school, I’m going to pay for his college." Does that level of responsibility do you think, is there a certain level of fear when it does come to speaking up about race? And I’m thinking back to the Colin Kaepernick 2017, he kneeled about a year after you were on the 49ers team.

And first of all, I just have to be transparent. When the kneeling happened, you know, I’ve already told you this that I’m not a huge football person, but when the kneeling happened, I did have that visceral reaction of “that’s not patriotic,” and I had a typical white response of offense. I was offended by the kneeling. And then more recently, when George Floyd was murdered, I was online, and I saw Drew Brees. His first comment about kneeling, which was right, I mean, it was maybe two days after George Floyd’s murder, he doubled down on his disagreement with those who were kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem. But then he quickly got so much pushback, and many of his teammates went online, and were crying, and were saying, "Can’t you see from my perspective that protest and taking a knee, it’s not about disrespecting the flag, it’s about demonstrating a respect for something different?"

And then Drew came back and he wrote an emotional apology, and he said that his comments lacked awareness, they lacked empathy, compassion, and he went on to make some big comments that he condemns the years of oppression that have taken place among Black communities, and that still exists today.

Are you seeing a difference now in Black athletes being able to speak out, or is there a fear, "Hey, I’m taking care of my family so I got to walk a tight rope," because let’s face it, the people in power in the NFL are not Black. I mean, they’re white. I mean, there’s such… There’s a handful of Black coaches even in the NFL.

Tim: Yeah. That’s an important… It’s such a huge, huge dynamic. I’m encouraged by guys sharing their experiences. The challenge is with social media, everyone is able to just express an opinion, right? And once you push that send button…

Jessica: It’s out there.

Tim: …you express a thought. It may not be flushed out. It may not understand the full context, but it’s just out there. So, yes, I would agree that guys, in the past, and especially when I first came to NFL, it was a different perspective because if you weren’t a 5-year $100 million player, do you, as an undrafted rookie, if you see something that’s wrong, do you say something? Right? Because it’s just like, "Hey, it’s just that you said, ‘I got to make a name for myself first,’" right? Like, "I’m not LeBron James, or I’m not the face of the NBA, or the face of the NFL where these owners know the endorsements that I may have. They can’t just, like, push me aside. Like, I’m making money for them and I’m a face of their brand, so they got to listen to me, right or wrong, whether they agree with it or not."

And so, there is that divide of what should we say? And being that the owners are predominantly, or not predominantly, are all white, and then the faces of, especially football when it comes to quarterbacks. Quarterbacks are the face of the league, and for the longest they’ve been white, and a big discouragement of mine when I saw that with Drew, and I love and have a friendship and nothing but admiration for Drew as a man. But as it relates to a lot of these issues and challenges that we face in our communities, you rarely, if ever, see any leaders in the NFL step out and say anything. It’s rare that they’d rather be silent, and it’s like, how do… When we see something and the first… I love the fact that athletes, as I mentioned, are utilizing their platform, and the challenge is, well, why would you complain if you’re so oppressed how are you making millions of dollars, but yet, again, you got to hear my experiences. How can I separate myself?

I’m still trying to struggle with being a professional athlete, but yet I come back to this same community, my cousins, and my friends, and family members. I’m doing non-profit work. I’m doing camps in these communities. I’m going back to the communities where I came from. I’m hearing their stories. I’m seeing the life that they live, I’m hearing their experiences, but yet just because I made it, that’s not a reality, and I’m supposed to act like that’s not a reality. I’m supposed to act like me just running a football is changing their life. It’s not. It’s not, right? Like, the reason why I got in this position was so that I could be a force for change and an advocate of change in those communities.

Because if I don’t go back, who is?

And so, it was frustrating when I saw that and just seeing, on a larger scale, people not understanding what this is about, not understanding… I hate that it became a controversy of the flag and people have different experiences. I get that, and I hear Drew’s experience of… and I respect his position of having admiration and respect for his grandfather. But then that’s when the other side comes in and says, "Okay, well, that same…" just like I heard my friend, but that same respect you have for your dad in love, I didn’t get that. Your dad would treat me… He wouldn’t treat me the same way that he’s treated you. Is that okay with you? Because that same Drew, my grandfather fought alongside with your grandfather and he was not treated the same way that your grandfather was treated.

So, at what point do we say, "Okay, I respect the history, I respect my forefathers, but yet I do not agree with… I acknowledge your experiences are different and moving forward, I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that our kids can have an equal playing field together?" And so, it is very frustrating the time that we’re in because I think as soon as something happens, we immediately look at it from our perspective and our lens and not try to just understand why somebody may be crying out or why someone may take that perspective on something. We immediately become defensive. And there’s no way, we don’t progress when we’re in that perspective, when we take that stance and that perspective.

“I think as soon as something happens, we immediately look at it from our perspective and our lens and not try to just understand why somebody may be crying out or why someone may take that perspective on something. We immediately become defensive … we don’t progress when we’re in that perspective, when we take that stance and that perspective.” Tim Hightower

Jessica: Were you encouraged when he came out and apologized for speaking up about that and that he admitted his weaknesses? Or did you think, "Oh, he’s just covering his ass?" Or did you feel like, is there a new conversation happening? I guess is what I’m… because I had felt and I’m like, "Oh, maybe it’s just my whiteness," where I thought, "Oh, more white people are seeing. They’re waking up. They’re willing to look at this other perspective, but it sounds like you’re kind of in this, “yeah, some people are, but some people are just digging their heels in.”

Tim: Completely. Some people were just digging their heels in it, and some people were… I don’t know where it came from. I never tried to…

Jessica: You didn’t go down the Instagram bunny trail.

Tim: Yeah. I don’t try to judge someone’s heart and was he sincere in all this. The only thing that I hope comes out of it is I hope that if anybody… He has been in the NFL. He has played alongside. He’s been in the locker room with African-American and people of color teammates for years. And what I hope this for him and for many of us is maybe you don’t know your "brothers" in the way that you thought you did, and maybe this is an opportunity, if we call ourselves family and brotherhood and all that kind of stuff. But yet, I have a friend of mine who he just lost his daughter. When he’s sharing with me his experience, it’s not about me at that point. It’s not about me. He’s going through something, and it doesn’t matter about what I think about it, doesn’t matter about how I feel about it. It’s this is my brother and my brother is hurting, and I need to listen to my brother, and I need to find out how I can be a support system for my brother, whether I understand it, whether I agree with it or not.

And so, that’s what I hope. The apology that…  Cool. I mean, we’re all going to say something. We’re all going to put our foot in our mouth, and whether he stands by it or not, fine, but what I more so hope is that him as a leader, and the respect that he has earned in his community and in the locker rooms, that he start to take and have some conversations and start to find out what are the experiences of those around him? How could I better get to know and understand my teammates? And I think when they see that, that’s going to resonate more than an apology.

Jessica: I think that is a really good place for us to land because, you know, we’re now a few months out of a little bit of the intensity right after the murder of George Floyd. And I think that a lot of white people, you know, posted online, and it’s easy to think that, you know, standing up for a couple of weeks is… that that was brave, you know, and now you’re into your next part of your life. And I mean, that is what white privilege is, is, you know, white people are… Privilege is just being able to walk away, you know, and privilege is being able to turn off the TV and not be in a neighborhood where racial issues are impacting you day in and day out, and I love that your call is not to just have this an apology or speak up on social media, but to really enter in with other people and be a listener.

Tim: And we can talk all day, but what I will say is there’s a young girl who… I’ll finish with this. There’s a young girl at a high school who asked me, she said, "Tim, do these conversations get any easier?" And I said, "No, they get harder." The older we get, the more we form our opinion, we form our experiences about the way life is, the way the world is, and it gets harder, but we still have to continue. We have to… If we want things to change, we have to change. We have to have these tough conversations.

And so, if that means… When we learn better, we must do better. So, if that means that we have to reshape the conversation that we have with some of our family members, some of the experiences that we had that it’s not apologizing for them. It’s just once we recognize it, we make better choices, right? “Hey, I didn’t know any better,” and I think that’s the challenge from talking to a lot of white friends, and I call them family members because a lot of them are like family to me that I’m not telling you to apologize for who you are. I’m not telling you to apologize for everything that happened. All I’m asking is that you hear and that you listen, and you try to see life from a different perspective, you try to understand where I’m coming from. And then that when you understand, that you share that with other people. Because if you don’t understand, then chances are the people who are around you don’t understand, and the chances are people around them don’t understand. So, as you have the courage to listen, hear and change behaviors, have those conversations with the lows around you, and then hopefully, they’ll keep having those conversations, and then hopefully, we can start to move forward in a better place.

“All I’m asking is that you hear and that you listen, and you try to see life from a different perspective, you try to understand where I’m coming from. And then that when you understand, that you share that with other people.” Tim Hightower

Jessica: Wow. I was so grateful to have this time with Tim. And knowing that he is having these hard conversations on a weekly basis – I mean when he said that he had a five-hour conversation with a white guy who was struggling to understand his point of view and that Tim just stayed with it, that is what difficult dialogue and true listening looks like. He speaks how we can have open conversations about race while standing in a space of acknowledging the humanity of the person that you’re talking to.

I am gonna go back and listen to this one, and I would love love to hear what you learned. To me, this was… I think for me, I realized my own bias in this conversation because I have been thinking that we have come very far in recent months in being able to talk about racial inequality, and I kept pushing that with him, and he was a little bit like, “Yeah, some people are coming far, some people are digging in their heels.” It was just another realization for me that it’s easy for me to think we’ve come far as a white woman, but that when you are in it day in and day out as a Black man, you don’t see quite as much progress. And so, it was good for me to check my bias and kind of just dive back in deeper into some of these conversations around racial inequality.

Thanks so much for all of your ratings and reviews. Be sure to keep checking out my Instagram for continued opportunities for giveaways and goodies. I would love to see you over there.

And to keep up with Tim, check him out, he is over there on Instagram as well @TimHightower.

Our wonderful music is by my god friend Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. And I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.