By Thomas Sellers Jr.
First there was AJ Hightower the young, backup quarterback with the athletic potential waiting his turn.
Then there was the AJ Hightower leading the Tipton-Rosemark Academy Rebels to the playoffs his junior and senior seasons as a quarterback, running threat and standout in the defensive backfield.
Throughout all of it, Hightower was a dependable teammates, enthusiastic player, coachable athlete and dreamer. The dream Hightower held onto everyday was signing to play college football.
After watching teammates Shane and Sean O’Brien achieve the feat the previous two years, Hightower was motivated even more to reach that goal.
With help from his family like parents Gena and James, friends like Todd Goode and coaches like Dodd Gengenbach, Hightower inked a letter of intent on National Signing Day to Wilmington College in Ohio.
“It took a lot of hard work and effort,” Hightower recalled. “A lot of time in the weight room, a long time in the offseason getting the chemistry down with my teammates, getting to know the coaches better so I can help them out. And they could help me out to get better.
“Going to camps in the summer just to get looked at,” AJ added. “Sending my highlight reels out. It was a lot of people, hard work and effort that went into it.”
With a TRA lobby full of supporters, AJ enjoyed his moment wearing the blue and green of the Quakers. The Wilmington College Quakers are led by Head Coach Stacey Hairston. The Quakers play in the Ohio Athletic Conference in NCAA Division III. The Quakers’ offense will be under the direction of new offensive coordinator Rick Worman.
Worman and Hairston have expressed to Hightower he will get a look at quarterback for the Quakers. Hightower has the ability to play any skill position on offense from quarterback to wide receiver.
“It’s just a testament to AJ and the work he has done over the course of four years playing high school football,” Gengenbach said. “I like to feel I had a little something to do with that along the way along with the other coaches who have impacted his life.”
Gengenbach coached AJ all four seasons at Rosemark. During that timespan, the Rebels reached three straight playoffs and Hightower’s signing was the third during the Gengenbach era.
The former leader of Rebel Football said AJ was patient waiting behind upperclassmen. Once he got his opportunity, Hightower kept the winning ways rolling.
“I wish him all the best at the next level,” Gengenbach said. “He’s a great athlete and a tremendous kid. The kid has a great heart and I hope all his dreams will come true up there in Ohio.
“His biggest thing is not being so hard on himself sometimes,” he added. “He has always had the physical tools, the arm, the speed the size and being able to dissect a defense. He got much better at that the past two years as far as decision making.”
Although Hightower is a multiple sport standout at TRA, he had his mind made up on what sport he wanted to play in college.
“Wow, we’re just speechless,” Gena said of reaching signing day. “We’re happy he’s getting an opportunity to do what he loves and what he has done since he was 5 years old. It’s been a blessing.”
Gena and James watched AJ’s love of the game grow from his days as an Arlington Bulldog to an Ellendale Bear.
“When he was little, an early age, he was consistently hitting something or throwing something,” James said. “He has definitely continue to show it throughout his life.”
Under the guidance of his coaches, AJ started to reach his athletic potential. James said with each instructor, his son kept gaining confidence.
“A lot of it has to do with the coaches he had early on,” he noted. “They have inspired him and really pushed him in a good direction. They motivated him and help him to see that confidence grow.”
Hightower knew once he had his chance to lead the Rebels, he would keep the postseason berths alive. Throughout his time on the sideline, Hightower paid attention to all the details.
“I watch the quarterbacks in front of me took what they did wrong and see what could I have done in that situation,” he acknowledged. “ Just learning from them and learn from their mistakes so I wouldn’t do it in the future.”
Then Gengenbach handed the keys of the offense to Hightower leading to him being selected a 2015 AutoZone Liberty Bowl High School All-Star.
“Last two years I was a big leader and big key to our offense and our team in general,” Hightower said. “I had to pump up our team and get them motivated. I had to keep them in it whether we were ahead or down by a lot. Either way I had to be there for them and be the best possible leader I could.”
Now Hightower’s improved leadership skills will make the move to Ohio. With help from TRA faculty member Todd Goode, AJ sparked the interest of Wilmington.
“Without Todd this all wouldn’t be possible,” Gena said. “He has taken AJ to combines like in Pittsburgh. That’s where Wilmington noticed him. Todd has taken him up to that college twice and we went once as a family. He has been the liaison between us and the coaches getting AJ ready.”
Now Hightower is one of the first TRA Football players to continue his playing days out of the Tri-State area. Gena said that adds to her son’s Rebel resume’.
“We want him to be known not only for what he has done on the field but what he has done off the field,” she said. “For the kindhearted, good person that he is, he never meets a stranger. He has no animosity toward anyone. He loves life. He always has and always will.”
James said signing day will guarantee his son more days of happiness.
“The kid loves life,” he concluded. “He wakes up with that big smile every morning and goes to bed with that same smile.”