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EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - SEPTEMBER 19: Linebacker Dont'a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots reacts after making a defensive play in the second quarter of the game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on September 19, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

To see the softer side of someone tough enough go by handles like “Zeus” and “Boomtower” as one of the NFL’s hardest-hitting linebackers, there are two roads you can take.

One is at the keyboard of your computer, accessing — if you’ll pardon a term from the 1990s — the information superhighway. Simply connect to the internet, start a search engine and enter the names of Dont’a Hightower and Stan Grossfeld, the superb reporter and photographer for The Boston Globe.

In no time, you’ll come upon the June 24 profile of a husband and father at peace with a difficult choice. It’s where you’ll read why Hightower opted out of last season to remain home in Tennessee with wife Morgan and their newborn son, and see him joyfully lifting up 1-year-old Grayson — both beaming with bright smiles.

The second way is actually at the wheel of your car. Head north up Route 1, going away from Gillette Stadium. Before you know it, you’ll find Hightower, smiling again. This time he’s larger than real life and is seen cradling his other baby.

They face you from a billboard on the Southbound side. The rugged linebacker and his tiny pup, Meko, with her cute button eyes, cute button nose and cute floral scarf. A second dog at their side looks longingly into your heart with the kind of eyes no dog lover can resist.

This can’t-miss sign is part of a campaign launched by PETA last winter to ask, no remind, no implore owners to bring their pets in out of the cold. “ALL DOGS, BIG OR SMALL, DESERVE TO LIVE INDOORS,” it says. Hightower delivers the same message in a related video.

  • FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 12: Dont’a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots reacts after losing to the Miami Dolphins 17-16 at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    On Wednesday, before being ruled out of today’s game in Miami as a seemingly precautionary move, Hightower fielded several football-related questions about the season after the season he sat out. He answered thoughtfully, but seriously with little inflection or expression.

    Then someone brought up the billboard featuring the lovely little lady in his arms.

    Hightower’s face lit up, and he smiled that big smile.

    “They reached out and got in touch with people kind of close to me…asked me to do it and I was up for it,” he explained of his involvement with PETA. “I love my four-legged babies. You know Meko’s my daughter.

    “I just thought it was really important. During the cold winters, a lot of people leave their dogs outside. I just wanted to advocate for those who can’t speak for themselves.”

    Helping to make his point in the video, Hightower recalled his first winter in Foxboro. He’d grown up in Middle Tennessee, attended the University of Alabama and come to the northeast as a first-round draft pick in 2012.

    At first, Hightower didn’t wear long sleeves. Ever since, he’s layered up.

    “It’s seriously too cold for me,” Hightower said. “I can’t imagine leaving my dog outside in New England. It (doesn’t) get colder than that.”

  • FOXBOROUGH, MA - JULY 28, 2021: Donta Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots gives a post practice interview following training camp at Gillette Stadium on July 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MA – JULY 28, 2021: Donta Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots gives a post practice interview following training camp at Gillette Stadium on July 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

    This weekend, however, while Hightower tries to stay warm back in New England, he’ll be watching his teammates looking to keep cool and earn an 11th win in South Florida.

    Afterward, playoffs loom for the Pats, as they have in all of Hightower’s nine seasons. But beyond them lies uncertainty.

    These are the final days of the four-year contract Hightower signed in the spring of 2017. That deal, which was put on hold during his opt-out, was agreed to after he earned another nickname, “Mr. February.”

    Two months earlier, 8 1/2 minutes remained and the Patriots trailed Atlanta, 28-12, in Super Bowl LI. Hightower rushed off the left defensive edge virtually untouched and blasted quarterback Matt Ryan. The ball bounced to Alan Branch, becoming the takeaway the Pats desperately needed to complete their historic comeback.

    Two years before that indelible hit was Hightower’s too-often overlooked stop on the snap before Malcolm Butler’s interception in Super Bowl XXXIX.

    On first-and-goal from the five-yard line, Seattle gave the ball to Marshawn Lynch, who barreled forward in full “Beast Mode.” With one healthy arm and the other barely tethered to its socket, Hightower somehow made the game-saving tackle a yard from defeat.

    “I’ll take a torn shoulder any day to get a Super Bowl ring,” Hightower, who played through a torn labrum throughout the playoffs, told the Boston Herald’s Karen Guregian in April 2015.

    If those two plays weren’t enough to stamp Hightower as one of the most clutch defensive players in postseason history — all of it, not just Patriots’ annals — then his performance in Super Bowl LIII should have rested his case.

  • ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Dont'a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots reacts after a sack in the second half during Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

    ATLANTA, GA – FEBRUARY 03: Dont’a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots reacts after a sack in the second half during Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

    The Los Angeles Rams of 2018 averaged 32.9 points per game and outscored opponents by 292 points overall. In two playoff games, their offensive line allowed just one sack.

    But with Hightower at the center of their defense, the Patriots shutout the Rams for nearly 43 minutes and held them out of the end zone altogether in a 13-3 win. Hightower sacked Jared Goff twice, hit the LA quarterback a third time and broke up one of his passes.

    Still, despite delivering in some of the most important and widely-viewed moments in the modern NFL, Hightower’s career seems under appreciated nationally.

    Last year on the “Green Light” podcast hosted by Chris Long, Hightower’s name came up in conversation with guest Michael Bennett. Each played briefly with the Pats, as part of long and successful careers of their own. They understand his value, from the inside and as outside admirers.

    Long cited a rare ability to excel both off the ball and on the edge, and called Hightower “a football machine.” Bennett described him as “one of the best players people don’t talk about.”

    Some that do are detractors who point to Hightower’s injuries. This marks his second missed contest of 2021. From 2012-19, he played in all 16 regular-season games just once. In 2017, he was absent for all but the first five weeks because of a torn pectoral muscle.

    Then again, that mostly-missed season should help us understand Hightower’s true importance. In Super Bowl LII, when Philadelphia outscored the Patriots, 41-33, Malcolm Butler wasn’t the only standout missing from New England’s defense.

  • FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 02: Dont'a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots sacks Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first quarter of the game at Gillette Stadium on January 02, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – JANUARY 02: Dont’a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots sacks Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first quarter of the game at Gillette Stadium on January 02, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    Lately, there have been instances atypical of Hightower’s overall career. Like overrunning a hole at Indianapolis and seeing Jonathan Taylor sprint past him to a game-clinching score. Or seemingly lining up Buffalo’s Devin Singletary, only to bounce off him rather than deliver the boom.

    But last week, following back-to-back losses, when the Patriots needed a jolt of energy vs. Jacksonville, they got it from the 31-year-old Hightower. He burst through a hole up the middle on the game’s second play, wrapped Trevor Lawrence at the waste and registered his 27th career sack.

    About three hours later, as the Pats-Jags went final, 50-10, and the Dolphins lost at Tennessee, New England officially became a playoff entrant. Following a year on the outside, the Patriots are back in.

    In the weeks ahead, Mr.February will look to lead them into next month.

    And continue what’s been a heck of a ride.

    “I missed the locker room. I missed building a camaraderie (through) all the adversity, the ups and downs and stuff, the locker room talk,” Hightower said. “But it’s been great. I’ve loved every bit of it. Hopefully we can string things along and finish the way that we can.”

  • Four Downs

    Sep 12, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) calls a play against the Miami Dolphins during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    • In their season-opening loss to the Dolphins, the Patriots’ final three series 37 plays and 12 first downs, while consuming 18 minutes, 14 seconds and producing just six points. The final snaps of the three drives were from the Miami 24-, 15- and 11-yard lines and ended, respectively, with a field goal, field goal and lost fumble.

    • Last Sunday’s 34-3 final at Tennessee, ending Miami’s seven-game winning streak is somewhat — if not very much — misleading. The Dolphins defense repeatedly found itself defending short fields. Overall, the Titans’ average starting field position was their 43-yard line. Four of their scoring drives began on the Miami side of midfield.

    • During the Fins’ recent winning streak, they defeated the following quarterbacks: Tyrod Taylor (Houston), Lamar Jackson (Baltimore), Joe Flacco (Jets), Cam Newton and P.J. Walker (Carolina), Zach Wilson (Jets), Mike Glennon (Giants) and Ian Book (Saints).

    • Former Patriots Jason McCourty and Elandon Roberts were honored this week as recipients of Dolphins team awards. McCourty, who’s a finalist for the league’s Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, was chosen by teammates for the Don Shula Leadership Award. Meanwhile, Roberts, who returned from a late-season knee injury in 2020, won the Ed Block Courage Award. Block was an athletic trainer and humanitarian for the Baltimore Colts. The Ed Block Foundation supports the well-being of abused, neglected and at-risk children.