TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) - Twelve running backs were chosen ahead of Tim Hightower in the 2008 draft. He wasn't even invited to the NFL combine.
Yet halfway through his rookie season, Hightower has replaced one of the great names of the past decade as a starter for the Arizona Cardinals.
Edgerrin James only watched, helmet in hand, from the sideline last Sunday as Hightower rushed for 109 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown run, in the Cardinals' 34-13 victory at St. Louis.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt said the change was made in what has been his consistent approach, to use the players ``who give us the best chance to win.''
``Let's be very clear about this,'' Whisenhunt said. ``The reason that he played is that he's worked hard and earned the opportunity.''
Although James was clearly unhappy with the move, he remains a staunch supporter of Hightower.
``That's my boy,'' James said. ``I'm going to ride out with him all the way. I'll never let anything get between us.''
ccess had it not been for James.
``I get kind of emotional. I can't thank the guy enough. He's really been a big help,'' Hightower said. ``Even on days off, he's calling, texting me, checking on my body, making sure he's OK, checking to see if I need anything. He's a great guy and he's really kind of embraced me.''
Hightower was identified as a prospect by Cardinals scouts. Running backs coach Maurice Carthon went to the University of Richmond to put the player through a workout and came away raving. The Cardinals made him the 149th player chosen in the draft.
In summer workouts and during training camp, the rookie continued to impress with his attitude as well as his ability. The team cut veteran Marcel Shipp and made Hightower the short-yardage back.
Hightower had six touchdowns rushing before he become a starter. The mild-mannered player off the field becomes a hard-running beast when he's handed the ball.
``It really is a mind-set that you have to have,'' Hightower said. ``It's something to where you've got to feel like it's either going to be me or it's going to be them. In my case, it's not going to be me, it's going to be them who take the hit.''
Even before the St. Louis game, it was apparent that Hightower was in line to get more carries.
blamed by fans and bristled at the suggestion he'd slowed a step from his heyday with the Indianapolis Colts.
James' pride is understandable.
No active player in the league has more yards rushing than his 11,987. He ranks 13th on the career list. James topped 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons with Arizona.
But his longest run in 2 1/2 seasons with the Cardinals is 27 yards and it was becoming clear Whisenhunt was leaning toward the rookie. James didn't play one snap against the Rams, while speedy J.J. Arrington played in relief of Hightower.
Whisenhunt insists James remains ``a valuable part of the team.''
``He's a good running back,'' Whisenhunt said. ``When the opportunity presents itself, he'll get chances to carry the ball. We're going to need Edge.''
But Whisenhunt also talked about when he was offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, and how well Jerome Bettis dealt with a diminished role in favor of Willie Parker.
``The way he handled it was very important to our team being successful,'' Whisenhunt said.
James knows this could well be his last season in Arizona. He's in the third year of a four-year, $40 million contract. He makes $5 million this year, and with Hightower on board, the Cardinals would seem unlikely to pay him the $5 million he's scheduled to earn next season.
said he saw plenty of things on game tapes that he needs to improve. Besides, he said, his father taught him to pay attention only to the things he can control.
``You kind of get that tunnel vision,'' he said. ``You put those blinders on and forget about what's going on around you and stay focused on the task at hand. When things are going well, you sustain them. When things aren't going too well, you overcome them.''

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