Editor’s note: this is another installment in a series looking at Chargers staff members who contribute to the team behind the scenes.
SAN DIEGO – Director of Player Development Arthur Hightower gets the question all the time: what, exactly, do you do?
Some equate his office, tucked next to the team meeting room, to the principal’s office, there for players with issues. Not true, Hightower says.
Don’t confuse him for a school nurse or babysitter either. He won’t sit in his office and wait for players to approach him (though some do), nor does he micromanage every detail of a player’s life.
Hightower considers “life coach” a more apt description. He prepares players for a future after football and provides information on financial, relational and personal counseling. He tries to fill in the holes that football’s demands create in well-rounded and balanced lives.
“I’m actually there to make sure that these guys do have the information and the knowledge they can take advantage of, because a clear head about your future equals a better performance on the field,” Hightower said.
Players come to him for stuff as mundane as slipping him their credit card with instructions to buy nice anniversary flowers for their wife. He helps rookies through a league-mandated program and sets up internships during the offseason. Players sometimes initiate more serious conversations about marital troubles, financial difficulty or some outside habit or problem.
Hightower builds trust with whomever he can and rewards it with sound advice and confidentiality.
“I try not to make it feel like it’s a problem office, like principal’s syndrome, where you walk by and think, ‘Oh, he’s in Arthur’s office, something’s going on,’” Hightower said. “It’s strict confidentiality. It’s not going to turn into locker room gossip. The bigger the problems get, no one will ever find out. I’m not into tell-all books.
“I get no extra pay because I solve a problem or anything like that. I’m in it for (the players).”
Much of Hightower’s work involves rookies, who face the shock of becoming celebrities overnight once they’re drafted.
“(Suddenly) everyone associates you with a team and a certain level of income. As players, everybody knows you and everybody’s your friend because they see you on TV,” Hightower said. “The reality is you don’t know this guy and he doesn’t know you. What fans don’t recognize is that sometimes it can be scary for (players).”
Pro Bowlers are rare. NFL athletes active into their late 30s are rarer. The Chargers provide resources to prepare players for the reality that one day their careers will involve attire other than a helmet and pads. Hightower is fond of saying the next part of life will last longer than football does, and he doesn’t waste time reaching out to young players.
Framing a discussion about the future with a rookie can be a challenge. It helps that Hightower has lived in several regions in both urban and suburban settings. He can tailor his communication so that a specific player can better understand.
“You don’t want to be like, ‘Hey, you need to think about what you’re going to do after this,’ and the guy’s trying to make the team,” Hightower said. “It sends them so on edge, like, ‘Man, am I cut already?’
“But you try to get guys to understand that this is a great opportunity. So how do you use this opportunity as a great jump-start to your life?
“Maybe you buy a house outright. Maybe you put some income away. Maybe you made a connection because of your celebrity that branches into your next career. I want to put that into perspective for those guys.”
Sometimes Hightower will recognize a pattern of behavior in a player or a coach will offer him nuggets of information and ask him to find out what’s going on. Other times guys will come to him.
One undrafted free agent, a prime candidate for the practice squad, got hurt and agreed to an injury settlement with the team.
“He came into my office and said, ‘That’s the most money I’ve ever gotten.’ He had no clue what to do with it,” said Hightower, who presented him with a book about spending and saving money called “The Richest Man in Babylon.”
Hightower bumped into the player in Nashville, Tenn., during a Christmas Day game in 2009.
“He was working for NFL Network,” Hightower said. “I said, ‘How are you doing?’ He said, ‘You know, you changed my life. I sat there and had no idea what I was going to do. I went back to school and finished, and I’ve done pretty well for myself.’
“That made me feel good. No matter if a guy’s a first-round draft pick or the last guy in the building, I’m able to make an impact.”
The joys of Hightower’s job come when he watches a player mature in his relationship with his wife and kids, make better financial decisions, or perform better on the field once their lives are less chaotic. Whether or not he’s successful depends in part on the players’ personal responsibility, but he analyzes his job with a simple question.“You and I could probably take a 10-year hiatus and could come back in our same jobs and pick it up. For the players, once this door’s closed, it’s closed,” Hightower said. “Did they take advantage of this opportunity?”