BRADENTON, Fla. — The Second Line is in many ways an admirable film, particularly for a student production.
The 20-minute movie from 2007 centers on life in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The crew filmed a major portion inside a house flooded and effectively destroyed by the storm. J.D. Williams, an actor perhaps best known for his incredible turn as Bodie Broadus on The Wire, is one of the film’s principle stars as Natt. He and his friend, MacArthur, played by Al Thompson, work odd jobs for cash after MacArthur is robbed
About 1 minute, 40 seconds into the film, MacArthur calls his mother.
The next scene hops back and forth between Dallas and New Orleans. In New Orleans, MacArthur just had $600 stolen from his Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He calls his mother, who lives in Dallas, at least in part to ask for money.
The other end of this conversation plays out on a set. The mother of Thompson’s character, played by Saidah Arrika Ekulonah, is hearing out her son, all the while preoccupied by another hyperactive child. Brante, the child, dons a wolf hat and a tidy set of cornrows. The actor bears at least something of a resemblance to Jaden Smith.
His name is Brian Hightower and more than 10 years later he’s a freshman ready to suit up for Miami when spring football practice begins March 20.
“It was just something people suggested,” Hightower said of his short-lived acting career. “I never really was into it. It was just something I would do on the side.”
By now, records of Hightower’s brief career as an actor are tucked away in the far reaches of the internet, buried in Google searches by accounts of his football exploits. He finished high school as the nation’s No. 27 wide receiver in the 247Sports composite rankings and No. 154 prospect overall. He earned a spot in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and was one of the most impressive performers during the game in San Antonio. The 4-star wide receiver helped guide IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) to back-to-back undefeated seasons as a junior and senior, leading IMG with 35 catches, 445 receiving yards and 5 touchdown grabs in 2018.
He signed with the Hurricanes during December and started classes in January.
“The first time he walked in, it was, ‘Wow. That’s how they’re supposed to look. He really looks good,'” wide receivers coach Ron Dugans said the day Hightower signed. “I know he did some really good things this year, caught the ball well, made some contested catches. He brings a lot of upside to the table because of his size, he’s a good route-runner and he high-points the football.”
Hightower’s roughly six appearances on-screen in smaller movies don’t make it on to a resume of his most impressive accomplishments. In fact, it’s difficult to find out about them unless you know what to look for.
His acting career, however, is what originally guided Hightower’s family from Philadelphia to California. Lydia Bartlett, Hightower’s mother, played basketball and so does older brother Derick Newton, who was picked out of Stetson in the 2017 NBA G League Draft.
Hightower never wanted to follow the same path as the rest of his family members. Football was always a major interest, but before he was running routes, he was running from audition to audition around the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
He appeared in commercials and short films. He acted for directors whose careers weren’t going anywhere and for filmmakers who strived for awards. Death and Money, which chronicles a moment in the life of a drug kingpin’s son, won the Golden Ace Award for best student film at the Las Vegas Film Festival. The Second Line won a grand jury prize for best short film at South by Southwest.
“It taught him how to take direction,” Bartlett said. “Acting taught him you have to take direction, listen to what people say.”
On one of these drives to an audition, Hightower looked out his mother’s car window and saw a youth football game at a park.
Football had always been a part of Hightower’s life — he doesn’t feel like acting came before football — and for whatever reason on this day the draw of the game was too much.
“I’m not an actor,” Bartlett remembers him saying. “I’m a football player.”
A serious man
In Death and Money, Hightower plays one of his few roles with a speaking part. He plays the son of a character named Kernel Davis, who becomes the victim of an attempted burglary. Davis has a gun pressed to his forehead as a voice calls from offscreen.
“Daddy,” it says softly. The camera cuts to Kernel’s son. He spends about a second on-screen and shadows cover him, yet it’s unmistakably Hightower, complete with the high-taper afro he frequently sports.
“Brian was a very serious kid,” Bartlett said. “If you look at the head shots, he was a serious kid.”
He still is. Hightower rarely shows excitement on the field and hardly ever reveals frustration. It’s hard to coax more than a few words out of him at a time and even harder to get him crack a smile.
His steely maturity was necessary when he first arrived in Florida during the spring of his sophomore year. Hightower was used to being a superstar during his first two high school stops. He began as a promising freshman at Hillside High School in Durham, N.C., before moving back to Southern California for his sophomore year. He enrolled at Calabasas (Calif.) High School and immediately became one of the most dangerous pass catchers in the state.
Playing alongside blue-chip junior wide receivers Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Darnay Holmes, Hightower carved out his own place. He finished the 2015 season as Calabasas’ top receiver, leading the Coyotes with 71 receptions, 1,344 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches. Calabasas, only two years removed from a winless season, won 14 games and played for a regional championship. Leaving to join the Ascenders wasn’t an easy decision.
“I wanted to grow as a person and a player,” Hightower told DieHards. “The best place to do that was IMG.”
Playing for one of the top-5 teams in the country, Hightower’s production dried up. He started out wide opposite 4-star wide receiver Jhamon Ausbon, who started as a freshman at Texas A&M this season, and alongside 3-star wide receiver Emmanuel Greene and 3-star tight end Tre’ McKitty. In nine games, Hightower caught only 13 passes.
He’s big — now about 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds — and his long strides gave him a deceptive, smooth speed in the open field. He was faster than just about everyone he met at Calabasas, and when he wasn’t he could track throws better and win jump balls.
“Very good route-runner, very fluid, good body control, caught the ball really well with his hands. He was impressive as a young kid,” Ascenders coach Kevin Wright told DieHards. “Obviously, the competition level he was playing, he was a lot of times one of the better athletes on the field, but at the same time he was a very dominant player.”
In his first game for IMG against Grayson High School (Loganville, Ga.), Hightower caught only 1 pass for 10 yards. Four other times, the wideout finished a game with fewer than 40 yards. He had only a single catch in four of his games, as well.
Hightower’s plight isn’t unique at IMG, where the Ascenders round up top prospects from across the country to build a super team.
“You can go one of two ways. You can put your head down and go back home, where life’s easier,” Wright said, “or you can roll up your sleeves and work harder, and do all the little detail things that are going to eventually make you a great player.”
Hightower, more than 2,500 miles away from home, never pouted, although Wright could see he was frustrated. They spoke constantly throughout the season about Hightower’s role. The talented wide receiver wasn’t exactly in a unique situation and he could look at some of his teammates as examples.
McKitty, who is now at Florida State, only had 1 catch as a junior playing behind 5-star tight end Isaac Nauta, who now starts at Georgia. As a senior, McKitty had 341 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Not everyone can handle the surprising decrease in role. Hightower was mature enough to be patient.
“It was kind of an adjustment,” Hightower said. “I think it’s an adjustment for everybody.”
A star is born
Hightower’s star turn aired live for the world to see Sept. 3, 2016. The stage wasn’t too far from Los Angeles in Mission Viejo, Calif., and Hightower was one of the major players in a nearly 3-hour performance, which ended around 2 a.m. on the East Coast.
It’s impossible to know how many people watched his game-saving catch against Centennial High School of Corona, Calif. A number of quickly clipped highlights on Twitter have thousands of views. So do full highlight packages of the game, which USA Today quickly dubbed the “Game of the Year.”
A full video posted to YouTube has almost 50,000 views, or just about the same amount as The Second Line has on Vimeo.
With 21 seconds remaining and IMG trailing Centennial, 49-42, 4-star dual-threat quarterback Kellen Mond floated a pass down the middle of the field from the 38-yard line to the back of the end zone. Hightower never quite shook his defender, but he turned and reached back behind him. The junior tumbled to the ground with the ball in his hands to bring the Ascenders within 1.
The normally stoic receiver went wild. He pointed to the sky as he stood up, then spiked the football to the ground. He ripped off his chinstrap and flung himself forward, arms flailing wildly. His teammates mobbed him in the back right corner of the end zone before he strutted to the bench.
“It was probably the most emotion I’ve seen out of him,” Wright said.
The game’s most thrilling scene was only part of what made Hightower’s performance so impressive. With only 3 catches, Hightower racked up a team-high 125 yards, the most in a single game during his Ascenders career.
It was only Hightower’s second game at IMG and he could never quite replicate the excellence of the performance. A single explosion like this one was the sort of seed he’d need to push through any other frustration his first season threw at him.
With the Hurricanes, Hightower will once again just be one cog on a loaded roster. Wide receiver is becoming one of Miami’s strengths. In the Class of 2018 alone, Hightower is one of three 4-star signees. His talent suggests he should be able to contribute immediately, but it’s impossible to take for granted.
If Hightower has to wait, so be it. He’ll be better prepared than anyone.
“When you play for the team, your time will come,” Hightower said. “You’ll get yours.”