Growing up in the Highsmith household, there was Jack, there was A.J., and then there was Dad.
But call any of them Alonzo, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
This fall, the two sons — both formally known as Alonzo Highsmith Jr. — might have a remarkable opportunity: to play big-time football in the city where their father remains an icon.
“Man, it’s a blessing to be down here,” said the Alonzo Highsmith Jr. known as Jack. He’s a rookie linebacker invited to training camp with the Dolphins.
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Added the other Highsmith Jr., who is a senior safety at the University of Miami and goes by A.J.: “That would be a lot of fun. We’d have a lot of fun together.”
Ironically, the only Highsmith not in town this summer is the one who made his family’s name in South Florida. Alonzo Sr., the standout fullback at UM and member of the 1983 national championship team, is today a top scout for the Green Bay Packers and does not live in South Florida.
But if you’re expecting the story of a past-his-prime sports dad living vicariously through his kids, look elsewhere.
“To be honest, football means little to me,” said the elder Alonzo, now 48. “I love football. I’ve done it for a living my whole life.
“But I never started out to make football players as kids. My goal was to make them be good people.”
With the Dolphins, Highsmith Jr. has a chance to do both.
But it will take considerable work. He’s an undrafted rookie out of Arkansas who is buried on the depth chart.
The Dolphins are loaded at linebacker, having spent lavishly on free agents Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler to go along with several returning contributors.
But as father knows best, little in football rarely goes as planned. When he left the University of Miami after the 1986 season, Highsmith was selected with the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft, and with that came expectations of greatness.
Yet in six pro seasons, he managed just 1,196 total rushing yards and seven touchdowns, the result of chronic knee problems that sapped his effectiveness. The elder Highsmith retired from the game after the 1992 season, spent four years as a professional boxer and then ultimately joined the Packers’ personnel department.
Along the way, he became a father five times over.
Mel Bratton has known the Dolphins’ Highsmith Jr. since the beginning. Bratton was teammates with the elder Highsmith at UM, and like him, had a promising career derailed by injury.
Through the years, the fellow Hurricanes remained close, and when Highsmith Jr. was born Nov. 21, 1989, Bratton was the easy choice for godfather.
More than two decades later, Bratton helped his close friend’s son sign his first NFL contract. Bratton is a sports agent, and Highsmith Jr. is one of his firm’s clients.
Bratton tells how Highsmith Jr. spent his early years with his mother in suburban Tampa before moving to Texas to be with his father and brother. With that many people in the same house with the same name, nicknames became essential.
“It was funny; the only one that goes by [Alonzo] is my dad,” A.J. said.
The sons grew close during their high school years, and since signing with the Dolphins, Jack has visited his brother in Coral Gables most every free weekend.
Jack is the older of the two and some 25 pounds heavier. But that wasn’t always the case.
“He’s a late bloomer,” Bratton said. “He didn’t grow up in the little leagues [of football]. That’s why he ended up having to go to junior college. And he was a frail, undersized kid. His body matured late.”
Behaviorally, he needed growth, as well. Once as a teen, he acted up so much in class, the school decided to contact Dad about it.
Highsmith didn’t wait until his son came home to discipline him. Instead, he showed up at school in the middle of the day and instructed Jack to change into workout clothes.
“I told him I’m not going to hit him,” the father said. “ ‘What you’re going to do is run until I say stop.’
“After about 30-something [100-yard sprints], that was it.”
Jack agreed: “That was the last time.”
His classroom behavior improved, but Jack didn’t make the grades to play big-time football out of high school. Instead, he enrolled at Phoenix College in Arizona, where he blossomed.
He eventually earned junior college All-American honors, and caught the attention of a recruiter for Arkansas. He had a promising junior season in Fayetteville, culminating with the Razorbacks’ 2012 Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State.
He seemed primed for a huge senior campaign. Jack’s draft stock was said to be on the rise.
And then the family’s rotten injury luck struck again.
A pectoral issue kept him out of spring practice. And then midway through the 2012 season, he tore a ligament in his foot, requiring season-ending surgery.
“It was heartbreaking,” Jack said. “I knew what I was trying to do with my senior year. After I got hurt, and it sunk in that’s what happened, I put all of my effort into getting healthy.”
Within six months of the surgery, he was back to “100 percent,” working without limitation, he said. Still, the damage was done. His wasn’t one of the 254 names called in April’s draft, making him one of countless rookie free agents desperate for a job.
The Steelers, Chiefs, Broncos and Chargers all reached out to him about coming in as a rookie free agent.
But ultimately, he went with family familiarity, signing with people his father has long known, in a town where his last name still carries weight.
From father to son
The elder Highsmith’s last two years at Miami were the first two at the school for Kevin O’Neill, hired as the Hurricanes’ head athletic trainer in 1985. Someone back then snapped a now-fading photo of the two in the UM training room.
Three decades later, the circle is complete. O’Neill is a veteran and long-respected trainer for the Dolphins. And he’s tasked with looking over Highsmith’s son.
“It’s very ironic,” the father said. “It just all seems good for him. Kevin O’Neill, the same trainer. I’m very fond of [offensive coordinator] Mike Sherman, [coach] Joe Philbin. I know Philbin’s family.
“Of course, none of that guaranteed that he’s going to make the team.”
Perhaps not. But in this town, having the right name is certainly a good place to start.