HOUSTON — Football ties run deep in the South.
And the bonds of guys that have played for the Alabama Crimson Tide may be about as strong as they come.
They'll be on opposite sidelines in Sunday's Super Bowl, but there will be a ton of shared respect between Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower and Falcons linebacker Courtney Upshaw when they take the field in Houston.
Nine years ago the two small-town products — Hightower from Lewisburg, Tenn., and its population of just over 11,000, Upshaw from Eufaula, Ala., and its population of about 13,000 — arrived as freshmen together in Tuscaloosa. It was the start of what each says is now an unbreakable friendship.
"That's my ace," Hightower said of Upshaw, a former Raven. "One of the few guys we actually got real close to coming in together. Coming from Alabama there was only like three guys from Tennessee that actually went like out of state or whatever. So me and Upshaw got jelled pretty close."
Upshaw said stepping onto the football field with Hightower was like looking in a mirror.
"He's one of the first guys that once I got there I gravitated to," he said. "We became best friends."
Rooming together as sophomores in 2009, Upshaw was on the sideline when Hightower suffered a season-ending knee injury in Alabama's fourth game of the season against Arkansas. Upshaw was inserted as part of a shuffling of players to replace him, and would eventually help the Crimson Tide win the national championship against Texas.
Upshaw also had an up-close view of how Hightower rehabbed and bounced back from that injury. He was side by side with him two years later when Alabama shut out LSU 21-0 in the 2012 BCS national championship game.
It was at Alabama that Hightower first discovered other players that were born with that "dog in them" to succeed. He says Upshaw was and remains the embodiment of that type of player. Likewise, Upshaw says he has come to appreciate that, and several of Hightower's other go-to phrases.
"Most definitely. He said that a lot," Upshaw said. "But one of the things he said that I'm always gonna remember is 'bring that warrior mentality' that he brought along, especially our last year there. Dont'a is the best example I can give about being a warrior on the field. I remember our sophomore year him hurt and coming back and being able to be the player he was before he left. He was a great leader for us and I'm sure he's a great leader for the Patriots."
It was Hightower's performance his senior year that led the Patriots to select him 25th overall in the 2012 draft. The Ravens took Upshaw in the second round, 35th overall.
Upshaw tasted ultimate success first in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl ring his rookie year with the Ravens. He now has a chance to replicate that feat in his first season with the Falcons.
Upshaw said he and Hightower are doing exactly what they talked about achieving while at Alabama.
"We talked just basically about trying to put in that work, trying to be first-rounders, winning championships there. And just leaving a legacy at our position and trying to be one of the best at the University of Alabama," he said. "I think we did that. We definitely won championships. He was a first-rounder, I was a second-rounder. But like I said, I'm probably his biggest fan. To see him do the things he do, the way he do it is no surprise to me. I only wish the best and can say good things about Dont'a. That's my brother."
Hightower will also be chasing his second ring after winning his first with the Patriots in the 2015 title game. He said being able to play for Bill Belichick's former assistant Nick Saban and now Belichick himself has been surreal.
Asked this week who he thought was a better coach, Hightower deflected..
"That's your call, bro," he said. "I've been winning on both sides."
What Hightower does know is this: Whatever happens Sunday, he's looking forward to competing against somebody he has an equal amount of respect for in Upshaw.
"There's going to be some [trash] talking after the game, whether it's win or lose," he said. "But definitely it feels good to see a guy [do well]. I mean we literally grew up together as far as the football aspect of it goes. It'll be fun, it'll be good. Hopefully I'm on the right side of it."