Q&A: former Redblacks DB Forrest Hightower on his time in Ottawa and winning the Grey Cup

After two exciting years in Ottawa that resulted in 25 games played, 67 tackles, 1 sack, 4 interceptions and back to back Grey Cup appearances, defensive back Forrest Hightower has moved on from the Redblacks, signing with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. The 5-foot-10, 186-pound San Jose State product only spent a brief time in the nation’s capital, but played a vital role in ending the city’s four decade championship drought. Before he focuses completely on preparing to face Drew Brees in practice every day, I caught up with him to reflect on his time in Ottawa.

How did you wind up with the Redblacks?

The Redblacks’ scouting department took a look at me on my Pro Day and when I finished college they reached out.

Did the fact that you played with Khalil Paden in college factor into your decision to join Redblacks?

Actually, though I knew that Khalil was in the CFL, I wasn’t really sure which team he was playing for. It wasn’t until after I signed that he called me up and said that we were going to be teammates again.

Had you heard much about the CFL before signing with Ottawa?

Yeah for sure. A few guys I played with in college had gone up to Canada and were making a name for themselves. Brandon Rutley is a good friend of mine and every time he came back in the off-season he would tell me all the time about how things were in the CFL.

What was your initial impression of Ottawa and its fans when you arrived in the city?

I instantly fell in love with it, it’s a beautiful place and everyone was really nice and cool.

After being a rotational player in 2015, you emerged as a full time starter in 2016. What was the biggest adjustment for you?

The biggest thing was learning how to take care of my body. The CFL season is long and can be a grind, so as it goes along you really have to be on top of body maintenance, like eating right, getting enough sleep, etc.

I’m sure every interception is satisfying but did you enjoy picking off certain QBs more than others?

Not at all, as long as the ball ends up in my hands I could care less about who threw it.

Who was the toughest receiver you ever had to cover?

Honestly, the most difficult guy I had to face was Greg Ellingson every day in practice. He shows up to each practice like he does for games and we got real competitive at times.

Why No. 23? 

It wasn’t my choice but the first time I saw it in my locker I fell in love with it immediately.

While Ottawa’s defence struggled at times this season, near the end of the year and especially in the playoffs, it seemed as if a switch was flipped as unit became more stingy. What do you attribute that to?

In football and there are ups and downs throughout the course of a long season. I don’t feel like there was any magical switch in effect at all. We played hard week in and week out and sometimes things didn’t go as we planned. We just stuck with it and towards the end of the season every single defensive group played well. We didn’t change anything, we just executed better.

As a California native, did you enjoy playing in the snow in this year’s East Final?

I’ll definitely remember that game for the rest of my career. It was really tough but a ton of fun to play in.

Was all the underdog talk leading up to the Grey Cup fuel for you and your teammates?

I can’t speak for others because we all have our own reasons as to why we play and who we play for, but personally the outside talk didn’t matter to me. The chance to start and win a Grey Cup in only my second year in the CFL was all the fuel that I needed.

Leading by 10 points late in the 4th quarter of Grey Cup, you picked off Bo Levi Mitchell for the second time. Did you think you’d sealed the win?

Nope, I didn’t think it was over at all. Coach Campbell did a great job teaching us that in the CFL the last five minutes is the longest stretch of the game and that so many things can happen in that time. I definitely knew that we would have to take the field again at some point. As I was catching the ball, the only thing running through my mind at that very moment was that I just wanted to ensure that I secured it properly so we got possession at the end of the play.

What went through your mind when Abdul Kanneh tackled Andrew Buckley on the goal line to force a Calgary FG and overtime?

Wow! As soon as I saw the play going Abdul’s way I knew that he was going to make it because that’s what Abdul does. I was super excited but I can’t say I was surprised to see him come up big there.

How did your time with the Redblacks help prepare you for your new role with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints?

I played a variety of positions for the Redblacks during my two years in Ottawa so I think that versatility helps me going forward with my career.

What was it like being a part of DBlock?

DBlock is very interesting because we had a kind of sibling bond. When I first joined the secondary guys like Brandyn Thompson and Jerrell Gavins took me under their wing and treated me like a baby brother. They allowed me to move in with them and helped me elevate my game. The thing that makes DBlock so special is that all the guys share a common goal and no matter what happens or what the outsiders and critics say we stick together through the good and bad. It’s fun to be apart of the room when everyone comes from different places but is so alike at the same time. The coolest part is that we all contributed to the team’s success in our own unique way and that we fit together like a puzzle.

Ten years from now, when you look back on your time in Ottawa, what will stick with you?

The relationships that I built in my time there. That locker room was one of a kind and I’ve never been around that many guys that I naturally clicked with. I’m not really good with meeting new people, I kind of mind my own business and stay out of the way, but the guys in Ottawa really brought me out of my shell and made me feel very comfortable.

Thanks for your time Forrest and best of luck in the NFL, I know R-Nation will always have fond memories of you.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).