Highsmith working hard to prove himself
Steelers' third-year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith always puts forth the effort to be the best
By Dale Lolley  Oct 06, 2022

NCAA basketball coaching legend John Wooden used to tell his great UCLA teams that hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.

It's one of his famous sayings, now called Woodenisms, that rings true no matter the sport, profession or hobby.

Case and point is Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith.

Highsmith has built himself into being an NFL player. And while that in itself doesn't necessarily stand out from his peers – all NFL players have to work hard, or they won't be around long – his results at every point in his career show a path that others can point to as a success story worthy of its own movie.

"The first thing that stands out about him is how hard he works on the field, in the weight room, just at his craft," said Steelers senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach Brian Flores. "He works hard to get better every single day and it shows."

It has this season for the Steelers. Despite their slow start as a team, Highsmith has been as quick out of the gate this season as a pass rusher as he is at the snap of the football.

Through the first month of the NFL season, Highsmith leads the AFC with 5.5 sacks, just one-half sack behind the career-high 6 he recorded in 2021 in his first year as a starter.

Highsmith spoke in the offseason of reaching double digits in sacks this season. That now seems like a foregone conclusion. But what Highsmith wants is victories.

"It's definitely an encouraging start because I'm starting fast, but I try not to get too caught up in it," Highsmith said. "It doesn't matter what I'm doing right now. We're 1-3. That's the only thing that matters right now. I'm going to continue to go out there and do my best job and produce and try to help the team win. I could care less about production if we're not winning."

But for the former overlooked high school player who was forced to walk on at Charlotte and then wasn't selected until late in the third round of the 2020, it's just another obstacle he needs to overcome.

Overlook Alex Highsmith at your own peril. He's going to work to prove his doubters wrong.

A good athlete at Eugene Ashley High School in Wilmington, N.C., Highsmith didn't take sports all that seriously prior to high school. He was more interested in video games, a common issue for young people today.

His father helped change that, insisting the eldest of his two children to put down the game controller. His parents, Sam and Pam Highsmith, were both school teachers and demanded their children work hard both in the classroom and in extracurricular activities.

"He did a good job of instilling that (work ethic) in me," Highsmith said. "It's something he told me since I was young. It really came on me when I was in high school. I was addicted to video games instead of football."

That would change as Highsmith began to hit the weight room and fell in love with that aspect of football, sharpening his body.

He sculpted himself into a football player.

"He started hitting the weights regularly and you got that feeling," Sam Highsmith said. "I was an assistant principal when he was there. I was the principal when he was in high school. He would be in the gym, working out there. I remember telling him, 'Once you get that feeling how they make you feel and what those weights can do, you'll fall in love with it.' He did."

But despite being named second-team All-Area and first-team All-Mideastern Conference as a senior, the college scholarship offers didn't come. Highsmith had played middle linebacker and fullback in high school – largely out of necessity to get him in the middle of the defense where teams couldn't avoid him – and so college programs didn't necessarily see what he might turn into.

"He was an inside linebacker out of need. His high school didn't have a lot of real good talent," Sam Highsmith said. "A lot of the better players in the area went to the other schools. But he stuck with his school. They needed him there. For his height, he looked a little out of place at inside. But he was able to just make plays, even without a whole lot of pure technique. He had over 100 tackles his senior year. We knew.

"They talked to him at Charlotte. Furman was another school that looked at him. They were going to put him on the edge. Me? I didn't worry. I knew he would work hard enough. That's the one thing about him, he didn't grow up being the best athlete. He played everything, he even swam, baseball, basketball, football, he did everything. I just kept pushing him to be the best he could be. Outwork people."

He received interest from Furman and Davidson, but decided instead to walk on at Charlotte, which was a start-up NCAA Division I program that had begun playing football just a few years earlier in 2013.

At that point, the 49ers had never produced an NFL player, though that would change in 2017 when Highsmith's current teammate, defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi, was selected in the the third round of the draft by the Cleveland Browns.

That didn't stop Highsmith at the time from dreaming big.

"He told me as a redshirt freshman, 'When I make the league,' – he didn't say if – 'When I make the league, I'm going to do this, this and this.'" Sam Highsmith recalled. "I didn't say anything. I didn't make a facial expression. I didn't want to put any doubt in his mind. I just nodded and said, 'Alright, good.' In my mind, 'I said, 'Wow, that's a pretty ambitious thing.'"

Highsmith was a pretty ambitious guy. And why not? Though he wasn't on scholarship those first two seasons at Charlotte as he made the transition from inside linebacker to pass rusher, he had impressed the coaching staff.

He got a spot start at the end of his redshirt freshman season in a game against UTSA and recorded five tackles and a sack. The 49ers lost the game, but then-head coach Brad Campbell was convinced he had a budding star on his hands.

At the end of the spring semester, he called Highsmith into his office.

"I remember I was going home for the summer because we didn't have a lot of money, so my parents couldn't pay for school and I remember telling coach I was going home," Highsmith said. "Coach Lambert was the coach at the time, he called me in the office and said, 'Hey, we're going to put you on scholarship.' It was a cool moment. I was going home that day. I told all my boys, my teammates, but I waited until I got home to tell my parents. I didn't tell them anything until I got there.

"My sister had gotten a scholarship that day to (North Carolina) and that's where she ended up going, so it was a cool day. I remember my parents bursting out in tears. It was a cool step in my journey. But I knew that wasn't the end. I was looking forward to bigger and better things."

Lambert, now defensive coordinator at Wake Forest, said the decision to put the young pass rusher on scholarship was a no-brainer.

"That was an easy one for me," Lambert said. "He's such a hard worker. We just wanted to reward him. He was one of the better players on our team and he earned it and deserved it. It was a pretty cool moment for me to bring a guy in and give him a scholarship. I know how appreciative he was of it and how hard he had worked to earn it. He's such a hard worker and such a great guy, that was an easy one."

But it didn't happen for everyone.

Charlotte had a number of young hopefuls on its roster, so many, in fact, they had to have their own locker room because the upstart program didn't have enough space in its main locker room to fit them all.

"He was so unknown," Lambert recalled. "We let him walk on the team and we didn't really know. We were like, 'OK, we'll see what he can do.' He just made himself into a player. We transitioned him down and I think it was the last game before that spring, the guy in front of him had gotten hurt. We went to UTSA and he got to start that game and just played unbelievable for us. That was kind of the culmination of it all.

"To see what he did and how he changed not only his body, but how he approached the game, he really did a phenomenal job. He and I laugh all the time, because out of that group of walk-ons, he was really the only who made it out, and he's in the NFL. We were a startup program. At the time, our locker room wasn't big enough for everybody, so I had to put all of the walk-ons in another locker room. I tell him all the time, 'You're the only guy that made it out of there.' It's kind of crazy, now look at him. It's just a testament to who he is, his family and how hard he worked."

Lambert didn't get an opportunity to see how it all worked out in person. He wasn't retained as head coach after the 2018 season. But he has continued to keep a close eye on Highsmith and stayed in touch. In fact, in subsequent coaching stops at Marshall, Purdue and now Wake Forest, he uses Highsmith as an example to his players of what can happen when a player works hard.

"All the time. He's a talented guy. You don't make it to the NFL if you don't have some ability," Lambert said. "He has some ability. But I tell guys all the time how he worked himself into that kind of player. He just worked so hard at his craft. I use him all the time, whether I was at Marshall, whether I was at Purdue or now at Wake. I went to his wedding this past summer, we use him all the time, for sure, because he's what you want all players to do. He worked so hard and it works out for you. That story is amazing to me."

Getting a scholarship as a walk-on is nice. Getting a call to let you know you've been drafted by an NFL team? Well, that's a completely different level of excitement.

There aren't many college walk-ons who get an opportunity to play in the NFL, let alone get drafted. But Highsmith always saw that in his future.

"I just always had the vision," Highsmith said. "Growing up, basketball was my sport. But once I figured out I didn't really have the talent or height for basketball, football became my thing because I loved hitting people. So, I always had that goal, but it really became a reality for me after my junior year. I had made all-conference and started talking to agents. I was like, 'OK, this is a thing now. I need to have a good senior year and get drafted.'

"It became a reality my junior year, but I always had that goal. I think a lot of kids have that goal. When I go back to my youth camps at home, I like to inspire them. I tell them, 'Hey, you've got to love what you do. You've really got to put in the time and effort because talent can only carry you so far.' Everyone in the league is talented. It's really the guys who put in the most work who are really the best in the league."

There's that word again – "work."

Highsmith works so hard not just because it was instilled upon him by his family, but because he knows where he came from and how often he was overlooked in the process. He uses that as an edge.

"Always. Ever since I got to college," Highsmith said. "No one took a chance on me. I keep that chip on my shoulder. I wasn't blessed to have a scholarship, but I knew once I got there, I could earn it. I'm keeping that same chip on my shoulder. Even though I was a third-round guy, I wanted to have that undrafted chip on my shoulder because there were guys taken in front of me. I just continue to have that chip, and it's helped me to get where I am now."

But there's always more work to be done. And Highsmith isn't going to stop. He's constantly perfecting his craft, trying to get better and add moves to his repertoire. He doesn't just want to be good. He wants to be great.

It doesn't hurt that he works opposite one of the game's most feared pass rushers in 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, T.J. Watt. Watt has been on the Reserve/Injured List for the Steelers since suffering a pectoral injury in Week 1. But he is expected to return to the Steelers at some point this season, and when he does, he'll have some work to do to catch Highsmith in the sack department.

"He has always been a great guy, a hard worker," Ogunjobi said. "You saw that in college. It's a testament to the person he is. The dedication to his craft. He works hard. He does it the right way. I'm excited for him."

So are the others who have been so instrumental in Highsmith getting to this point in his career and in his life.

Highsmith got married in the offseason to the former Alyssa Ungrady. Getting his college scholarship after two years as a walk-on was a big moment for him. Getting the call from Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in 2020 to let him know the team was selecting him in the draft was another big moment.

But of those three life-changing events, one stands out.

"Married for sure. Marriage first," Highsmith said with a smile. "It was the best day of my life. Then probably draft day. I still remember it was probably about 11:30 and I was tired, antsy. One of my boys, he's a Steelers fan. He tweeted, 'Pick 102' with the eyes emoji. That's what he tweeted. And I get a call on my phone at 11:45 and it was two picks before the Steelers. I didn't know they called you that early. I see Cranberry Township, Pa. I was like, 'Is that Pittsburgh or is that Philly?' I picked it up and Coach Tomlin was there. It was crazy. I wish — we got a video of the call — but I wish I would have had a second camera running to see my initial reaction. That would have been cool."

Cool indeed. But again, it was expected.

It's why he put in those countless hours, time when nobody else was watching, to put himself on this stage, in this spotlight.

His story is the personification of another Woodenism: "Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."

That is Highsmith in a nutshell.

It's something that makes his family and those who know him best proud.

There might be players who are better than him, but nobody is going to outwork Alex Highsmith.

"He carried that throughout college. He worked," Sam Highsmith said. "He actually messed up and pulled a hamstring between his redshirt sophomore and junior year, so it slowed him down at spring practice. But it just made him work harder when he was back. He always had the desire to outwork everyone. You can be the best in your mind, but I always said, 'Outwork everyone. I don't know anyone else in that room and if they have more talent than you, but you can always get the most effort.' That's just kind of been him.

"The man he is, I'm proud of that. The football is gravy."

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