It’s alumni weekend at FedEx Field, and Tim Hightower, who runs player engagement and alumni endeavors for the Commanders, has quite a squad coming to the DMV on Sunday – 175 players to be exact, which is the biggest number ever in the 12 years the event has been going on.
“This is our largest turnout ever, which is exciting, and it just goes to show the energy is pretty consistent with what everyone has seen for the last few months,” Hightower told Grant & Danny on Friday. “People are excited and re-energized; they wonder why we do this, and you have to celebrate the alumni. The fans want to see it and it’s great for the current players and everybody in the entire organization, so we’re excited to welcome these guys back, and keep them engaged and get them back in the fold – but I’ve seen more rosters and spreadsheets for this one than I can imagine!”
Danny wondered if the response from alumni has been different this year because of the new ownership, but Hightower has been working his tail off even since the last two rebrands were in progress.
“They feel the new energy and want to be a part of it, but we've been building this thing for the last few years,” Hightower said. “One of the first calls I had with team president Jason Wright was about changing the culture, and looking at this organization, you’ve got to engage your legacy. We have a 90-year-plus legacy, so why are we not integrating these guys back into the organization, getting them around each other and our fans? That’s a huge thing for our current players, too, to know about the tradition and the winning culture and history that's here. So, in that call, it was like, ‘hey, Tim, put a strategy together, go get these guys, and get them back into the fold.”
But, yes, the big turnout is in part due to the excitement of the new regime.
“We've been working on this for a few years now, and early on, those phone calls that first year were pretty tough; guys felt disrespected, ostracized, devalued, and not important,” Hightower said, “but over time, you start to get more buying in. (The change) was really just kind of like the last straw, we had 80 or 85 percent of the guys on board, and now the excitement, these guys are showing up in droves.”
Alumni celebrations aren’t unique to the Commanders, and Hightower has been fielding calls from other teams about how that culture is being built in DC. It’s easy to get disconnected from an organization as time goes on, even if a player is beloved, but for Tim, part of that learning curve of getting guys on board was just listening to them explain why they had become disconnected and what could bring them back.
“The first few months I just got on the phone and just called people and listened. Hundreds of phone calls, you're talking to guys who played in different eras and you start to hear common sentiments – they miss being around the organization, the fan base, their teammates, and they want to come back or bring their kids to a game, let them know what they did,” Hightower said. “You start to hear some common things that I could take to Jason as some low-hanging fruit; we can get an alumni suite, bring guys back for homecoming, and have some small wins. Maybe recognize some guys and make sure we’re retiring a jersey or two, or make a Hall of Fame push – things to let these guys know we value their legacy, and they will forever be a part of this organization and celebrated here.”
So what can fans expect this weekend?
“I’m wearing the guys out this weekend with a full slate of things!” Hightower said. “We have our first-ever Legends Tailgate in Legends Plaza; that’s where all the magic happen, and pregame, starting at 10 a.m., that’s where the guys are gonna be. We have our tailgate with some food trucks, and it’s a time for guys to hang out, interact with fans and be play some games, sign some autographs, take some pictures – just really kind of hang out and spend some good time.”