Bears special teams coordinator Richard Hightower is elated about being chosen to serve as head coach of the East team in the 99th East-West Shrine Bowl.
The annual all-star game featuring draft-eligible players will be played Thursday night, Feb. 1 at The Star in Frisco, Texas, the headquarters of the Dallas Cowboys. For the first time, this year's game won't be restricted to seniors after the NFL announced last fall that draft-eligible underclassmen will be able to participate in college all-star games. The East-West Shrine Bowl has been played since 1925, making it the nation's oldest college football all-star game.
"I'm extremely honored and extremely grateful to have the opportunity to do it," Hightower told ChicagoBears.com. "I'm really excited not only to represent the Bears but also to go down there and meet some of these players that are going to be on the next level."
Several Pro Football Hall of Famers have played in the East-West Shrine Bowl, including Bears legends Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers and Walter Payton, as well as Tom Brady, John Elway and Lawrence Taylor.
The all-star contest benefits Shriners Children's, a health care system that provides care for children with orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft lip and palate, regardless of the families' ability to pay for services.
"Shriners is a great cause," Hightower said. "Taking care of kids and helping kids get the help they need is important to me. I'm really looking forward to that part, getting a chance to see some of the kids and hopefully be an inspiration to some of the kids who are in the hospital because it's really bigger than football.
"And then when you go to the football aspect, we're excited to coach those guys and learn more about the players, be a small piece of their journey and help them get better this week and help them take the next step. Hopefully, we'll provide some insight for them to help them out."
Bears linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi will serve as Hightower's defensive coordinator on the East team. Together, they'll gain valuable insight on players who will be available in the draft. Last year the Bears spent three of their first four picks on players that then-offensive coordinator Luke Getsy had coached in the Senior Bowl—right tackle Darnell Wright, cornerback Tyrique Stevenson and defensive tackle Zacch Pickens.
"[Being] given a chance to scout and have an up-close personal experience with the players that are coming out in the upcoming draft is a job we don't take for granted, we don't take lightly," Hightower said. "It's a really serious opportunity that we have to get to know some of these players. I think it benefits us tremendously and I know everybody at our place is excited about it."
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Hightower is in his second stint with the Bears. He just concluded his second season as special teams coordinator under coach Matt Eberflus after serving as assistant special teams coordinator in 2016 under coach John Fox.
Hightower boasts 17 years of NFL coaching experience, including five seasons as 49ers special teams coordinator from 2017-21. He started his NFL career with the Texans as a coaching assistant (2006-07) and special teams assistant (2008). The Texas native then served as receivers coach at the University of Minnesota in 2009 before returning to the NFL with Washington as an assistant special teams coach from 2010-13, doubling as an assistant defensive backs coach in 2012-13.
Hightower was hired by the Browns as an offensive quality control coach in 2014. He worked with the 49ers as an assistant special teams coach in 2015 before joining the Bears in 2016.
As a player, Hightower was a special teams standout and three-year letterman at the University of Texas, where he earned a bachelor's degree in marketing. He enrolled at the school with an academic scholarship and later was awarded a football scholarship as a senior.
Hightower aspires to eventually become an NFL head coach and is thrilled to be able to serve in that capacity in the East-West Shrine Bowl.
"It's a great honor because the National Football League is involved in this," he said. "For them to afford people the opportunity to do what they love and get just a little window—even if it's just a week—into what a head coach's responsibilities are, it's pretty cool. It can only help, and I'm looking forward to learning as much as possible and growing as much as possible."
Along with Hightower and Borgonzi, assistant strength and conditioning coaches Noble Landry and Pierre Ngo will also serve on the East team's staff. In addition, three other Bears assistants – tight ends coach Jim Dray, assistant defensive line coach Justin Hinds and coaching assistant Kenny Norton III – will serve as coaches at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.