Steelers’ Highsmith was once a ‘die-hard’ Panthers fan

Then-Charlotte 49ers pass rusher Alex Highsmith (center right) poses for a picture with his father, Sam (left), his sister, Lauryn (center left) and and his mother, Pam (far right) at a University of Charlotte football game (Photo Courtesy: Sam Highsmith).

Then-Charlotte 49ers pass rusher Alex Highsmith (center right) poses for a picture with his father, Sam (left), his sister, Lauryn (center left) and and his mother, Pam (far right) at a University of Charlotte football game (Photo Courtesy: Sam Highsmith).

Photo Courtesy

When the NFL released its annual schedule in May, Alex Highsmith scanned the Pittsburgh Steelers’ slate of games for one matchup in particular.

And there it was: Week 15 at the Carolina Panthers.

On Sunday, Highsmith, 25, will play for the Steelers — the team that selected him in the third round of the 2020 draft — against the Panthers — the team he cheered for before he arrived in the NFL — at Bank of America Stadium.

Highsmith, a Wilmington native, wasn’t just a passive Panthers fan growing up. He isn’t just some local kid who is happy to have a hometown welcome.

Highsmith wore Panthers jerseys and took photos with Sir Purr growing up. He sulked when the team lost Super Bowl 50. And he vividly remembers his current team blowing out Carolina in 2018.

“Die-hard,” Highsmith said, explaining his Panthers fandom to The Charlotte Observer in a phone conversation this week. “I remember the Super Bowl year, that was an awesome year. The almost-undefeated year, they should have won that year. I’m still mad they didn’t.”

Highsmith’s on-field date with the Panthers didn’t always seem like a legitimate possibility. In fact, playing football beyond high school, at one point, seemed unlikely.

But a walk-on opportunity with the Charlotte 49ers — one that was manufactured by the diligence of Highsmith, his father, Sam, and a couple of family friends — led Highsmith on an unusual path from being a seldom-recruited high school student to a potential Pro Bowl selection in the NFL.

These cleats were made for walking (on)

Highsmith was a team captain and MVP during his standout career at Eugene Ashley High School. Despite that success, Highsmith wasn’t sought after by college programs.

With little interest in his services, Highsmith and his father, Sam, had to turn into recruiters themselves.

Sam, a former coach, teacher and principal, contacted his colleague, then-Hoggard High School football coach Scott Braswell, to send Highsmith’s film to his son, Scotty, who was a graduate assistant at Charlotte.

Scotty and the Charlotte staff dissected the tape, and liked what they saw.

“He was just a guy who was really raw, played with incredible effort, flew around, and was physical — hit people, tackled — had a huge upside that we thought could continue to grow and develop,” Scotty said.

Highsmith had interest from Davidson and Furman, but he wanted to go to a school that could prepare him for life after football. He wanted to major in kinesiology and felt that Charlotte had the right program for him.

“I made the goal to earn that scholarship,” Sam said. “He wasn’t a preferred walk-on that a school reached out to and said, ‘We don’t have any more scholarships.’ We recruited them. They didn’t reach out to us.”

Highsmith red-shirted his first year on campus. During that time, he worked on his craft and caught the attention of his older teammates due to eagerness to learn.

Wide receiver Austin Duke — who spent the entire 2017 season on the Panthers’ practice squad — was an upperclassman when Highsmith arrived on campus. Despite being on the offensive side of the ball, Duke quickly noticed Highsmith’s trademark effort early on.

“He was always the first one at practice, and he was the last one to leave practice,” Duke said. “He was always inquisitive, asking how he could get better, and then going and putting the work in before and after practice, when nobody was watching.”

Highsmith’s work ethic also grabbed the attention of then-head coach Brad Lambert.

“He was always doing the extra — and that’s what I’ve always admired about him,” Lambert told The Observer. “He came in and really wasn’t recruited, and just said, ‘Hey, I’m going to work and train hard and get myself every chance to play the game I love,’ and he just did it.”

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Then-Charlotte Miners pass rusher Alex Highsmith (center right) poses for a picture with his father, Sam (left), his sister, Lauryn (center left) and and his mother, Pam (far right) at a University of Charlotte football game (Photo Courtesy: Sam Highsmith). Sam Highsmith Photo Courtesy

When it all changed

Highsmith made the first start of his college career as a redshirt freshman in the 2016 season finale against the University of Texas – San Antonio. Due to injuries at the top of the depth chart, Highsmith was given an opportunity to prove himself, and he delivered with five tackles and his first career sack.

“He played extremely well in that game,” Lambert told The Observer.

That performance, according to Lambert, solidified Highsmith’s standing within the program.

Highsmith had plans to go home for the summer of his redshirt sophomore year, as summer classes were costly without a scholarship. But, on the day that he was about to head back to Wilmington, Lambert met with Highsmith to give him some monumental news.

“That was a pretty cool day for me,” Lambert said. “The day that we got to call him into the office and give him a scholarship. That was a lot of fun.”

“Truly, a feeling I’ll never forget,” Highsmith said about the meeting.

Since Highsmith was heading home that day anyway, he decided to hold off on telling his parents, Sam and Pam, and his sister, Lauryn, the news until he returned to their house.

“Seeing the joy on their faces, it was unforgettable,” Highsmith said. “All of us will remember that day for the rest of our lives.”

“We’re indebted to them forever,” Sam said. “Coach Lambert was at his wedding, and I just hugged him and thanked him and told his wife the same thing. Scotty Braswell, the graduate assistant, every time I text him, I thank him and his father for what they did. We understand the importance of opportunity, and we don’t take it for granted. He took advantage of it.”

From there, Highsmith continued to develop. He eventually dominated.

“He made himself into a really good pass rusher and a really good player, just by working really hard at his craft,” Lambert said.

As a redshirt sophomore, Highsmith produced 33 tackles (5 for loss) and 2 sacks. His breakout campaign came the next year, as he collected 60 tackles (17.5 for loss) and 3 sacks.

“That junior year was huge,” Sam said. “That’s when we saw, ‘Hey, this kid has the chance to play at the next level.’”

Setting the standard

Even before he was offered a scholarship, Highsmith had the belief that he would eventually land in the NFL.

“As a regular freshman, before his redshirt year, he’d say stuff like, ‘When I make it to the league …,’ and he just had confidence about him,” Sam said. “I never said, ‘You’re crazy’ or ‘You’re right,’ I just said, ‘I love that, I love that attitude, just keep working.’ In the back of my mind, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a lofty goal, buddy.’”

As Highsmith ascended within the Charlotte program, he watched his teammates, like Duke, head to the pros.

Most notably, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the third round in 2017, and guard Nate Davis was chosen by the Tennessee Titans in the third round in 2019.

“I think that showed that it doesn’t matter where you play, if you’re good enough, somebody will find you,” Sam said. “He knew that if he kept working at it, it was a possibility.”

“It’s really cool to be behind guys like that,” Highsmith said. “Larry and Nate really set the standard for the program.”

With added inspiration, Highsmith dominated during his senior year, producing 75 tackles (21.5 for loss), 14 sacks and a forced fumble in his final campaign.

Highsmith’s draft stock skyrocketed, and he became a tempting target for NFL evaluators.

On Day 2 of the 2020 NFL Draft, Highsmith was selected with the 102nd overall pick by the Steelers. The former walk-on became the third 49er to be selected in the third round in four years.

“It was just awesome knowing that we set the standard for guys to come behind us, and Charlotte is just going to continue to have more guys come out,” Highsmith said. “I’m just looking forward to the future that Charlotte football has in the NFL.”

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith takes up his position during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga) Ed Zurga AP

From afterthought to all-star?

Highsmith produced 122 tackles and 8 sacks during his first two seasons with the Steelers. This season, through 13 games, Highsmith — who has been reunited with Ogunjobi in Pittsburgh — has already produced 47 tackles and 10 sacks.

He entered Week 15 tied for the league lead with four forced fumbles.

Those stats have led to Pro Bowl consideration. Another accomplishment that would have been hard to believe when he was shopping his high school tape to small colleges in the Carolinas.

“That’s probably the surreal part,” Sam said.

While the Pro Bowl isn’t what it used to be — as the NFL has essentially wiped out the game for individual and flag-football competitions, Highsmith still is eager for the potential honor.

“That would be a dream come true,” Highsmith said. “I used to watch the Pro Bowl all the time. … I would just love to meet so many guys that are great at what they do.”

Fan voting for the Pro Bowl ended on Thursday, but Highsmith can further his case among fellow players and coaches with a strong performance against the Panthers on Sunday.

“It’s crazy that I used to root against the Steelers, but now they’re my team,” Highsmith said. “It’s going to be cool to go back against the team that I once loved.”

Highsmith has exceeded expectations at every turn of his football career. And while Sam still wants his son to double his six-sack total from last season, the retired teacher — who works as a part-time courier to fund his and his wife’s travel for most of Highsmith’s games — couldn’t be more proud of his son.

“I’m more proud of the person that he is than the football player,” Sam said. “The football player is just gravy.”

That gravy is just beginning to heat up. And Highsmith attributes his success to the circumstances that led him to 49ers all those years ago.

“Being a walk-on in college really helped me to become the player that I am today,” Highsmith said. “Being a walk-on just really added an extra chip on my shoulder, so I’m just thankful for the journey I’ve had.”

Mike Kaye covers the Carolina Panthers for The Charlotte Observer. Kaye previously covered the entire NFL for Pro Football Network, the Philadelphia Eagles for NJ Advance Media and the Jacksonville Jaguars for First Coast News. He is a graduate of the University of North Florida.

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