Darnell Hightower was nervous before the kickoff of the first game of the season.
Hightower, a senior defensive back and team captain, wasn’t anxious Friday night about taking the field for the start of his final season for Cherokee High. He was nursing a hamstring injury, so he knew he wasn’t going to play in the Chiefs' opener vs. Pennsauken.
Hightower felt some apprehension because he knew he was about to do something significant. He suspected that he was about to do it alone, too.
“It was nerve-racking,” Hightower said. “When they said, ‘Stand up for the national anthem,’ I actually starting shaking at first.”
Wearing his orange No. 6 Cherokee jersey as well as a black Chiefs handkerchief as a face mask, Hightower knelt for the national anthem before his team’s 42-6 win in a West Jersey League Football game in Marlton, Burlington County.
“His father and I were so proud of him, we had tears in our eyes,” said Hightower’s mother, Dresdin Hewlett. “We were standing on the hill, looking down, and we could see it was literally just him.”
Hightower, a three-year starter for one of South Jersey’s strongest programs, said he felt it was important to take the action to raise awareness of discrimination and injustice experienced by Black people and other minorities.
Hightower, 17, said he has been contemplating his decision to take a knee for much of the offseason, calling the May 25 death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police “a triggering moment” for him.
Cherokee coach Brian Glatz, who was aware of Hightower’s intention to kneel, was supportive of the actions of one of his team captains.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions about these issues as a team,” Glatz said. "We’re all about the team and Darnell understands that. He knows that we don’t want to take anything away from the team. He’s a great kid.
“We’ve stressed that we need to have empathy and understanding for each other. That’s how we can be the best team we can be and an example of social interaction and respect.”
Cherokee’s student population is 80% white, 9% Asian and 6% Black, according to schooldigger.com. Hightower said there are about five Black players on the Chiefs varsity.
Hightower, who lives in Marlton, said he received positive feedback from teammates, both white and Black.
“I had [white] teammates tell me they didn’t really understand before this,” Hightower said.
Hightower said he intends to kneel during the national anthem at every game. He said some of his Black teammates, as well as a Black cheerleader, have promised to kneel with him before the next game. Cherokee is scheduled to host Woodrow Wilson on Friday.
Hightower said his hamstring has healed enough to return to practice this week. He plans to play Friday night.
Hightower was a starter at defensive back last season when Cherokee won the Central Jersey Group 5 title. He was a starting wide receiver as a sophomore.
“Defense,” Hightower said of his favorite position. “I like to hit.”
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Hightower, who hopes to play college football, said his decision to kneel drew mostly praise on social media although he was criticized by some who suggested his action was disrespectful to the military.
“I’ve been trying to explain that I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful in any way,” Hightower said. “I think for the most part people have understood that I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful. I just felt like it was important for me to stand up for what I believe in.
“I’m a captain. If the picture of me kneeling helps people, if it makes people think and raises awareness, then I feel like I did what I’m supposed to do as a leader.”