New England linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who is back with the team after sitting out last season, says he never considered retirement. Steven Senne/Associated Press

With a smile, Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower tackled retirement rumors about as hard as any running back he’s ever met in the hole.

“All the rumors about about retirement,” he told reporters, “y’all had me thinking someone was trying to kick me out.”

Hightower repeatedly rebuffed the idea he might retire, or even considered retiring while he sat out the 2020 season.

“If I had to do it again, if I had to go back and do it, I would absolutely do it again,” Hightower said of opting-out. “It was really just for the season. I wasn’t planning or discussing anything like that.”

Hightower reiterated he opted out for family reasons. He was one of eight Patriots players who chose to sit out. Most others are no longer with the team.

More recently, Hightower attended the Patriots final OTA practices and has been a mainstay at mandatory minicamp. The 31-year-old looks slimmed down compared to his last on-field appearances in New England, where he led the league’s top-ranked defense in 2019. That season, Hightower was also named to the Pro Bowl for the second time of his career.

Now in a second career act, he’s not only happy to be back, but looking forward to leading the Patriots defense back to where he last left it.

“I wouldn’t be out here doing this for free,” he smiled.

THE SON OF VINCE WILFORK, the former New England Patriots defensive tackle, was reportedly charged last month in Friendswood, Texas, with stealing and selling several of his father’s jewelry items, including his two Super Bowl championship rings.

According to the Galveston County Daily News, D’Aundre Holmes-Wilfork, was arrested on May 22 and charged with theft of property greater than $300,000, including two Super Bowl championship rings, two AFC Championship rings, a college football championship ring and a number of expensive pieces of jewelry.

Wilfork originally discovered the items were missing while moving in May 2020 but thought the items may have been packed away. That was until earlier this year when a Patriots fan informed Wilfork that the rings has been posted for sale online. According to Daily News, the rings were reportedly stolen and eventually turned in to the Friendswood Police Department.

Wilfork was one of the most popular and beloved players of his era in New England, playing for the Patriots from 2004 to 2014 and winning Super Bowls in his first and last years with the team. Wilfork went on to play two more seasons with the Houston Texans, but ultimately returned to Foxborough to sign a one-day contract to retire as a Patriot.

Before joining the Patriots, Wilfork played college football at Miami, where he won a national championship.

Holmes-Wilfork played high school football in Massachusetts as a linebacker a Xaverian before moving to Texas when Wilfork signed with the Texans. Holmes-Wilfork later walked on to the football program at Houston. During his freshman season at Houston, Holmes-Wilfork was arrested in Friendswood on felony drug charges, leading to his dismissal from the team.

JOSH UCHE was one of many New England linebackers who changed their jersey numbers this offseason. But instead of opting for something in the single-digits, he moved to No. 55, freeing up his old No. 53 jersey for returning veteran Kyle Van Noy.

Uche wore No. 53 as a rookie after wearing No. 6 and No. 35 in college. He says that giving the number back to such an established presence in the Patriots locker room was a “no-brainer.”

“It was cool,” Uche said. “Kyle has a legacy here, Super Bowls won. He’s done a lot for the team, so it was just a no-brainer to give that back to him and kind of explore another route.”

That new route for Uche will include him switching to the No. 55 jersey made famous by linebacker Willie McGinest. Heading into his second season, Uche will be looking to build on the flashes of brilliance he showed as rookie with a knack of slashing into the backfield and making plays.

PRACTICE REPORT: The Patriots wrapped up their mandatory minicamp Wednesday without the same five players who missed the team’s two prior practices.

Corner Stephon Gilmore, outside linebackers Chase Winovich and Rashod Berry, inside linebacker Terez Hall and defensive linemen Byron Cowart were absent. Wide receiver N’Keal Harry, who limped at the end of Tuesday’s practice and reached for his right calf, returned to practice. Tight end Jonnu Smith sat out of drills again with an apparent hamstring injury.

Running back Brandon Bolden exited early in practice. Shaq Mason, who sat out drills Tuesday for unknown reasons, returned to action Wednesday.

Players who were present, but did not participate, included linebackers Anfernee Jennings and Cameron McGrone and wide receiver Devin Smith.

The Patriots will next hit the field for training camp in the last week of July.

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