After each of his first three NFL seasons, with the cowboys, Eagles and Dolphins, respectively, running back Mark Higgs was left unprotected—eligible to sign with any team that wanted him—under Plan B free agency. But what Higgs wanted was the chance to establish himself as a bona fide pro in one place. So last winter, instead of leaving Miami to sign with his fourth team in four years, Higgs asked for and received assurances from the Dolphins that he would be included in their plans when training camp opened.
Then Miami went and drafted Aaron Craver, a versatile running back from Fresno State, in the third round of April's draft. That put Higgs fourth on the depth chart, behind starter Sammie Smith, veteran Marc Logan and Craver. "After Craver was drafted, I was really on the edge," says Higgs, this season's unlikeliest sensation. "I don't think anybody thought I'd make it."
But a funny thing happened to Higgs on the way to being cut: Smith strained a ligament in his left knee on Aug. 10, Logan held out until Aug. 20 and Craver sprained his left knee on Aug. 24. As a result, Higgs gained additional playing time in the preseason and was the team's leading rusher. Miami coach Don Shula had little choice but to start Higgs in the season opener—and Shula has had no reason to take him out of the lineup since then.
Higgs, who gained 146 yards against the Bills, then 111 against the Colts and 71 against the Lions, was second in the league in rushing after Sunday's games, with 328 yards to 334 for Thurman Thomas of the Bills. Says Shula, "The things that have happened to Higgy are the things that make you feel good about being a coach."
Higgs, at 5'7�", runs like a rocket-propelled bowling ball. "I burst through the line quick so that my linemen don't have to hold their blocks very long," he says. "My first 20 yards, it looks like I'm faster than Carl Lewis."
He felt nervous in Game 1—"If I screwed up, I knew I'd never get the chance to play again," he says—but was more relaxed in Game 2, the way he remembers having felt when he set the Kentucky single-season rushing record as a senior. "I might be a little different in that I run every run like it's my last," says Higgs. "I always think I'm going to score, on every run. I have to, because I can never be sure if I'm going to get to carry the ball again."
Logan now backs up fullback Tony Paige, and Craver is running behind Higgs, but Smith, who rushed for 831 yards last season, will come off injured reserve after next week's game and will probably be ready to play in a few weeks. Job security is never far from Higgs's thoughts. "I might feel secure someday," he says, "if I get 1,000 yards."