The Winnipeg Blue Bombers signed Adam Bighill to a one-year contract last week, inking the veteran linebacker shortly after his release from the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. Though the deal was made official on May 19, it was a relationship he had formed with Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea that now has the two walking the same path.
Speaking to the local media for the first time on Thursday, following his first practice with the Bombers on Day 5 of training camp, Bighill credited the relationship he formed with O’Shea as a rookie with the B.C. Lions for why he ultimately chose Winnipeg.
"At the end of the day, one of the most important factors a head coach can have is being able to respect him and (knowing) he respects you," said Bighill. "Since 2011, my rookie year, me and him have built a big level of respect that's kind of just grown ever since then."
O’Shea, now in his fifth season with the Bombers, was a coach for the Toronto Argonauts when Bighill first caught his eye. Not far removed from a 16-year, hall-of-fame career as a CFL linebacker, O’Shea was impressed by what he had seen on film from the young American in his first go at the Canadian game.
Having a soft spot for hard-hitting players who displayed a similar tenacity to what he used to bring to the field, it was hard not to want to find out more. So when O’Shea was given an opportunity to do just that, following a regular-season game between the Lions and Argos, he took it.
"I was the special teams co-ordinator and you've got to plan against a guy like that and it's near impossible. You've got to double him, you've got to put your best matchup on him and sometimes you've got to run away from him," said O’Shea. "I took a lot of pride in that throughout my time in the CFL, and when you see a first-year player taking that much pride in it, I just felt like I'd like to talk to him and see what made him tick."
To hear Bighill tell it, he said O’Shea approached him near the sideline and told him how much he respected the way he played the game. The conversation was brief, ending with O’Shea telling him if he could keep up his effort it was going to pay off in the long run. The two have continued to talk over the years, making a point to chat and exchange pleasantries whenever they face each other.
"For him to see something in me and to come up and say so, I could tell right away what kind of person he was," said the 29-year-old native of Montesano, Wash.
The Lions defeated the Bombers in the Grey Cup that year, with Bighill playing mostly on special teams. He was promoted to starting weak-side linebacker the following year, earning his first of five consecutive CFL all-star nods. In 2015, when he was moved to middle linebacker, he was named the CFL’s most outstanding defensive player. Two years later, Bighill was in the NFL, playing three games with the Saints in 2017. He was released by New Orleans earlier this month and received another NFL offer after a workout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"For (O'Shea) to see something in me and to come up and say so, I could tell right away what kind of person he was," – Adam Bighill
But after doing a risk-assessment of his career, understanding he was turning 30 in October and wanting some stability for his wife and two children, it made the most sense to head back to the CFL.
"It's less than a coin flip if it's going to work out for you… no matter what you do on the field at certain times," Bighill said of the politics that come with playing in the NFL. "So that's where I felt like I didn't have to take that offer because I don't need to be in the NFL. I needed to find an opportunity and I was glad that this is the one."
Bombers running back Andrew Harris played five seasons with Bighill in B.C. before signing with the Bombers in 2016. It wasn’t until they became opponents that Harris realized how lucky he is have Bighill as a teammate again. Despite being back on the same side, Harris still warns of the punishment Bighill can conflict even against his own club.
"His first year, he came in and was just a scrappy guy. He was one of those guys that would step on your feet or poke you in the eye or give you a Charlie horse, so he was just hungry," Harris said. "And he still practises that way and plays that way. Honestly, it's just a treat to have him on our team and also a blessing that I don't have to go against him and B.C. this year."
So where does that determination come from?
"Really, it comes from having a chip on my shoulder when I was a young kid. I grew up with a cleft lip and palate. I felt different than other people but I didn’t want to be different," said Bighill, noting the support he received from his parents. "So, what I did was develop a natural, competitive nature that I wanted to be the best at everything I did and prove to everybody that I’m not different than everybody else and you have to respect me because I’m going to beat you at whatever we’re doing."
He added: "I said I wanted to be a professional football player when I was seven, and I meant it. So, as I got older and started going through high school, every day was an opportunity to get better and reach my goals. And at the end of the day, I’m just proud to be here."
Now that he’s here, the question is where will the Bombers use him?
While many believe Bighill’s skill set is best suited for weak-side linebacker, Winnipeg has a glaring hole at middle linebacker. Bighill said he doesn’t know where the team plans to use him just yet but is open to playing wherever needed. He just wants the chance to hit people again.
"I like to be where the most action’s going to be," he said. "Typically, your middle linebacker is going to be able to move to left and to the right, be all over the field. I like to use my speed, my instincts to be able to cover the entire field."
Bighill was taking limited reps at middle linebacker during Thursday’s practice, while also swapping in on special teams. O’Shea said he will have a better idea of where Bighill will fit as camp moves on, choosing not to put any labels on him just yet.
"I don’t think the name really matters to where he’s at," said O'Shea. "He’s going to be out on the field, he’s going to be somewhere near the middle of the defence, both vertically and horizontally, and he’s going to be running around making plays from sideline to sideline, from goal-line to goal-line, just like the guys that are going to line up beside him."
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @jeffkhamilton
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.