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This article was published 22/11/2018 (455 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
EDMONTON — Having spent most of his life in Montesano, Wash., a small town roughly 300 kilometres south of Vancouver with a population of fewer than 5,000 people, Adam Bighill understood what it felt like to stick out.
So, for years, he fought just to fit in.
"I proved that you can get whatever you want in life if you’re willing to sacrifice, put in the time and put in the work. That’s one of the most important things about my story and my success, is just a willingness to do whatever it takes to be successful," Bighill, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers middle linebacker, said in an interview Thursday with the Free Press. "The best are the best for a reason and quite often you’ll find leaders in other areas who probably have stories very similar to mine."
At 30, Bighill continues to write new chapters to his journey and is grateful for what he's already achieved. Life is as close to what he imagined it would be, what he hoped for growing up when he was working too hard and too long to enjoy the kind of party lifestyle many of his peers were living.
He’s married to the woman of his dreams, Kristina, and together they have two young children — Adam Jr. (A.J.), who just celebrated his third birthday and an 18-month-old daughter, Leah.
Bighill has accomplished his ultimate goal of being a professional football player, despite having doubters every step of the way. After constantly being told he was too short, too slow and not good enough, he officially silenced his critics when he signed with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints in 2017.
But it’s his time in the Canadian Football League that he is most revered for. Bighill spent six years with the B.C. Lions, winning a Grey Cup in his first season in 2011. On Friday, following a stellar 2018 campaign in Winnipeg, he was honoured as the CFL’s most outstanding defensive player, earning 57 of 60 first-place votes over Hamilton linebacker Larry Dean. It was the second time Bighill has won the award in his seven-year CFL career, winning it first with the Lions in 2015.
"That chip has just always been there and always will be. I am who I am today because of it," Bighill said. "From an early age I had no problem sacrificing whatever needed to be sacrificed to reach my ultimate goals. Me reaching this point now is definitely part of that process.’’
Bighill was a standout on the football field but he also excelled at soccer; so much so that many figured he might even pursue the sport over football. As a teenager, he was twice named state champion in powerlifting and was a starter on the basketball team.
But a smooth ride it wasn’t — far from it. Bighill’s success story is one built on hard work, but it’s also the pain he suffered at a young age that helped shape who he is today.
Forced to grow up at an early age, Bighill lived through and saw more than most kids. Born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate, he became an easy target for cruel comments, constantly picked on at school and in sports. By the time he was 12, Bighill had undergone five surgeries to his mouth and nose.
His parents, Andy and Janine, were pillars of support whenever Bighill was teased. They also stressed the importance of a full day’s work, which was evident by the long shifts they put in together at the nearby lumber mill.
When Bighill was 15, his mom passed away from a heart attack in hospital after surgery. Raised to face adversity head-on, it would be years before he finally gave himself a chance to properly grieve. As for his mom's legacy, it lives on in him, with the lessons she bestowed on him now being passed on to his kids.
"There’s a lot of her in me. She was a very competitive person. She could play any musical instrument, she could play any sport," said Bighill. "She was a strong-willed woman. She didn’t take any shit."
A smile comes across his face when he recalls how his mother used to challenge men to leg wrestle, something she often succeeded at.
"I remember she’d be challenging different guys, just flipping guys back over their head. She was very competitive, so that’s where I get a lot of what I am today," he said. "She just wanted me to be the best I could be no matter what it was. She was a big supporter of me and I definitely miss her. I’ve done a lot of what I’ve done today for her."
Eric Stanfield, who coached Bighill in football, soccer and powerlifting at Montesano High School, said he never noticed a chip on Bighill's shoulder, or at least never looked at it that way. What was always on display, he said, was a never-ending motor, the kind of energy-for-days effort Bighill still displays on the football field, whenever he’s plugging a hole on a run play or dropping back into coverage to defend against the pass.
Only once could Stanfield remember a time Bighill was teased, which was during a soccer game, when a player from a rival football team that was sitting in the stands made a rude remark about his cleft palate. The comment never fazed Bighill, who went on to lead his team to victory. Afterwards, while his teammates celebrated on the field, Stanfield said Bighill made his way to the stands "to have a conversation with the guy."
"He had that confidence. He had a bit of a cockiness but he was never a trash talker," Stanfield said in a phone interview from the same school where the two first met many years ago. "Adam earned everything he ever got in life."
One of Bighill’s nicknames while playing for the Montesano Bulldogs was Eraser, because whenever the defensive scheme called for him to drop into the free-safety position he would often make a dazzling play that erased all the mistakes committed by his teammates in front of him. He wasn’t the fastest player over a long distance, but Stanfield maintains Bighill’s feet are so quick he’d put money on him to beat anyone in a 10-yard race.
Stanfield never understood why so many Division I football schools ignored Bighill, often recruiting someone bigger or stronger. Bighill wanted to go somewhere he was appreciated, so he committed to Central Washington University Wildcats — a Div. 2 school just a 3.5-hour drive from Montesano.
"I got an opportunity to play college football, which at the end of the day was all I needed to prove that I could play at the next level after that," Bighill said. "With how many people that said I wouldn’t play college football, to how many people that thought I’d never be able to play professional football, I wanted to do everything that I could to make sure that I would and if for some reason I didn’t make it, I wanted to know that there was nothing that I ever could have done better. I have no regrets."
It’s not just a strong impression on the field that Bighill strives for — but off it, too. He’s heavily involved in the community, including working with Making Faces, a non-profit organization that helps build self-esteem for kids with facial differences. While in Edmonton for Grey Cup week, he took time to visit kids at the Stollery Children’s Hospital.
Bighill also returns to his hometown from time to time, back to that small town where his life first started to take shape. The gloves, cleats, jerseys and player cards he donates are then handed out as awards to young players at football camps.
"They are SO excited when they receive a Bighill award," texted Stanfield. "They are solely based off of effort, hustle and coachability."
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.
Updated on Thursday, November 22, 2018 at 9:14 PM CST: Fixes headline
9:35 PM: Adds photos.