November 21, 2018

Long Read | Adam Bighill

Adam Bighill (4) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game against the Ottawa RedBlacks at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa, ON on Friday, October 5, 2018. (Photo: Johany Jutras / CFL)

EDMONTON – Adam Bighill has a list in his head. It’s a long list, and the row upon row of names keeps getting longer and longer. After all, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers middle linebacker might need to thank a lot of people Thursday night at the Canadian Football League’s Most Outstanding Player Awards. And as he recalls all the significant moments of his life, he remembers those who helped get him to right here and now.

Coaches and teammates, of course. Family, friends and teachers, no question. So many played a role in colouring in all those positive memories.

And likely, there are just as many doubters, cynics and bullies who all served to stoke that raging inferno that still fuels his competitive desire and has helped make him the CFL’s top defensive player.

“I’ve been through a lot to get here,” began Bighill in a 30-minute conversation with this week. “It’s a hard thing to quantify, but it’s probably more than your average person. You know, you grow up and all you hear is that you’re not tall enough, that your arms aren’t long enough, that you’re not big enough, that you went to too small of a school, that you can’t play D-1 college football, that you can’t play professionally. So many people doubt you and what you can do.”

“But they can’t measure your heart. I’ve always felt that’s what is different about me: it’s what I’m willing to do to be successful. A lot of people just simply aren’t willing to do it. I am.”

Adam Bighill is different. Proud to be different. And here’s a snapshot of how he got here…

Bighill took his first breath in Astoria, Oregon, a port city about 340 kilometres south of Vancouver. But it wasn’t long after that his parents – Andy and Janine – set up the family in Montesano, Washington, while they both worked at the lumber mill in nearby Raymond.

Their work was honest and in Adam, their only child, Andy and Janine instilled the basic values that became his foundation. They also helped shield him from the teasing he took from as long as he can remember and strengthen his resolve to overcome. Bighill, most know now, was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate. By the time he was 12, he had already undergone five different surgeries.

“I can remember being bullied in school, being made fun of because I was different,” said Bighill. “And my parents, they were always asking me if anything or anyone was bothering me, if I needed help. It was my dad who always said, ‘If you have to take care of yourself, then defend yourself.’ I always felt empowered to make sure I was in a position to feel safe and comfortable. My teachers were also aware and so I had people looking out for me.

“It was my parents who gave me confidence. They helped me learn to shake off comments. People would say, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with your nose?’ I’d say, ‘I was born like that. And if you have a problem with that, that’s fine, we don’t have to be friends.’ Having a simple answer like that helped. But so did understanding that having something I was born with doesn’t make me any different or worse than you. That foundation game me confidence. And then sports enhanced it.”

Bighill gravitated to football early, but also played other sports like soccer. He was strong and he was quick, but he also had instincts for the game – the same instincts he displays today by filling a hole on a run play, or dropping back into coverage to intercept a pass.

But playing team sports helped give him a sense of belonging. Once he donned the helmet and shoulder pads, no one could see the cleft lip and palate. What they saw instead was a tour de force.

“Once you find yourself being treated differently, looked at differently, all you want to do is fit in,” said Bighill. “What’s one of the best ways to fit in? It’s to be on a team and play a team sport. That’s how you can succeed and earn the respect of people you’re playing with and against. Playing sports helped me earn that respect. It helped me fit in and ultimately be accepted the way I wanted to be so badly. It helped build my confidence.”

“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder, but my parents did instill a work ethic in me. They were always saying, ‘no matter what you do, do it 100 percent and be the best at it, no matter what you do.’”

That carried Bighill through his days at Montesano High School – the team nickname was, appropriately, ‘Bulldogs’ – and then to the Central Washington Wildcats.

So, add to Bighill’s list of people to thank the names Terry Jensen, the Bulldogs head coach, along with strength and conditioning coordinator Eric Stanfield, Brian Hollatz, the defensive coordinator as well as Jeff Klinger and Brad Pocklington, who all tried to shape their young charges into solid men.

Sadly, Bighill’s mother never got to see any of these critical moments in his early days or any since. She never saw him turn pro with the B.C. Lions. Never saw him make the National Football League last season with the New Orleans Saints or help turn the Bombers defence into a feared unit in 2018.

“I was 15 when she passed away,” Bighill explained. “She had a heart attack in the hospital after surgery. That was hard. A tough time. And I didn’t properly grieve or deal with my emotions from that until probably four or five years ago. It’s something that was tough to deal with at that age. You don’t know how.

“The biggest thing for me was I always wanted to make her proud. I told her and my dad when I was around seven I wanted to be a professional football player. I really wanted to live up to that. I just wanted so much to make her proud.”

This is the Adam Bighill fans of the Blue Bombers have come to know over the last seven months: He is the sideline-to-sideline tackling machine. The man with the Pick-6 against his old club during a game in Winnipeg in the summer; the man who led the league in forced fumbles, who played the West Final with his left thumb in a cast.

The part of his life that is more important, his family, isn’t as public. He and his wife Kristina have two kids – A.J. (Adam, Jr.) who just turned three and Leah, who is eight months old.

“My wife… she really helps make our world turn as a family,” Bighill explained. “Being a father is a completely new chapter in my life. It’s given me a completely new appreciation for life in general and love and happiness. I have feelings of responsibility. One of my purposes now is to help ensure my kids are going to be even more successful than I am, that they’re going to be well taken care of, well protected and raised right.”

Bighill has also used his platform as a professional athlete to speak to over 100 schools, helping students understand how to set goals and be successful. As well, over the last three years he’s been a spokesperson for ‘Making Faces’ – the non-profit organization that provides support for kids with facial differences. He first became involved during his days with the Lions, after he discovered his trainer Rob Williams had an uncle who was also born with a cleft lip and pallet.

“We try to help those kids understand they’re no different than anyone else,” said Bighill. “And that you can go out there and achieve whatever you want to achieve. There are people who have gone through this before you and done it. I know I had a lot of great support at home growing up. My parents built a lot of confidence in me and made sure I was taken care of and had the mindset I could be great and accomplish anything I want. But not every kid gets that.

“It has to start there for a child with that kind of issue, to feel that he’s no different than anyone else.”


It’s not just a hashtag, it’s a personal brand of sorts, and Bighill often accompanies his social media posts with the word. That’s not just a representation of some sort of alter-ego he adopts on the football field. It’s his approach to, well, just about everything. It’s about attacking the day. It’s about proving people wrong. It’s about keeping that respect he’s worked so hard to earn over all these years. It’s about staying true to himself, his family, and the morals his mom and dad instilled every day.

So, heck yeah, he’s got a lot of people he’d like to thank Thursday night at the CFL Most Outstanding Player Awards if his name is called.

But it should be said that all of this success doesn’t come without the sweat equity and dedication only one person could really provide: Bighill himself.

“I want to be the best. And just because you may think I can’t be, that makes me want to do it more,” said Bighill. “It’s taken a ton of sacrifice, but at the end of the day, it’s been worth it to me. I’ve known a lot of great players who are not playing today because they didn’t make the sacrifices along the way to get to this level.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is overcoming those doubts and what people thought of me. I made a commitment and dedicated myself to being the best I can be. I continue to focus on being better and improving. The two things I come back to go back to what my dad told me when I was a kid and said I wanted to play professional football,” Bighill added. “He said, ‘You’ve got to put in the time and put in the work because those two things reflect.’ That goes for anything in life.

“I told myself I was going to play professional football and if that didn’t work out, I was going to play professional soccer. And if not that, I was going to become a chiropractor or go to med school. But if you put in that time and effort, it can apply to anything: to sports, to school, to business, to anything in life. That’s the savage mindset. It’s a mentality that you won’t be beat, you won’t be out-worked, you won’t be out-physicaled… you’re just going to dominate because you put in the work and you have that confidence.

“It’s a feeling you can’t be stopped.”