Bighill has big im­pact on kids like him

The Hamilton Spectator - - Sports - JUDY OWEN

WIN­NIPEG — Adam Bighill is happy and sat­is­fied ev­ery time he hauls down a quar­ter­back or knocks the ball out of an op­po­nent’s hands.

But those feats don’t top the list of ac­com­plish­ments for the Win­nipeg Blue Bombers mid­dle line­backer, who was voted the CFL team’s most out­stand­ing player and top de­fen­sive player. Help­ing shy chil­dren with fa­cial dif­fer­ences look peo­ple in the eye, smile and speak con­fi­dently is what makes him as proud as any of his foot­ball achieve­ments.

“In a sense, some­times it’s even more, be­cause you’re re­ally af­fect­ing these kids’ lives,” said Bighill, who was born with a bi­lat­eral cleft lip and palate.

Be­fore the Bombers (10-8) be­gan prac­tis­ing Wed­nes­day for Sun­day’s West Di­vi­sion semi­fi­nal in Regina against the Saskatchewan Roughrid­ers (12-6), Bighill spoke to The Cana­dian Press about his first sea­son with the club.

When he was signed by Win­nipeg in May, af­ter be­ing re­leased by the NFL’s New Or­leans Saints, his char­ac­ter was praised along with his tal­ent and tenac­ity.

He de­liv­ered on the field, col­lect­ing 105 tack­les with four sacks, four forced fum­bles and two in­ter­cep­tions, one he re­turned for a touch­down.

Off the field, he tried to make an im­pact in his new city.

Dur­ing Win­nipeg’s first bye week, Bighill took part in a lo­cal work­shop put on by Mak­ing Faces, a Toronto-based non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports chil­dren with fa­cial dif­fer­ences and anti-bul­ly­ing pro­grams. He’s been on the board since 2015, when he played for the B.C. Lions.

About 20 kids brought to­gether by a sim­i­lar na­tional char­ity called About­Face lis­tened to Bighill and Mak­ing Faces founder Michael Wil­liams-Stark talk about their per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences. The pair then led the kids through some im­pro­vi­sa­tion, com­edy and games.

“We kind of get kids to open up and be able to build on dif­fer­ent skills that a lot of kids with fa­cial dif­fer­ences need work on — with eye con­tact, pro­ject­ing your voice, be­ing con­fi­dent and com­mu­ni­cat­ing,” Bighill said.

“By the time you’re about halfway through, you re­al­ize that these kids are al­ready mak­ing big strides.”

Bighill, 30, grew up in Mon­te­sano, Wash., and had five surg­eries be­fore he was 12.

“I was bul­lied as a kid. I had to de­fend my­self a few times,” said the five-foot-10, 230-pound star.

His par­ents, Andy and Ja­nine, were al­ways there to sup­port and en­cour­age him.

“They both gave me the con­fi­dence in my­self to han­dle these sit­u­a­tions,” he said. “My dad al­ways said, ‘If you have to pro­tect your­self, you pro­tect your­self.’”

His mom un­ex­pect­edly passed away when he was 15, from a heart at­tack while re­cov­er­ing from surgery. His dad, who’s been to Win­nipeg to watch some Bombers games, al­ways told him he could do any­thing. That cer­tainly held true for sports.

“A lot of that con­fi­dence came from just re­ally kind of ex­celling in the sports I was play­ing, and be­ing one of the best ath­letes around in what­ever I com­peted in,” he said, adding that earned him re­spect and cut down on the bul­ly­ing.

He met his wife, Kristina, while play­ing for the Lions, through a friend of hers who worked for the team. They went out for ice cream on their first date and his fa­cial scar didn’t jump out at her.

“There was no is­sue with it at all,” she said. “It was just part of kind of who he is, what his story is.

“He was just so nice, so easy to talk to. Def­i­nitely op­po­site of the on-field Adam,” said Kristina.

The cou­ple has two chil­dren, son AJ — short for Adam Ju­nior — who turns three next week, and an 18-month-old daugh­ter, Leah.

Kristina hasn’t watched her hus­band at work­shops, but knows how much he val­ues help­ing kids.

A teenage boy in Hamil­ton with a cleft lip and palate has fol­lowed his ca­reer since he en­tered the CFL with B.C. in 2011, she said. When­ever he’s in Hamil­ton, he has break­fast with the boy and his father. He also stays in touch with the teen to see how he’s do­ing in school and sports.

“It’s su­per sweet,” Kristina said. “He uses his plat­form, I think, re­ally well, and is able to reach out to those kids who have gone through a sim­i­lar story of what Adam has gone through.”

The cou­ple has en­joyed their first sea­son in Win­nipeg, feel­ing wel­comed by the or­ga­ni­za­tion and the play­ers and their wives and girl­friends.

Bighill, who signed a one-year con­tract, said his fam­ily will be the top pri­or­ity when he de­cides his fu­ture. His agent hasn’t started ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Bombers.

“We’re just try­ing to fo­cus on the sea­son and fin­ish this thing off with a Grey Cup,” he said.

“Things will just take care of them­selves as time comes along. It’s not some­thing that I feel like we need to rush into im­me­di­ately and re­ally waste en­ergy now fo­cus­ing on it.

“I think that en­ergy is bet­ter spent fo­cus­ing on the here and now.”

THE CANA­DIAN PRESS HAND­OUT

Adam Bighill, here with his wife Kristina, son AJ and daugh­ter Leah, is show­ing lo­cal kids with fa­cial dif­fer­ences that they can achieve any­thing they want.

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