WINNIPEG — Adam Bighill didn't like that he looked different than most kids, but he used that to push himself into becoming an elite football player.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers welcomed his talent and dedication to the fold Thursday as the newly signed 2015 CFL most outstanding defensive player joined them for his first day of training camp.
The former B.C. Lions star linebacker, cut by the NFL's New Orleans Saints earlier this month, was asked by the media where his work ethic came from.
"Really, it comes from having a chip on my shoulder when I was a young kid," Bighill replied. "I grew up with a cleft lip and palate. I felt different than other people, but I didn't want to be different.
"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."
The 29-year-old Montesano, Wash., native has been on the board of Making Faces. The Canadian non-profit organization helps improve the self-esteem of children with facial differences through workshops and anti-bullying initiatives.
Bighill said he decided when he was seven years old that he wanted to be a football player. He attended Central Washington University and wasn't claimed in the NFL draft. He signed with the Lions in 2011.
It was during that rookie season that he had a surprise conversation with Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea.
O'Shea was the special teams co-ordinator for Toronto at the time and his Argonauts had just played the Lions late in the season. After the game, O'Shea walked over to Bighill.
"He came up and said, 'Hey, I really respect the way you play the game. You're a great football player and just kind of keep doing what you're doing,'" Bighill recalled
"It's kind of every year we played each other, we definitely made time to talk, say hello and catch up. So that's where that respect (for O'Shea) kind of started."
O'Shea also hasn't forgotten that meeting on the field.
"You've got to plan against a guy like that and it's near impossible," O'Shea said. "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.
“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.”
Bighill made his mark on the CFL with the Lions, being named a league all-star four times and a West Division all-star five times. He was released by B.C. to pursue an NFL job and made the 2017 roster of the Saints, getting into three games.
The Saints cut him earlier this month. He said he then turned down an offer from an undisclosed NFL team because it's a "coin flip" if it's going to work out.
The father of a son and daughter both under the age of three, Bighill admitted he looked to the Lions first, but he felt their roster was pretty set. The Bombers called and he inked a one-year contract last weekend.
Winnipeg's squad includes a number of former Lions Bighill played with, including running back Andrew Harris and new defensive lineman Craig Roh.
"He's the man," Roh said of Bighill with a laugh. "(Our wives) are great friends. We'd go over to their house all the time and play Settlers of Catan. We played Risk, a five-hour game of Risk."
Critics have said the Bombers lack a middle linebacker who can make a impact. Roh believes Bighill can be that guy.
"He's the cream of the crop, really" said Roh, who played with Bighill for two seasons. "He can drop, he can run, he can blitz. He can do it all."
Harris and Bighill played together from 2011 to 2015. Harris remembers practising against a fierce teammate.
"His first year, he came in and he was just a scrappy guy," Harris said. "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.
"And he still practices 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."