VANCOUVER - The number 44 jersey has a distinguished history with Central Washington University football. So does it now with the B.C. Lions, following a season in which Adam Bighill established himself as an all-star linebacker in the Canadian Football League.
At Central Washington, located in Ellensburg, just east of the Cascade Range on Interstate 90, No. 44 is bestowed upon the hardest-working and most dedicated player -- a number Bighill switched to in his second season with the Lions (he formerly wore No. 50) because of its college significance.
Does the number make the man?
Maybe so. No. 44 means a player is a special leader on the Wildcats, and Bighill certainly was all of that this season for the Lions.
"We started a defensive tradition here, identifying No. 44 as the player who possessed the qualities of dedication, determination and tenacity,” explained Blaine Bennett, the head coach at Central Washington. “The player who wears No. 44 passes it on to the next worthy recipient, the guy who gets to carry the torch. Adam, who went on to become an All-American, was given the jersey by another All-American, Buddy Wood. I know what it meant for Adam to transfer from No. 50 to No. 44 with the Lions. It’s a number he wears with great pride.”
“It is a sacred number," acknowledged Bighill, who showed his reverence for No. 44 by putting up some scary statistical numbers for the Lions this season -- 104 tackles, nine sacks, seven tackles for loss, four interceptions, 16 special teams tackles. He was rewarded for his monster season this week with a raise and a contract extension that will keep him with the Lions through to the end of the 2015 season.
“Adam was a dynamic, dynamic player on defence, and a big contributor on special teams,” said Lions GM Wally Buono. “I compare him to Alondra Johnson, and he’s a (Canadian Football) Hall of Famer. I don’t compare too many players to A.J. But look at the way he (Bighill) plays the run. Look at the way he plays the pass. Look at his physicality. He came into camp this year No. 2 on the depth chart (behind James Yurichuk). He didn’t let that bother him. He just went out and became No. 1.”
When it comes to college football in the state of Washington, there is great divide. West of the Cascade Range fans lean mostly in the direction of the Washington Huskies. East of the Cascades supporters of the Washington State Cougars dominate. Ellensburg is about evenly split, according to Bennett, who took over in 2008 from Beau Baldwin, the head coach who recruited Bighill for the Wildcats when neither the Huskies nor the Cougars would give him a sniff.
“He’s an undersized guy (5’10”, 230 pounds) but one of those guys who absolutely blossomed after high school,” Bennett said. “Adam was not highly recruited out of high school (Montesano, Wash.) Because of it, we were able to get a player who gets the most out of his ability to a degree I’ve never seen before. His dedication is second to one. Nobody is as self-motivated. Adam Bighill is just an amazing person.”
Lions backup quarterback Mike Reilly, who recommended Bighill to the team, graduated two years earlier (2008) after breaking most of Jon Kitna’s records at Central Washington. He, too, was not highly recruited. Reilly went to Washington State as a walk-on, spent a year there, but transferred to Central after Cougar coach Paul Wulff wouldn’t offer him a scholarship.
In four years with the Division II Wildcats, Reilly threw a touchdown pass in every one of the 47 games in which he started, becoming the first quarterback in all divisions of the NCAA to do so.
“We have pretty talented guys, and we have a lot of NFL teams come through here because of our location (less than a two-hour drive from Seattle),” Bennett explained. “Mike had a lot of success at Central, and his dream was to play in the NFL, like Kitna (who spent 15 seasons there). He bounced from the Steelers to the Packers to the Rams and spent a brief time with the Seahawks. I would guess he’s been through a lot. He’s gone from being No. 3 with the Lions to some playing time as the No. 2 guy. Now, he’s in a position to perhaps star with somebody.”
Reilly, who played out his option this season, enters free agency on Feb. 15 and GM Wally Buono doesn’t expect him back for the team’s 2013 training camp. It’s a reason the Lions kept NFL journeyman Jarrett Brown on the practice roster, through to the conclusion of the season. Casey Therriault, another free-agent quarterback who spent a brief time with the Lions, could also get a re-invite to training camp.
“One of our Central guys (Bighill) is starting, the other (Reilly) would like to start,” Buono said. “The reality is, we have a very good starting quarterback (Travis Lulay). Mike’s going to go and see what’s out there. I don’t think I would want a guy back who’s happy being No. 2. Football has cost Mike a lot. When he gets an opportunity, I think he’s going to be very serious about what he takes.”
Senior linebacker Stan Langlow, the Great Northwest Conference defensive player of the year, senior offensive tackle Mike Nelson and running back Demetrius Sumler, who scored five TDs in a game earlier this season against Simon Fraser, are some future candidates perhaps headed to the CFL through the Central Washington pipeline.
Though Bighill and Reilly seamlessly transitioned to important roles with the Lions, player personnel coordinator Neil McEvoy said B.C. won’t necessarily be scouting the Wildcat football program more intently than it already is.
“We, as a team located in Vancouver, are always going to look at players from the Pacific Northwest,” McEvoy said. “Washington, Oregon, Oregon State, Montana State, Central Washington . . . we look at those schools closer than perhaps some of the teams in our league do. Football in the state of Washington has always been pretty good. They produce tough, quality players. Brian Urlacher (Chicago Bears linebacker from Pasco, Wash.) is from there. And Adam Bighill is from there.”
While Bighill’s build may not stand out on an NFL field, he still plays big in all the areas that matter.
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