‘How was he not starting in the NFL?’: Nathan Rourke, Luke Willson bond over Adam Bighill’s ‘dominance’

Graphic: 3DownNation (Photos: B.C. Lions/Jimmy Jeong | David Mahussier | AP/Michael Ainsworth)

As Canadians who have made it to the NFL, Nathan Rourke and Luke Willson have a lot in common, but they might not quite see eye-to-eye when it comes to the Canadian Football League.

The Jacksonville Jaguars’ newest quarterback joined the Super Bowl-winning tight end turned TSN analyst on the latest episode of his podcast All Time with Luke Willson, fending off a few light-hearted jabs about whether the CFL was “trash.”

Though Willson has some gripes with the three-down league’s lighter workload and amount of busted coverages, he conceded to his guest when it came to the level of talent north of the border. He has a number of friends and acquaintances in the CFL, but there was one example that jumped out for the eight-year NFL veteran.

“There’s a guy that I trained with in the offseason one year, you played against him: Adam Bighill,” Willson admitted. “Oh, man, this dude was dominant. Dominant.”

The native of LaSalle, Ont. encountered the three-time CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player while doing an offseason training session in Vancouver with renowned kinesiologist Rob Williams. Williams — who has also been widely credited for sparking Rourke’s early career success — invited Bighill to the workout, a decision that made little impression on Willson until the defender tried to challenge him.

“He’s like, ‘Hey, do you want to do some one-on-ones?'” he recalled. “He’s a linebacker and I could run pretty good, so I remember looking at him like, ‘Bro, get the f*** out of here.’ You want to do one-on-ones? I’m about to roast you, my guy. You’re a linebacker, no one on the planet Earth would want to do this.”

Willson had solid grounds for his confidence. The six-foot-five, 255-pound target was regarded as one of the fastest players at his position in the NFL, having run a 4.51-second forty-yard dash at Rice University. He was drafted in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft by Seattle and played 102 career games with the Seahawks, Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens, catching 111 passes for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Still, he was not prepared for what the five-foot-10, 223-pound Bighill had in store.

“This guy was glued to me! And then I’m like, okay, I’m just gonna run by him but he was fast as f***. I’m like, ‘This guy does it all’ and it was very confusing to me how not only he wasn’t in the NFL, he was not starting in the NFL,” Willson recounted.

“At that point when I was training Rob, I’d seen a lot of NFL linebackers in my life and Adam Bighill athletically — and I’m assuming he was also cerebral — was up there with the best of them. It’s weird how it’s like, ‘Oh, this guy’s a CFL linebacker.’ I never really understood that stigma.”

A product of Central Washington University, Bighill signed with the B.C. Lions straight out of college in 2011. He played six seasons with the team and was named Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2015 before the NFL ever came knocking.

Bighill signed with the New Orleans Saints in 2017 and impressed throughout the preseason, racking up 20 tackles, a sack, an interception, and two pass breakups in four appearances. However, concerns regarding his lack of size left him relegated to the practice squad for much of that season.

The Saints called Bighill up to the active roster for just three games in 2017 and he recorded one special teams tackle. Despite signing a new contract with the team following the season, he later requested his release from New Orleans and signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, winning Most Outstanding Defensive Player twice more in 2019 and 2021.

That’s where Rourke has gotten to know him, becoming just as impressed as Willson by Bighill’s unique athletic ability.

“I’m a huge Adam Bighill fan. He’s the man and I tell you what, there’s not a tougher guy in the CFL that we’ve had to prepare for over the last two years,” Rourke said. “Just watching him on film, he’s making every play, he’s around the pile if he’s not making the tackle. They’ve got him playing safety on second down.”

The young Canadian went on a tear through the CFL in his first — and perhaps only — season as the B.C. Lions’ starter, completing 78.7 percent of his passes for 3,349 yards, 25 touchdowns and ten interceptions while rushing for 304 yards and seven touchdowns in just 10 games due to injury. The one team that caused him to struggle was the league-leading Bombers, who handed him all three of his losses as a starter and ended the Lions’ season in the West Final.

That was in no small part due to Bighill, who showed no sign of slowing down at 34 years old. The six-time CFL all-star chipped in 72 tackles, two sacks and a pick in 2022, adding to his career total of 867 total tackles, 45 sacks, 15 interceptions, 14 forced fumbles and three defensive touchdowns in 164 games.

“I think he’s getting up there in age, in terms of what football age is. He’s in his thirties and he’s still one of the most dominant players in the league and I don’t think he has any plans on giving that up anytime soon,” Rourke said. “People have looked at his size and been like, ‘Okay, you can’t play.’ Well, you haven’t put on the tape and seen this guy play.”

While Bighill never got a fair shot to prove himself in the NFL, there is still hope for Rourke with the Jags. Should the league’s reigning Most Outstanding Canadian succeed, Willson believes it could change things for other CFL players and ensure the next Bighill doesn’t go unnoticed.

“When you talk about that CFL stigma, you have an opportunity — and I’m not trying to put a bunch of pressure on you but I feel like you’d probably like it anyways — to erase some of that stigma,” he said.

“As a Canadian kid who really has a passion to see Canadian ballers do well, keep being the trailblazer you are.”