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Hearing impairment not silencing Mac Bignell’s rise to Montana State stardom

Posted at 4:39 PM, Oct 05, 2016
Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell leads the Big Sky Conference in tackles for loss this season. (SLIM KIMMEL/MTN Sports)

BOZEMAN – Football is a game of challenges.

Mac Bignell has overcome many on his way to stardom at Montana State. An all-state athlete on the prep fields in Drummond, he quickly needed to learn the transition from Class C 8-man football.

“Just getting used to 11 guys would be one of the biggest (challenges),” Bignell said. “Learning the terminology was all different to me. Then again, football is football in the end.”

Football is football. Each blade of grass or piece of artificial turf feels the same, every stadium looks relatively similar and the sound of cheers and hollers on game day is constant throughout the country.
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But it’s the sound that has been another challenge to Bignell. Born with mild hearing loss, he was forced to dial in on a sense others take for granted.

“When I was younger, my hearing aids — they weren’t really hearing aids at the time — but it was a big old headset and then the teacher had a microphone so I could hear the teacher,” he said. “I’m not a guy who likes to stand out from the crowd. Other than that I never really had a problem. I grew up in a small town and we’re basically a family in a small town so nobody gave me too hard of a time for it.”

Football became a release for Bignell. His raw athleticism stems from family genes – his father Joe, who is also hearing impaired, played on the Bobcats’ 1984 national championship team. Brothers Nate and Parker were college student-athletes, as were cousins Brian and Clay.

He learned to read lips at an early age and continued using various hearing aids to assist during school. But on the football field he was free from his impairment.

“In Class C football I would always go to the coaches on the sideline and they would tell me the plays so I was pretty much face-to-face. It really didn’t affect me there,” Bignell said. “Here we do everything by signal so during games I’m not really affected by my hearing, but where it does bother me is in school, not hearing all the information. My biggest thing is not being able to write notes in class because if I’m looking down I’m not able to read his lips. The challenges are there but I’ve faced them my whole life so I’m used to them.”

“You wouldn’t really know (Bignell is hearing impaired) unless you knew Mac. But Mac is awesome,” said Montana State defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak. “Sometimes I’ll be yelling from a distance and he can’t quite hear me and I’ll think, ‘OK, is this selective hearing or not?’ Then you realize he might not have heard that one. He’s a great kid, though. He’s in that long line of great Bobcats and his father was a captain on that 1984 national championship team. That would be a cool story to talk about.”

Mac Bignell has already planted himself in Bobcat lore with a 2015 tackle against Fort Lewis. Bignell read a designed screen play to perfection and lit up Skyhawks’ running back P.J. Hall. The play instantly went viral and made its way to ESPN’s Top Plays.

Bignell joked about his Facebook feed blowing up after the game with friends and fans offering applause for the bone-crushing tackle that sent Bobcat Stadium into a frenzied fervor. Though he delivered one of the most memorable plays in MSU history, Bignell will never truly appreciate the thunderous noise he brought to the home crowd.

“I don’t think I realize how loud it gets,” he said. “I’m pretty focused, too, I like to lock in and try to zone it out, but I always talk to my parents to see how loud it was and they always say it was pretty loud.”

Mac Bignell couldn’t care less if Montana State played its games in empty stadiums. His teammates may play off the crowd, but Bignell’s happy letting his play bring the noise.

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Jeff Choate has brought a new energy to the Bobcats, delivering fire and passion from his first press conference to each practice in Bozeman. In order for his style to translate to the players, Choate needed an athlete to try and match the emotion. Enter Bignell.

“It’s been unreal. The intensity level and the knowledge that those guys have has been off the charts,” said Bignell. “You can learn so much from them every single day you step in a meeting room. I’ve enjoyed the experience so far.”

“He’s just got a great feel for the game,” Choate said of Bignell. “He’s a natural football player. He’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the fastest guy and he’s not the strongest guy, but he’s got great instincts, a great feel for the game with great body position and he does a really, really nice job.”

Through last weekend’s game at Sacramento State, Bignell is tied for the Big Sky Conference lead in sacks (3), ranks first in tackles for loss (9), fourth in total tackles (45) and is tied for eighth in tackles per game (9.0).

Bignell’s rise has caught the attention of more than Choate and his staff. Other Big Sky Conference coaches have noticed his improved play and football IQ.

“That’s the one thing I wanted to work on this offseason because last year I wasn’t really in the offense’s game plans, but I’m thinking that this year they know who I am a little more,” said Bignell. “That just means I needed to bring my talent level up against guys who know who I am and when they’re watching me (on film) I have to be able to beat them.”

Montana State’s defense leads the FCS with 16 takeaways this season, nine interceptions and seven fumble recoveries, though the turnovers haven’t necessarily led to wins. Bignell and the Bobcats are 0-2 in league play and welcome preseason favorite Northern Arizona to Bozeman on Saturday.

Despite the early season struggles, Bignell will continue to lace up his cleats, pull his No. 49 jersey over his shoulder pads and run through the tunnel in Bobcat Stadium. It would be hard not to look around the packed bleachers, soaking in every second of his rise from Class C standout to FCS star, but on game day Bignell is all business all the time.

“I’ve never had a moment like that,” he said. “I’m pretty locked into the moment and like to focus on the task at hand at the time. Maybe looking back at it, it will be a great feeling, but there’s still work to be done.”

For Mac Bignell, the work won’t be finished until his playing days are done.