In the summer of 1992, Paul Wight finished an offseason basketball workout. A new head coach had arrived to put his stamp on the Wichita State men’s basketball program, so Wight, still carrying a head full of hoop dreams, not to mention a full head of hair, remained steadfast in his pursuit of basketball greatness.
Long before he was the Giant or the Big Show, a 20-year-old Wight toweled off after a tough workout and sauntered over to the outdoor track. In both size and attitude, he was the living embodiment of a prototypical big man on campus. But on this day, he had obligations to fulfill before devouring a massive lunch. For reasons he could not articulate, Wight had signed up to volunteer at a Special Olympics track and field event.
“I was actually afraid at first,” Wight says. “I'd never been around anyone with intellectual disabilities. So I was afraid I would do something wrong or make a mistake.”
Watching from a distance, Wight was startled by what he witnessed. He saw his own reflection in the sweat, tears and laughter of the Special Olympics athletes. Trying unsuccessfully to mask his bewilderment, he watched with pure, unbridled joy as he was hit with an epiphany that has shaped his entire adult life.
“Due to my size, people will often judge me before they meet me,” Wight says. “I realized the same was true about these athletes.
“Seeing that passion and that spirit, that overwhelming team spirit, it spoke to my soul. I went in with anxiety, but I learned to be present and open-hearted. It has led to one of the best experiences of my entire life.”
The seven-foot-tall Big Show is an attraction in WWE, and the same applies outside of the ring. But he isn’t a tall, angry giant constantly seeking a fight. Wight is sensitive and thoughtful, and he relishes pain-free moments with loved ones, preferably surrounded by family and food. Over time, Wight has made it his mission to be a voice for the Special Olympics community, sharing their stories to a much wider audience.
“These athletes are the best tag-team partner Big Show’s ever had,” Timothy Shriver, the chairman of the board for the Special Olympics, says. “It’s easy to look at their relationship and say Big Show has helped the Special Olympics athletes. And he certainly has, but they’ve also helped him. He is grateful for that, and we see that in his devotion to the athletes.”
Wight’s decades-long appreciation of Special Olympics became official in 2014 at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey, and he has flourished in his role supporting athletes and advocating for their success. Now a global ambassador for the games, he has talked to members of Congress during the annual Capitol Hill Day and helped conceptualize the School of Strength video series to help keep athletes fit and healthy.
“Special Olympics is not a movement for people with intellectual disabilities, it’s now a movement from them,” Shriver says. “Big Show is helping people to see these athletes have a message, not just a cause. It’s a message about inclusion.
“So many of our athletes lived in isolation during their lives. That is part of the reason they are such great teachers of inclusion. Only people that have really felt the sting of being alone can teach that togetherness and unity. They show people how to trust, how to be confident in themselves, and how to have the freedom to be themselves. By listening to these athletes, they’re showing us how to do that, and Big Show is amplifying their voice.”
The life of a Special Olympics Global Ambassador, Wight has learned, is not without stress. But Wight places the responsibility to bring joy to the responsibility on his own shoulders. Social distancing eliminated the overwhelming majority of team activities over the past six months, with many of the athletes losing their only time to compete, and he wants to be a presence for the Special Olympics athletes during the pandemic.
“This is a very difficult time for everyone, and especially for the athletes,” says Wight, who left a lasting impression earlier this year with his Call to Action video call to Special Olympics athlete Tina Cook. “A lot of their social interaction is dependent on events where all the athletes come together. A lot of the athletes even receive health care at those events, so we’ve been working really hard to keep the athletes positive and motivated.”
Even away from the playing field, the athletes continue to look at Wight for strength, as well as remain eager to share some raw, authentic affection for their friend. Though the athletes undoubtedly admire Big Show’s accolades in WWE, they much prefer the face time with someone genuinely invested in their success.
Bobby Jones and Novie Craven are both Special Olympics athletes who work at the headquarters in Washington, D.C., on the marketing, development and communications team. Jones became a worldwide sensation when he created a WWE pin for last year’s World Games in Abu Dhabi, and he is a proud wrestling fan going back to the days of the Junkyard Dog. He had the pleasure of giving the Big Show a tour of the Special Olympics headquarters, which was a memorable occasion for both of them.
“That was a really big thrill for him,” Jones says. “He is so big and he has a big presence, but he keeps taking time to meet athletes and get to know us.
“Big Show supports everything we do. He sets aside a lot of time for us. To me, he spends time with us because he wants to be with us. He’s so passionate about Special Olympics, and he wants to help all the athletes stand out.”
Craven began working for Special Olympics in March 2019, where she was already known for her tenacity on the bocce court. She has had the chance to build a friendship with Big Show, and despite the size advantage for the former WWE champion, Craven is confident in her ability to emerge victorious in a game of bocce.
“It’s one of my favorite things to play,” Craven says. “Big Show knows a little about it. I think I could beat him, but he needs to learn the sport and pick up the instructions. I’ve gone against some great competitors, and it would be fun to teach him and play with him.”
When Wight was informed of the challenge laid out by Craven, the immediate response was a gentle, hearty laugh.
“The athletes might all say they love me, but they’re also all ready to beat me,” Wight says. “Hey, I’m competitive, so I understand that. But that’s not what hit me about Special Olympics. It’s the way the athletes compete and interact with each other; they’re competitive but still compassionate.
“Look at the world today, look at the issues with race and religion in this country. Special Olympics is all about inclusion. Everyone is accepted. It’s all about the human spirit about doing your best and helping the people around you to do their best, too. That’s a really good blueprint for the way people should treat each other.”
Craven, who noted that working for Special Olympics is her dream job, shared that the Special Olympics community is a better place with Big Show involved.
“Sometimes you talk to a person and they might interrupt you or not pay attention,” Craven says. “Big Show is amazing, he listens. He answers every question. Everyone here that knows Big Show is so proud of him. It’s amazing to know someone that cares so much about Special Olympics.”
Wight still makes appearances for WWE, with cameos at last Sunday’s Clash of Champions and again on Monday’s Raw. As long as his health permits, he will return for the occasional chokeslam and subsequent heel turn. But his body, broken down after decades of bumps and endless travel, has found the Lake of Rejuvenation when he steps foot at a Special Olympics event.
“I was at a Special Olympics event where the disc jockey accidentally played a song in the middle of someone’s speech,” Wight says. “And you know what all the athletes did? No one got upset. They stood up and started to dance. Think about that. When you hear music, dance. There is such beauty in that.
“When I am here, all my injuries, my aches and pains, it all goes away. I walk with joy and happiness in my heart. There is a purity to it. There is competition, there is care, there is compassion. For me, standing beside Special Olympics athletes is like chicken soup for the soul.”