For the Redskins’ Diggs, a journey from homeless to a shot at the NFL
Vontae Diggs couldn’t sleep. He was without his mom, without his brother and felt alone in the west Chicago suburb of Downers Grove.
In the middle of the night, he would walk from the house of a friend — whichever one he was staying with at the time — until he reached the entrance of Lloyd Park.
He walked into the park under the cover of darkness, hiding what was going on in his mind. He walked deep into the park, until he reached a bench. He sat down and thought, until he fell asleep.
“How did I get here? How do I get out? What was my next move?” he thought.
Diggs still wears the skeletons of his past today, even when the linebacker jogs onto the Washington Redskins’ practice field in Richmond donning a burgundy
No. 48 jersey. As a kid who battled
homelessness, Diggs has never had the odds in his favor — similar to his role as an undrafted free agent trying to make the roster.
“Grade school was horrible, when I first became homeless for the first time living out the car,” he said. “It was just hard. I couldn’t have that legit childhood.”
The first time he said he slept on that bench in the park was in the fourth grade. He would return almost every night he could when he was a freshman in high school. It was his “safe haven.” He found peace in a peaceless period of his life at that park. It would always be there, always look the same, unlike the home he grew up in.
From apartments to hotels to living out of his mother’s late ’90s Oldsmobile, there was rarely a moment where Diggs felt like a normal kid.
After he moved in with John and Nancy Zea his sophomore year of high school, they, along with John Wander, Diggs’ football coach at Downers North High School, provided the support and discipline he didn’t have as a child that lifted his football career.
And after playing four years and earning a college degree from the University of Connecticut, he believes it’s his responsibility to honor their sacrifices for him by making an NFL roster.
“I got here the hard way,” he said. “Now it’s my job to make sure I stay.”
Diggs moved with his mother, Robin Jones, and his 10-year-old brother, Jermal Jones, from Las Vegas — where his father, Vincent Diggs, lives — to Chicago when he was 5 years old. Jones had grown up there and had family living on the South Side. It was initially planned as a vacation, but Robin decided she wasn’t going to return to Vegas and she would look for a job in Chicago.
They would live in an apartment when Jones saved enough money and had a good job, but employment was never steady. Apartments turned to staying in hotels on and off for years and eventually turned into living out of the car for six months.
They would wash up each morning before school and each night before bed in a McDonald’s.
“A lot of the times, I’d get out of the car and just walk around, come back to the car just try to keep my mind busy,” Diggs said. “A lot of sleepless nights. A lot of sleepless nights.”
He and his brother went to school in Downers Grove, a predominantly white, affluent community. Sometimes their mother had to borrow money, but she made sure her sons were getting an education, always had a meal and were able to play sports.
He would walk into school and see kids with new outfits, new shoes and new phones and silently accept he wasn’t able to have that. He missed out on birthday parties, sleepovers, hanging out at water parks and roller rinks. If he did go to those places, he didn’t know how he’d make it back to the car.
Diggs was also angry at his mom. He couldn’t understand why their life was always an uphill battle and whenever the climb seemed to be nearing an end, more rungs would be added to the ladder. At the same time, he could tell his mom was fighting her own demons.
Even when he told her that he could get a job to help out, she refused. She would tell him that it’s her responsibility to take care of them, not his.
By the time Diggs was a freshman in high school, he had been staying at friends’ houses occasionally and sometimes would end up at that park bench. Jones lost her job, lost her car and had no money. She had to move back with her family on the South Side.
Diggs refused to go with her. He was terrified of leaving Downers Grove and going back to a place where he said he saw fights on every street corner and heard about four shootings every five days when he went to school for a year in the inner city.
“He started crying and he said, ‘Momma, I can’t come back to the city. If I go back to the city, I feel like I’m going to get killed. And I don’t want to die,’ ” Robin said.
Her heart fluttered. Diggs said he would figure out who he could stay with. Jones was afraid he would think she was abandoning him.
Diggs stayed with one friend until they had a falling-out, so he left. During the day, if he wasn’t at school, Diggs was hanging out with his friends Andrew and Tony Zea. The twin brothers and he are the same age and had gone to school with one another since the fifth grade. At night, he would go to that bench at Lloyd Park to sleep.
The twins’ parents,
John and Nancy Zea, knew Jones was having financial troubles, but they didn’t know where Diggs ended up sleeping until Andrew and Tony told them.
At first, the Zeas offered him a place to stay a couple nights until they could figure something out. A couple of nights turned into weeks, which turned into months and Diggs permanently staying there.
Jones knew of the Zeas but didn’t know them personally, so naturally she was uncomfortable at first. But John Zea reassured her Vontae was one of their children now. He would go anywhere John went, he would have anything the twins had and he was going to learn how to be a student.
She offered them money and each time they would refuse. It still hurts her a bit that she couldn’t take care of her son, but they were able to provide the stability and give him the father figure that he never had — the father figure Jones said he needed.
As a sophomore in high school, Diggs could finally be a kid and live a normal life. He was also beginning to excel on the football field.
He started three years at linebacker and was the “do-it-all guy” for coach Wander, who would take Diggs to his kids’ baseball games and have him do his homework while his kids, now 12 and 14, would do theirs. When Diggs got his first scholarship offer from the University of Toledo, he could finally see a pathway for himself in the world.
“There was a point in time where I didn’t think I was going to see 18,” he said.
Wander and one of Diggs’ closest friends and high school teammate, Richard Olekanma, said it was the Zea family — who referred to Vontae, Andrew and Tony as the triplets — who changed everything.
“The Zeas really crafted him into the man he is today,” Olekanma said.
Diggs initially committed to Toledo when Olekanma, now a senior at Toledo, told him that’s where he was going to play football. After taking a visit, he didn’t have the same love for the place that Olekanma did, so he decommitted and eventually committed to UConn.
A year later, Diggs was in his dorm room, panicking and crying profusely.
After a year at UConn, he was put on academic probation. The following semester, he didn’t get the grades he needed and was about to be academically dismissed. Every promise he made to his mom and the families who supported him was about to fall through.
“I’ve had many wake-up calls coming into that, but that was the one that I really was like, ‘What? Let’s put all the BS down,’ ” he said. “That was the one where I really started to see things different.”
Diggs was reinstated with the help of academic adviser Ellen Tripp and became a diligent student as he began to emerge as a potential NFL talent, finishing second on the team in tackles in both his junior and senior seasons.
He was able to pull himself out of a hole for the first time in his life because he now had a background of guidance and discipline and had a group of people that encouraged him at home and in Storrs, Conn.
In May, when Diggs found out the Redskins were offering him an undrafted free agent contract, the first call he made was to his mother, then his brother, then the Zeas and Wander.
“You don’t get many success stories,” Wander said.
Two years ago, Diggs got a tattoo on his right shoulder of his family tree — Robin at the top with Jermal, Nancy, John, Tony and Andrew and the Zeas’ youngest, Alex. He said he’d give up football for any of them, most especially his mom.
Jones now manages a nonprofit in Chicago called Pretty Person, which helps women of color in lowerincome communities prepare for job interviews, among other things. She’s currently engaged, and Jermal recently got married. The three of them talk constantly.
He’s much less angry with his mom nowadays and they’ve had plenty of conversations about what they were going through at the time, which has brought them closer.
Jones never fails to thank the Zeas any time she can for the way her boy turned out.
“My heart is just overwhelmed,” she said. “How can you repay somebody for taking in your son and raising him when you couldn’t?”
If football doesn’t work out, Diggs wants to be a counselor for kids and coach for Wander at Downers North because “I know what it’s like to only have three outfits to last you the year, wondering when your next meal is going to be,” he said.
Regardless of financial gains he makes from the game, he knows he can be an inspiration to others.
“Football saved my life,” he said. “Football gave me a direction and taught me a lot of life lessons that I needed to learn at the time.”
When Diggs goes back to Chicago, he still visits his mom, the Zeas and the Wander family — a group of people that can support him more than a park bench.
Vontae Diggs is hoping to make the Washington Redskins’ roster.