For the Red­skins’ Diggs, a jour­ney from home­less to a shot at the NFL

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - BY JA­COB MY­ERS

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.”

Mov­ing around

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.

Sta­bil­ity

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.

Turn­ing point

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.

SHELBY LUM/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Von­tae Diggs is hop­ing to make the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins’ ros­ter.

SHELBY LUM/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

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