The subject turns to fashion, as Stefon Diggs’ black Mercedes S550 nears Terminal 1 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and the wide receiver shares what might seem an unlikely source of inspiration to anyone but him.
“It’s so cool when you see kids go in their closet and pick out stuff that they like,” he said. “Like, you’ll see a kid in basketball shorts and rain boots; I’m not saying I would go that far, but stuff like that. You talk about creativity — wear what you like.”
After he broke his ankle in 2013, Diggs had more time to pursue his interest in fashion, and now, as often as not, his Instagram account shows off his style: Diggs posing for New York photographer Ben Ritter in a heart-patterned black JW Anderson leather jacket, the receiver checking his cellphone in a white hoodie, denim jacket, green Adidas pants and snakeskin Bapesta sneakers.
He doesn’t use a stylist, he says; he purely picks clothes out of his closet based on what he likes, and little else.
“My stuff doesn’t match, but it looks pretty nice,” he said Wednesday. “I find whatever I’m comfortable in, and I go from there — because people really wear clothes for other people, but I wear what I like. You think about it — somebody says they don’t like what you wear, right? And I’m like, ‘Well, I didn’t wear it for you; I wore it because I wanted to wear it.’ Your opinion on how it looks really wouldn’t matter, because I’m comfortable.”
The glimpse into Diggs’ wardrobe is also a window into free-spirited ways that greet many of the conventions of his position with a raised eyebrow. The man who made perhaps the most iconic play in franchise history — by turning for the end zone last January to beat the Saints with a playoff touchdown when conventional wisdom said to step out of bounds and set up a game-winning field goal — has little need to contort himself to fit views of who he should be.
Diggs calls himself a homebody who doesn’t like to drink and is content to relax at his house near the Vikings’ facility in Eagan watching “The Office” or “Family Guy” reruns on Netflix — why should he spend his free time at nightclubs with a glass in his hand? He sticks mostly to a close group of friends from the Washington, D.C., area he’s known since he was 15, and quietly sizes up the people who enter his life now that he’s got an ESPY award and a Geico commercial. Why does he need a big crew of newcomers?
“I’ve had the same friends for eight to 10 years. Anybody new after that, you might see them every once in a while, but man, we ain’t that tight,” he said. “I’m not a huge new-friend guy. Keeping that same circle of friends keeps me grounded. They’ll also tell me when I’m wrong, and I appreciate that accountability.”
In one breath, the 24-year-old calls himself “such a stuck-in-my-ways old man.” In the next, he talks about how his offseason hobbies now consist of “trying to find things to be scared of.” He made plans to swim with sharks this offseason, before he ran out of time; though he kept the photos off Instagram, he went skydiving near Los Angeles last summer before he signed his five-year, $72 million contract.
“I want to go bungee-jumping — all these things I’m not supposed to be doing,” he said with a loud laugh. “I’m not a gambler, because I’m going to go put all my money on black. I’m going to go all-in. It’s kind of like football; I don’t know how to go halfway or do certain things in moderation. You can’t halfway bungee-jump. You can’t halfway skydive. For me, it’s pushing myself and letting myself know there’s nothing to be scared of.”
How Diggs came by such a fully formed version of himself, a month before his 25th birthday, might have something to do with how quickly he was forced to grow up: His father, Aron, died because of congestive heart failure almost 10 years to the day before Diggs’ infamous touchdown, telling the teenager to look after his sister and younger brothers.
With schools across the country offering Diggs scholarships as the nation’s No. 1 recruit, he chose to stay close to home and play for Maryland, enduring an injury-plagued career for three Terrapins teams that never finished better than 7-6. As Diggs was suspended for his role in a pregame scuffle with Penn State during his junior year and whispers about his character as a teammate — which the receiver surmised had to have come from Maryland — surfaced before the draft, he slipped to the fifth round, where the Vikings picked him 146th overall in 2015.
Now, Diggs and Adam Thielen comprise one of the NFL’s most prolific receiving duos, with both on pace for more than 100 catches this season. Diggs’ new deal will help him take care of his mother, Stephanie, who worked nearly three decades on traveling shifts for Amtrak and raised her kids after the death of her husband.
He’s happy with a team that he said looked beyond his pre-draft reputation and took the time to get to know him. And Diggs has no intention of slowing down.
“He was a little bit immature, but everybody has to grow up,” said Jaguars receivers coach Keenan McCardell, whom Diggs credits with teaching him how to get open while McCardell coached him at Maryland. “I love the way he’s carrying himself now. He’s grown up; he’s become a professional. Adam Thielen’s there, and they’re great together. Both guys have that same edge — that edge of, ‘You’re not kicking me out of this thing.’ ”
‘You’ve got to keep going’
From the time he was old enough to understand what football was, Diggs knew he wanted to play. He would run around his house carrying a ball as a kid, going to his half-brother’s games and waiting for the day his turn would come.
He was a few months shy of his sixth birthday when he asked his parents to allow him to play in a 6-year-old league; when they agreed to sign the waiver, “it was like the best birthday present I could have had,” Diggs said.
“Getting into it was enough for me,” he said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do before I got to play. I was like, ‘Regardless of how it shakes out, this is what we’re doing for a long time.’ ”
His father, Diggs said, “was a pretty aggressive man” — measuring 6 feet 4 and weighing around 260 pounds, coaching his kids not to cry when they fell but to get up and keep going. He drove them hard enough that Stephanie Diggs wished he wouldn’t coach them, “but I didn’t mind,” Stefon said.
By the time he was in fifth grade, Stefon had attracted enough attention in Washington’s Maryland suburbs that private high schools were watching him. He was thriving on the football field, first as a quarterback and then as a running back, and while his father would go to the hospital because of heart issues for a month at a time, his feet swollen with gout, Stefon learned to live with the hospital stays, knowing his dad would always come home.
Then, when Stefon was in eighth grade, Aron sat him down and told him he wouldn’t be coming back.
“He was sitting on the edge of my brother’s bed, and my little brother was asleep behind me,” Stefon Diggs said. “He was like, ‘I’m going to go to the hospital,’ and he explained to me he wasn’t coming out. At that moment, I was crying, and he told me, ‘At this point, there’s not a lot to cry about. I’m going to need you to look after your little brothers, and look after your family.’ At that moment, I knew, because he said it with so much conviction. I’d never really seen him cry, but at that moment, he was crying.”
By the time doctors took his father off life support at the hospital, Stefon knew he had to change his mind-set. His family was crying; he had stopped, knowing by this point that no tears would bring Aron back.
“That was the trick for me: losing what I thought was all I had, and having to adjust after that,” he said. “For me now, it’s not hard. You’ve got to keep going.”
He honored Aron’s wishes and attended Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md., starring on a team that also included Rams defensive back Blake Countess, as well as Chiefs defensive backs Kendall Fuller and Dorian O’Daniel.
“He would warm up the QB before practice, and the quarterback would be throwing these spirals,” said Bob Milloy, Diggs’ high school coach. “He would catch it by one hand, by the point. He’s got huge hands, and very strong hands. You just never saw him drop a big pass.”
With scholarship offers flooding in from around the country, Diggs chose to attend Maryland, where he could remain in the D.C. area and help out his family.
If the decision was the right one personally, it proved to be a difficult one for his football career. Diggs never played in a New Year’s Day bowl game, scored only three touchdowns as a sophomore before breaking his ankle and became the only player suspended for refusing to shake the hands of Penn State’s captains before a Nov. 1, 2014, game in which Diggs also lacerated one of his kidneys.
“It was a group thing — I just had to take the beef,” he said. “I had to play the bad guy; I got suspended and I ended up lacerating my kidney. That’s why I feel like I probably fell [in the draft].”
He knew he wouldn’t be a first-round pick, but Diggs figured he’d go on Day 2 of the 2015 draft, when his family organized a party to celebrate his selection. The party came and ended without a call from a team, as receivers such as Devin Smith, Dorial Green-Beckham and Jaelen Strong went off the board.
“I’m like, ‘They’re not better than me,’ ” Diggs said. “I know they’re not better than me. I’ve seen them. And I’m an honest person — if somebody’s better than me, I don’t mind saying it. The next day, I went to go work out. I said, ‘I’m not going to sit in the house all day. I can use the time I’m waiting for a phone call to go work out.’ ”
When the call came to notify Diggs he’d be the 19th receiver selected, the team on the other end of the line turned out to be exactly what he needed.
At home in Minnesota
Ask Diggs now what he appreciates most about the Vikings, and he’s as quick to mention the openness and candor in the organization, from teammates and coaches to people such as player development director Les Pico, as he is the team’s on-field success.
The Vikings, he said, were the team that saw beyond chatter about him being a prima donna, got to know him and gave him a chance — to the point where, Diggs said, team officials sounded almost stunned as they told him how much he differed from his reputation.
In Thielen, he has found an ideal counterpart: an undrafted free agent with a desire to prove people wrong and a willingness to accept hard criticism if it helped him improve.
“We’ve built up a level of trust with one another, that we can be completely honest with one another,” Thielen said. “If we think the other person’s not running a good route, we can talk to them about it and we’re not worried about hurting their feelings, because I think we both understand we’re in it to be the best football players we possibly can be.”
Of the 18 receivers who went before Diggs in the draft, only one — fourth overall pick Amari Cooper — has more yards or touchdowns.
Still, he frequently texts wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell on Monday nights after games, asking him to point out other ways he can improve, from driving at the ball to cut down its flight time in the air to improving the already-sublime route-running skills he honed with McCardell.
“We texted about it for 20 minutes [on Monday],” Hazell said. “He says, ‘I’m here. I’m a sponge. I want to know more. I want to be better.’ He has not mastered them yet.”
As Diggs pulls up to the baggage claim level at Terminal 1 to pick up a friend, he chuckles about the drivers who turn snarly with him as he waits for his passenger.
“It’s that Minnesota stuff,” he said. “People get real attitudes with me when I’m driving. It’s semi-road rage. I guess it has to go somewhere.”
On this day, the drivers are Diggs’ only complaint. The receiver who hates the cold doesn’t want to play football anywhere else, and the man who craves relationships with deep levels of understanding found them in a state known for its passive-aggressiveness.
It all makes sense to him. If it doesn’t make sense to someone else, that’s their problem.
“I don’t force myself into categories of doing things the way everybody else wants them done,” Diggs said. “Teamwise, I try to stay within my team. But outside of that, let me show my creativity. Let me show who I really am. People barely like you as is, or people judge you as is. Why not give them something else to talk about?”