From the Streets of Englewood to UConn Graduate, Vontae Diggs’ Incredible Journey

Without football, there is no telling where Vontae Diggs would be today. Hailing from Downers Grove, Illinois via Englewood (Chicago), one of America’s most dangerous neighborhoods, to graduate from college is in and of itself a surprise. With what he’s been through, for him to do it in just three-and-a-half years, is an utter miracle. Diggs has seen it all. He shared stories throughout his UConn career of his childhood and they included anything you can think of in life. Good or bad, Diggs has seen it or been a part of it first hand.

There was homelessness, living in the back seat of an Oldsmobile with his mother and brother. There were street fights that he became involved in for no reason other than to satisfy an uncontrollable rage. While his mother returned to Englewood for a new job, Diggs begged her to let him stay with a family in Chicago’s suburbs who took him in, for fear he literally wouldn’t survive back in the city environment. It was an emotional time for mother and son, but she realized there wasn’t really a choice to be made, as it meant the ultimate well-being of Vontae. So ultimately he landed at the home of two friends, Tony and Andrew, who’s parents, John and Nancy Zea, recognized the need for stability in his life. There, he thrived, getting better grades, turning his life around and earning multiple college scholarship offers.

Since getting to UConn, those that have been around Diggs and have experienced his personality over the course of his career know he’s a different breed. It’s evident he cherishes every moment, taking nothing for granted, knowing where the alternative could have led him. Throughout the ups and downs on the field with the Huskies, he was always upbeat, always willing to share his story and he did so with a smile on his face, seemingly thankful for the present. He’s been through an entire life’s worth of experiences in just over twenty years and has gotten through it because of a sport that has seen a lot of scrutiny in recent times.

“Football has saved my life to be honest with you,” he said over the phone on Saturday afternoon. “The reason I got into football, my brother played and we were going down the wrong path at the time. Football was my release of all the pain and suffering that I was going through in my life as a child. With everything that I went through, I never really thought about making it this far just because kids going through what I was going through and doing the things that I was doing, never really made it. It’s far fetched.”

What ultimately led him to change?

“One day, my high school coach, Coach [John] Wander, sat me down and told me, ‘you have what it takes to make it at the college level, you just need to stop BS’ing and stop doing the things that you’ve been doing,’” Diggs said.

He then got his first offer from Toledo and it hit home that a scholarship and college was a realistic possibility for him.

“That’s when I really started to focus on football,” he said. “I used that to change my life around. [The game has] meant a lot to me. It’s taught me a lot of life lessons. I used it to help the kids below me, the youth in the community. I come back to my high school to teach kids the things I’ve learned, in order to help them. It’s been a tremendous tool for my life.”

REACHING KIDS IN THE COMMUNITY

Diggs hopes to continue to be able to help his community and it was through honing his leadership skills over the last few years, that will aid in that endeavor. He also wants the game that helped shape and make him who he is today, to play a part.

“I want to coach in high school, absolutely,” he said. “But more importantly, I’m deciding between a community organizer or a high school counselor. I’ve been through all walks in life. I think I can get out, touch and reach a lot of people to be able to help them, especially the youth. That’s who I want to work with, especially in Chicago. With all the craziness going on, that’s really my goal in life right there.”

For him, it’s personal.

“Having my mom still live in Englewood, along with a lot of my other family members, when I turn on the news, hear everything that’s going on and talking to them, it’s all with the youth,” Diggs said. “It’s always with the younger aged guys, seventeen years old. They don’t really have positive role models. I’m hoping with my story, I can get out to the city more often and talk to some of these guys and show them that gang banging is not the way you’re going to make it.”

“Hard work is going to get you somewhere and that’s just the bottom line,” he added. “It may not get you to where you want to be, but it’s going to get you further in life. If I can get in and touch one, two or three kids and then they do the same, we’re going to reach a whole neighborhood eventually and that’s the start of change. That’s really my goal.”

Diggs hopes his natural ability to connect with kids will aid in that pursuit and he points directly to his own turnaround and development as to why he’s a believer in what he wants to do.

“I’ve never been a school person, it was always a rough ride with school,” he said. “To be able to get in and out in three-and-a-half years, to me, if you ask anybody around, they would have never thought that was going to happen.”

Miracles happen and Vontae Diggs is living proof.

TRAINING FOR AN IMPORTANT DAY

These days, Diggs is back home in Illinois, getting ready for an important Pro Day in Storrs on March 21st.

“I train in the area at TC Boost, it’s about 40-minutes from me,” Diggs confirmed. “I’m with [RB] Justin Jackson and [S] Godwin Igwebuike from Northwestern. It’s pretty much all Northwestern guys. We are all working and grinding.”

TC Boost is a highly respected training facility where several NFL players have gone to bring their games to another level. Rashard Mendenhall, Napoleon Harris, Justin Tuck, Brandon Carr, Sherrick McMannis, Charles Tillman and countless members of the Chicago Bears have called the facility home during their offseasons’ over the years.

For Diggs, training ahead of Pro Day is of utter importance. It’s an opportunity to prove himself to a large number of professional scouts, particularly after he struggled through a senior season that limited him from the start.

“Lord have mercy,” he responded before pausing when asked if he was ever fully healthy during the 2017 season. “The injury came at the worst possible time for me. Coming off a pretty great season my junior year, second in team tackles, moving up the ladder in team leadership, I put a lot of pressure on myself coming into the summer, just to make sure that we were on board and doing the things that we could do. That injury hurt my mental for a few days there.”

“Physically, when I came back, I was excited, but I did lose a little pep in my step,” he continued. “My energy didn’t go down or anything like that, but physically, I wasn’t the Vontae that I wanted to be. I wasn’t very fluid in my movements at first, a little choppy. I was able to make a few plays here and there, but I still feel that I left plays out there that I shouldn’t have left, just because I didn’t have it with the injury.”

Now?

“I’m back to 100-percent,” he verified. “I’m moving well. If you know who Justin Jackson is, I feel like I can keep up with him a little bit, him being one of the best running backs in the country.”

Jackson excelled for the Wildcats this year and went down in the Big Ten record-books as only the second back to gain at least 1,000-yards in each of his four seasons, the other being Ron Dayne. He also went down as the all-time leading rusher in Northwestern history. Diggs being able to compete with him on the level, is promising.

He also recognizes some of the limitations that plagued him over the last year and is working with his trainer, Tommy Christian, to correct some of those issues. It’s an effort to make him standout on Pro Day.

“[Tommy] has a program that has a lot of premiere guys that have come through here,” Diggs said. “I got in and he’s already gotten my first step a lot faster and fixed my running form, so I run more efficiently, gain more ground and have more power in my steps. Obviously, we work drills and my bag drills have become cleaner, my hand drills are a lot cleaner, everything has just gotten more efficient, less useless body movements.”

His agent and trainer, who is respected across the league, has had conversations about Diggs on his behalf.

“I haven’t talked to any scouts directly,” Diggs confirmed. “A lot of them talk about me in space, how well I move in space and they are looking for people with my body type and my speed. I’ve heard a mixture that I’m fast and I’m slow, all in one. I can understand why they said I was slow with the film I put on this year coming back from injury. I didn’t feel at my best, but I had to get in and make it count.”

“I’m not really worried about what the scouts are saying right now,” he continued. “Pro Day is really the day you make your money. I’m going to show out, with Foley [Fatukasi] there, June-Bug [Junior Joseph], Luke [Carrezola], Cole [Ormsby], Arkeel [Newsome], there are going to be premiere guys there that are going to bring in the scouts. I just need to go out there and make my name.”

With over a month left to finish preparations, he still has some things he wants to work on.

“I really want to improve my upper-body strength,” he said. “I’ve never really been the strongest guy on the field, but I’ve been strong enough to handle myself and keep myself from getting swallowed up the majority of the time. I’ve been working on my 225-lb bench press. My numbers have jumped dramatically already just working with the training staff.”

“I also want to work on my change of direction,” he added. “Sometimes I feel like I’m real choppy or slow out of my breaks. I’ve been working on my body posture, my angles and being able to get in and out real quick. Obviously, my first step, I’ve never been the quickest in a 1-yard race, so my first step, any direction, 360-degrees, I feel like I’ve been tremendously progressing in that area. I’ve just been working on everything. I look at my film still, just taking notes on what I can do better.”

THE UCONN EXPERIENCE AND A NEW FAMILY

Coming to UConn from Chicago, Diggs started anew in Storrs. He quickly grew close to teammates and coaches, searching out people he could rely on and he found plenty that fit the bill.

“Getting to college, a couple guys, Marquise Vann, Cam Stapleton, who is only a 5th year, they helped me a lot,” he said.

Coaching wise?

“Coach Dex [Anthony Poindexter],” he said. “Even though he was the DB’s coach, he was my big brother really. I could go to him with any problem that I had. He had me at his house numerous times. His wife and his kids, that’s my family and I love them to death.”

He also pointed to his incoming recruiting class holding a tight bond that helped him adjust as well.

“Even for the ones that aren’t at UConn, who played ball elsewhere, whatever walk of life they decided to choose, they are all my brothers,” he said. “We went through hell and back to say the least with them.”

“With Coach Balis, Coach Diaco, that staff, they really pushed us physically and mentally, to the limits and sometimes even over the edge,” he added. “Coach Balis, the man, the myth, the legend, is a great strength coach. Coach Diaco did his thing, even though the record didn’t say. He was a brilliant defensive coach. He taught me the playbook inside and out. Me and him, 99-percent of the time during games, we were on the same page. I may not have made every play, but I knew what I was supposed to do before he could say what I was supposed to do.”

That work with the playbook gave him a deeper understanding of the game and it also let him expand his reach with some of the younger guys on the team. It turned him into a leader.

“When I became one of the guys that knew the playbook, I decided myself that it was time for me to step up and help the guys below me because the more depth you have, the better you are going to do, in my opinion,” he said. “To be able to help the younger guys when they came in was a huge thing for me.”

That carried over to this season with head coach Randy Edsall. Once Diggs went down and needed surgery on his knee during training camp, he knew he still needed to help out in any way he could.

“Obviously with my injury and not being able to play, I couldn’t just sit on the sideline,” he said. “I had to be involved, someway, somehow. I talked to Coach Edsall and I asked if I could go help the scout guys while I was hurting, if that was possible and he gave me the blessing. So Darrian Beavers, TJ [Gardner] and Ryan Gilmartin, I had to make sure they were on point and they knew what they were doing because they were going to play for us. I think they did one helluva job when they got in.”

It’s only been just over a month since leaving UConn, but he’s already missing his former teammates.

“I was talking to a couple of them, Arkeel, James Atkins, who’s a redshirt senior this year and Cole [Ormsby],” he said. “That’s the worst part about leaving school, you’re no longer with your guys. Those guys know you inside and out and sometimes they know you better than you know yourself.”

MEMORABLE UCONN MOMENTS AND A FRUSTRATING SENIOR SEASON

When the topic switched to reminiscing about the best moments he experienced at UConn, both on and off the field, it’s no surprise what Diggs mentioned was his favorite in between the lines. Undefeated team, ranked, bowl eligibility on the line for a program that hadn’t made an appearance in the postseason since January 1, 2011, at home, it’s an easy choice.

“It had to have been when we beat Houston,” he said. “When we came out of the tunnel at the beginning of the game, the energy from the crowd was second to none, compared to any other football game I’ve been in. Sometimes during the game, you had to look up and just embrace what you were going through. It was one of those wow moments, looking up at all the people watching, feeling the energy that they were giving off. Actually beating them and then everyone storming the field, it was unexplainable. Everyone was hyped up, we beat a ranked team, it was a wild moment, certainly the best moment of my entire football career. That was one of my best moments in life.”

It’s also no surprise what he said was his favorite off the field, an opportunity to give back in the community.

“When I went to go speak at one of the homeless shelters, that was one of the most humbling experiences ever,” Diggs said. “Talking about my childhood and upbringing, I was able to reach older men in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and above. Having my story help guys continue to fight that were down for so long, that was a blessing and a half.”

Looking back on his senior year, Diggs felt the team didn’t come close to their true potential, closing his career with a 3-9 record in his final year at UConn.

“Honestly, we had a lot of talent,” Diggs said. “Jamar [Summers], Arkeel, Cole, Foley, Junior, EJ [Levenberry], we had a whole bunch of guys, it’s ridiculous. Bryant Shirreffs, he had his own reasons not to play ball any longer, but I think he was one of the best quarterbacks in the country before he decided to stop playing. We had some talent. Our record doesn’t speak to how good we really are. We had a lot of players on that team and in this conference, it’s nothing but players. I think we could have done something had we got our act together as a whole, that’s the one thing we were missing. The stars were the limit for us. I honest to God believe that.”

During the transition between coaching staffs, Diggs recognized there’s more the group, the players themselves, could have done in order to have seen more success on the field a year ago.

“Your first year in a coaching change is always the hardest,” he said. “I only went through one, but talking to the 5th years who had three or four different coaches with Coach Pasqualoni, the interim and then Coach Diaco and now Coach Edsall, it was crazy. You had spring ball, just learning how they coach, then half the summer is just figuring out the play book and learning how they coach. Come game time, it’s a lot different because you’re used to one style. Towards the tail end, more guys started to believe in Coach’s message.”

“It’s sad that it took eight or nine games to get on board as a whole, but I believe in talking to the guys that are still there, they really are on board and they are enjoying it,” he continued. “I liked the staff that we had. I liked the guys we had and if I could go back and do it all over again, I would. Only thing that I would change is getting more guys on to believe. I wouldn’t change the energy or anything else, just the belief. If we all got behind it from day one, we would have been okay.”

He had one last message before we ended.

“UConn was life changing,” he said. “I absolutely loved UConn. I love Connecticut, I love the fans, the organization. I really do Bleed Blue. It’s been nothing but a wild ride. There were a lot of ups-and-downs, but it was more than worth it. If anyone ever has a chance to go to UConn and be a part of what we have going on in Storrs, I’d definitely tell them to go do it.”

MATT SCHONVISKY / SITE CREATOR

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