A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
IN ELEMENTARY school Stefon Diggs kept his hands stuffed in his pockets. He didn't want the other kids to laugh. An average-sized boy in all other ways, Diggs looked as if he had first baseman's mitts hanging from his wrists. So he buried those hands where no one could see them.
Diggs's father, Aron, also had huge hands. "Bigger than mine," says Stefon, now a 6-foot, 190-pound Maryland receiver with a handshake that feels like an NBA power forward's. The elder Diggs also had outsized expectations for his children. That's why he rode them so hard, why he made them strain for every compliment. That's why he made sure they stayed out of trouble. For Stefon and his younger brother, Trevon, that meant school and football practice and almost nothing else. "That's all," Stefon says. "He didn't even really let us go outside."
And for those few years that Aron, who had health problems that forced him to be mostly a stay-at-home dad, coached Stefon in youth football? He was tough. Tougher than Terrapins coach Randy Edsall, who routinely harangues his best receiver because he knows Stefon can block better, catch better and run better routes. Tougher than receivers coach Keenan McCardell, whose 16 seasons as an NFL wideout give him license to demand the same pursuit of perfection from his players that he demanded from himself. Aron had them beat. "He was the hardest coach I ever had," Stefon says.
And then he was gone.
In January 2008, when Stefon was in eighth grade, Aron, who had been living with a coronary condition, died of congestive heart failure. He was on the transplant list, but his name was never called. Stefon stopped worrying about the size of his hands. He faced a far greater challenge; he had to learn to be a man without his dad. "When I lost my father, I was lost," Stefon says.
He didn't stay lost. He couldn't. Trevon was only nine. "He was a baby," Stefon says. He needed a male role model. Their mother, Stephanie, a customer-service rep for Amtrak, had stayed strong for them as they grappled with the loss, and they needed to be strong for her in return. In the years since '08, Stefon has gone from elite recruit to star college freshman to broken sophomore to determined junior, carrying with him the lessons he learned from Aron's life and death. He has become a man who would make Aron proud.
Stefon's quest now: to tap his vast potential, to spearhead Maryland's entry into the Big Ten and to succeed in the NFL. "To me, he hasn't even scratched the surface of how good he can be," Edsall says. "That's the challenge we have as coaches—to get him to understand the abilities he has and how much better he can be if he follows the formula."
DIGGS DIDN'T need to block well or run precise routes at Good Counsel High in Olney, Md. He could simply streak past everyone. The electricity generated every time Diggs touched the ball drew college coaches from across the country. Florida wanted him. So did USC. Urban Meyer recruited the sophomore Diggs while Meyer was at Florida, and again two years later after the coach had moved to Ohio State. Diggs had so many options that he stretched his recruitment nine days past national signing day in 2012. He chose to stay close to home and go to Maryland, where he could help create success at a program that hadn't had all that much since a 2001 ACC title. "I'm not a following type of guy," Diggs says. "I liked going to a program to help build."
As a freshman Diggs played the same way he had in high school. He was so gifted compared with his teammates, and the Terps' offense was in such dire straits because of quarterback injuries—they had a converted linebacker taking snaps at one point—that any help Diggs could provide was enough. Why run a perfect route when he could simply leap between two Florida State defenders and snag a pass with one of those massive paws? Diggs wound up leading the team in receiving yards (848), kickoff return yards (713) and punt return yards (221). Then, as a sophomore, when Diggs should have been fine-tuning his skills, he spent much of the season in the training room.
On Oct. 19, 2013, Diggs watched fellow receiver Deon Long get carted off the field at Wake Forest with a broken leg. Later, with Maryland trailing and facing fourth-and-five, Diggs caught a short pass. As cornerback Merrill Noel grabbed his legs, Diggs lurched forward to make the first down. He succeeded, but something was wrong with his lower right leg. Filled with adrenaline, he hopped up and tried to get off the field. "I went to go walk on my own," he says, "and all I heard was a lot of cracking in my ankle."
Diggs had become the second Maryland receiver to break a bone in his leg in Winston-Salem, N.C. He and Long, already close, were about to get closer. Banned from the sideline because they couldn't move fast enough to escape further injury if a player crashed into them, Diggs and Long, a junior, became rehab buddies. They competed at everything, from balancing on Swiss balls to holding a wall-squat to racing on crutches. What's crutch racing? "Hop and then put your crutches down," Diggs says. "It's very complicated, but guys find a way to make things work." Who won? "Of course I had to come out on top the majority of the time," Diggs says. Long admits this is true only in the most basic sense. "We only raced like three times," he says. "I kind of sort of slipped one of the times. He might have gotten me two to one."
Diggs and Long pushed each other back to health, and they both returned to action at Byrd Stadium on Aug. 31 in the Terrapins' season-opening 52--7 win over James Madison, in which Diggs had five catches for 53 yards. (Long had two for 48 and a touchdown.) To please their coaches, though, they'll have to perfect the less glamorous aspects of the position. That's why Diggs's current dream scenario doesn't end with the ball in his giant hands. "I want to be the guy running across the field, diving for a block to spring somebody free," Diggs says. "I want to do those little things. I feel like early in my career, I didn't take advantage. Now is the time to do it."
Meanwhile, Diggs will feed advice to Trevon, a 6-foot, 168-pound junior receiver and cornerback at The Avalon School in Gaithersburg, Md. Colleges from across the country want him. Every day Trevon gets a call from Stefon. Often Stefon offers Trevon the same reminders McCardell and Edsall give out in practice. "I want him to be better than me," Stefon says of his brother. "I feel 100% he's going to be better than me. I'm going to demand nothing but greatness from him."
Sounds like something Aron would have said.
For an exclusive interview with Stefon Diggs and some of his coaches and teammates, or to watch any of the Rising Stars series presented by Symetra, go to SI.com/risingstars