By Jeff Barker
The Baltimore Sun
3:10 PM EDT, August 4, 2013
Stefon Diggs' poignant words are echoing in cyberspace. They are like cries in the darkness.
"I just wanna hear his voice," Maryland's best football player says in a Twitter message directed to no one and everyone. "Show him everything I've done and how far I've came."
The 19-year-old receiver's posts about his late father come in bursts. Only those close to Diggs — who had one of the most prolific freshman seasons in Terps history in 2012 — know the powerful back story.
They know Aron Diggs — a bear of a man at 6-3, 230 pounds whose nickname was "Big A" — applied tough love to Stefon and younger brother Trevon as he groomed them to be football players from the age of 4. They know he continued to coach his sons in a Montgomery County youth football league even as his heart condition worsened and his energy diminished, often reducing him to sitting on a chair on the sideline. As the illness progressed, he'd ask his wife, Stephanie, for reports from his hospital bed on the boys' games.
Aron (pronounced AY-Ron) Diggs died of congestive heart failure in January 2008 at age 39 waiting for a heart transplant that never came.
In the two years before his death, Stefon cut and combed his father's hair and buckled his watch around his wrist. His father had always kept an orderly appearance, and Stefon didn't want him to lose his dignity even as he was losing his health.
My father did a good job while he was alive — Stefon Diggs on Twitter, June 12
It would be hard to overstate how much Aron Diggs' life — and death — influenced his sons. Even as they mourn his loss, they still seem to somehow be seeking his affirmation. He was often slow to dish out praise, making any compliment a valuable commodity.
Last season, Stefon, who is listed at 6-1, 195 pounds, caught 54 passes for 848 yards and finished with the second-most all-purpose yards (1,896) in a single season in program history. Maryland, coming off a 4-8 season, opens training camp Monday.
Trevon — who wears the same jersey number ("1") as his older brother — is a slim, wildly athletic cornerback, receiver and returner at Rockville's Wootton High School. He has already received offers from Maryland and Virginia and attention from Nebraska and other top football schools, according to Tyree Spinner, his coach.
"I have to say Aron put all this together," Stephanie Diggs, 46, said recently of her sons' success as she sat next to Trevon at Wootton, where he is entering his sophomore season.
"Growing up, they only knew football and school. They didn't even know the kids in the neighborhood — it was that strict," the mother said. "It's funny how you look back. They were trick-or-treating once and Stefon had on a Power Ranger outfit, and my husband looked at me and said, 'He's going to make it to the [National Football] League.' "
Aron Diggs was mostly a stay-at-home dad who tried to start several businesses but was unable to work in the years before his death. He sensed early that his sons had prodigious football talent, but he was determined that they not be prima donnas. He wanted them always to be striving for something.
"He was a menacing guy if you didn't know him," said Garrett King, who coached with Aron in the Montgomery Village Chiefs youth football program. "He may have been tougher on his boys than anyone. He was so tough on them that my wife was like, 'You've got to talk to Coach Aron.' But it was a shell. He was tough, but he was fair and he got the most out of his players. At the end of the year, he'd go into his own pocket and buy the kids things."
Aron Diggs, who had played Amateur Athletic Union basketball, was known for his large hands. That is also a hallmark of his sons.
Stefon's hands are so large they appear almost mismatched — as if they should be attached to a much larger body.
Trevon, who is 14 and still growing — he played last season at 155 pounds but says he is now up to 170 — is already wearing the largest size (XXL) Cutters gloves for his position.
Trevon, who also aspires to play in the NFL, has instinctive moves and an "uncanny ability to read the ball in the air. He's going to be a tired kid on Friday night," said Spinner, who plans to use the player on offense, defense and as a returner.
What better way to make your father proud than to be more of a man than him — Stefon Diggs on Twitter, June 25
Stefon and Trevon rarely seem satisfied with their results on the field. Those who know them say they internalized that trait from their demanding father.
Last season, Stefon sometimes brooded after defeats. Animated and emotional on the field, he occasionally made mistakes — such as fumbling a punt in a win at Temple — trying to do too much.
His teammates would tell him to forget about any miscues and move on to the next play. Most of them marvel at his pass-catching skills and the ease with which he eludes defenders. "I've never been around an athlete like him," quarterback C.J. Brown said.
He's made mistakes off the field, too, but is maturing. Before arriving at Maryland, he apologized for a racially insensitive tweet about NBA point guard Jeremy Lin. "Not saying I was a bad kid, but I had a lot to learn. You've just got to not be impulsive," he said last season.
Said his mother: "I mean, all kids get in trouble for high school — little boy, mischievous stuff."
As his Maryland career began, Stefon wore a tattoo. On the inside of one arm, close to his chest, was the word "self." The word "made" was in the same spot on the other arm.
Asked if he wanted to elaborate on being "self-made," Diggs replied: "It's self-explanatory."
The subject of his father's death didn't come up in interviews with Stefon last year. Neither son talks much about their father's passing. The topic still seems too raw. "The kids are still very sensitive and grieving," the mother said.
Ironically, the forum in which both sons seem to share the most about their loss is on Twitter — a particularly public medium.
"He thinks out loud," Stephanie Diggs said of Stefon. "Being that young, that's probably the way he processes it. He's learning how to express what he was feeling. He's straightforward, just like his father."
Maryland declined to make Stefon available this summer before camp opened, although he was interviewed during spring practices and last season.
Trevon's Twitter page says "RiP Dad."
He was in the fourth grade when his father died. He and the rest of the family treasure a football in the basement signed by Aron and the members of one of his youth teams.
His father's memory "motivates me to do well every day on and off the field," Trevon said.
I want her to never have to work again — Stefon Diggs tweeting about his mother, May 12.
Tucked away in the Diggs' North Potomac townhome are two large bins. They are stuffed with letters, stickers, calendars and photographs from Florida, Auburn and other leading football schools.
Stephanie Diggs holds on to the bins' contents as keepsakes of a frenetic period when Stefon was one of the nation's most heavily recruited high school athletes.
Aron surely would have loved managing his son's recruitment. After his death, the task fell to his widow.
She already had, in effect, two full-time jobs — raising the boys (an older daughter had already graduated high school) and working as a customer service representative for a corporation in Washington.
Handling Stefon's recruitment was akin to a third job. But she was determined to do it right. "I'm hands on," said the former high school and college basketball player who grew up in Alexandria, Va.
Long partial to basketball, she has grown to love football because of her husband and sons. After being interviewed, she playfully tossed a football to Trevon and extended her left arm to strike a mock Heisman Trophy statue pose.
She traveled with Stefon on visits to Florida and Ohio State, where students at a basketball game chanted his name. "I thought I should do the presidential wave or something," she said.
She said Auburn sent a photo depicting its scoreboard with Stefon's image on it.
She said she was comfortable with Maryland — whose fans also chanted "Stefon" and "Diggs" at a basketball game at Comcast Center — because she considers coach Randy Edsall tough enough to hold her son "accountable."
Stefon — who peeks into Byrd Stadium's parents section behind Maryland's bench to spot his mother before games — also said he liked Maryland because he could remain geographically close to Trevon.
"That's my little rock," Stefon said. "I look after him."
One thing I don't play about is my family — Stefon Diggs on Twitter, June 12
After Aron died, Stefon became "a father figure" to his brother, Stephanie Diggs said.
They still often work out together — the two No. 1s running sprints and practicing routes and footwork in the summer heat.
Asked what football players — college or pro — he most emulates, Trevon quickly replies: "My brother."
But he is also eager to establish his own identity. That's a big reason why he opted for public school instead of attending Good Counsel, as Stefon did, or another private school.
After wearing the same number as Stefon for years, Trevon has flirted with the idea of changing it. He arrived for a recent interview with his hair dyed partially blonde — the color that Stefon and former LSU defensive back Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu have sometimes sported. Trevon said he has been considering switching to Mathieu's No. 7.
"I'm trying to basically create my own name," Trevon said. "It's probably not going to work if I have the same number as him. It's some big shoes to fill."
Whether they share a number or not, they'll always have the same commanding role model — their father.
"He was always with his sons. Always," Stephanie Diggs said. "It's just really important for Stefon and Trevon to make sure their father gets credit."
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