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Faith, friendships helped Navy LB Diego Fagot persevere amidst three losing seasons, pandemic: ‘It’s taken a lot of hard work’

Inside linebacker Diego Fagot, tackling Central Florida's Amal Johnson during a game Oct. 2, has been a transformational figure for the Navy football program.
Inside linebacker Diego Fagot, tackling Central Florida's Amal Johnson during a game Oct. 2, has been a transformational figure for the Navy football program. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Above all else, Diego Fagot is a man of great faith.

That Christian faith and trust in God is what led Fagot to choose the Naval Academy despite some serious reservations and to remain in Annapolis amidst an historic pandemic along with uncertainty about whether he’ll get a chance to pursue professional football.

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Whenever Fagot has an important decision to make, he prays on it and follows whatever his spiritual spirit senses.

Fagot readily admits Navy was “pretty low on my list” when he was being recruited by college football programs while at Calvary Christian Academy in Florida. However, other schools began dropping off the list for various reasons.

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Fagot didn’t want to play defensive end, so Pittsburgh was scratched. He was about to take an official visit to Illinois when the Big Ten school pulled its scholarship offer. Central Florida stopped showing interest when the standout linebacker did not commit after taking an official visit.

“To be honest, I didn’t really want to come to the academy,” Fagot said. “Then I took a visit [to Annapolis] and really enjoyed it – loved the campus as well as the coaches and players.

“Obviously, I knew it was high level academics and the football was great.”

Suddenly, the Fort Lauderdale resident began thinking more seriously about Navy. He drove up to Jacksonville in 2016 and watched Navy beat Notre Dame, coming away very impressed and even more intrigued.

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Landing Fagot, a three-time all-state selection in talent-laden Florida, was a recruiting coup for Navy. The former Broward County Player of the Year has more than lived up to his advanced billing during an incredibly productive four-year varsity career.

Fagot enters his final college game with 273 career tackles, one of the highest totals in Navy football history. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound inside linebacker ranks sixth in Navy history with 35 ½ tackles for loss and also has 9 ½ sacks, seven pass deflections and five forced fumbles.

However, Fagot did not know how to respond when asked last week if he had left a legacy as a Navy football player.

“Playing here, it’s hard to think about your legacy. The whole time you’re part of this program you’re thinking about how you can help the team win and honor all those that come before,” Fagot said.

“I think about Taylor Heflin who wore No. 54 before me. I wanted to play so hard and make a lot of tackles, so I could one day look Taylor in the eye one day and feel like I made him proud.”

Fagot is a three-time All-American Athletic Conference selection, sandwiching first-team honors as a sophomore and senior around a second-team selection as a junior. He figures to be a repeat winner of the prestigious Tony Rubino Silver Helmet Award, presented annually by the Touchdown Club of Annapolis to Navy’s most outstanding player.

Along the way, Fagot has solidified himself as a bonafide pro prospect and most analysts project him being picked in the middle to late rounds of the 2022 NFL draft. Of course, the highest honor came last May when Fagot was voted by teammates as one of four captains for Navy football.

“You hope and pray to become a starter and a captain and to receive accolades, but it’s never anything you expect,” Fagot said. “None of that stuff just happens. It’s taken a lot of hard work.”

While Fagot would never say so himself, the reality is he has been a transformative figure for Navy football. Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry has said many times that Fagot is the exact prototype of what any football team, college or pro, is looking for to play inside linebacker.

Before playing Navy, then-Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly called Fagot one of the “top five linebackers we’ve played against” and that he could start for any Power Five conference program.

Navy inside linebackers coach P.J. Volker raves about Fagot’s remarkably high motor, natural understanding of the game and ability to read and react.

“Throughout a game, Diego is analyzing [opponent’s] feet, eyes, alignment. He recognizes when an offense is telling you something,” Volker said earlier this season. “He takes great angles to the ball and is violent on impact.”

Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry has said many times that Diego Fagot, pictured, is the exact prototype of what any football team, college or pro, is looking for to play inside linebacker.
Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry has said many times that Diego Fagot, pictured, is the exact prototype of what any football team, college or pro, is looking for to play inside linebacker. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Fort Lauderdale to Annapolis

Fagot was home-schooled by his mother, Annemarie, an English teacher who has taught in Florida public schools as well as on the Navajo Reservation and in Central America as a missionary. His father, Dean, was a three-sport high school athlete who went on to play football at Southeastern Louisiana.

“My parents were a really good tandem as far providing a different type of influence,” Fagot said. “My mom was my teacher and the reason I’m an English major here, while my dad was my coach.”

Diego Fagot is the fourth of seven children and was took plenty of licks while playing backyard sports against three older brothers. All were outstanding athletes and David Fagot played basketball at Covenant College.

“I think the biggest thing my brothers taught me was how to be a competitor,” Fagot said. “You always want to beat your siblings and my older brothers wouldn’t let me.”

Navy fans would be surprised to know Fagot considered himself more of a baseball player up until the ninth grade. He transformed into a big-time football player at Calvary Christian, which the Fagot family handpicked because it welcomed athletes that are home-schooled.

Fagot would also excel in track and field, capturing consecutive Class 2A state championships in the shot put. He earned a total of 10 letters as a three-sport athlete, playing baseball in the spring.

Spending the 2017-18 academic year at the Naval Academy Prep School was a culture shock for Fagot, who was unaccustomed to attending classes and was not at all prepared for the winters in Newport, Rhode Island, after never living outside south Florida.

Fagot made it through by leaning on that aforementioned faith and friendships he built with future Navy teammates such as Mychal Cooper, J’arius Warren, Tyger Goslin and Tommy Lawley.

As a plebe in Annapolis, Fagot adjusted to playing “raider” — a hybrid outside linebacker position for the Midshipmen. He played in every game and started against archrival Army, showing glimpses of the dominant defender he would become.

Newberry was hired as defensive coordinator during the offseason and did not need to watch too much tape before switching Fagot to inside linebacker. The wisdom of that decision was immediately evident during spring practice as the youngster was a one-man wrecking crew repeatedly disrupting the Navy option offense.

Volker said Fagot delivered one of the most dominating performances he’s ever seen during the second intrasquad scrimmage that spring. “You’d had to been blind not to see we had something special,” he said.

That spring foreshadowed a breakout sophomore season for Fagot, who started all 13 games at the Mike inside linebacker spot and led Navy with 100 tackles, 12 of which went for loss and 5 ½ that produced sacks. He capped that strong season by being named Defensive MVP of the Liberty Bowl after Navy upset Kansas State to complete an 11-2 campaign that included the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.

“I was grateful the coaching staff put me back at inside linebacker because I felt much more comfortable. It was like being back in the saddle,” Fagot said.

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“Ultimately it came down to the people here — my teammates, coaches and everyone else who was around me here at the academy,” inside linebacker Diego Fagot said when asked why he stayed at Navy. “I felt like I had started something I couldn’t quit. I couldn’t turn my back on the guys I’d gone through everything with.”
“Ultimately it came down to the people here — my teammates, coaches and everyone else who was around me here at the academy,” inside linebacker Diego Fagot said when asked why he stayed at Navy. “I felt like I had started something I couldn’t quit. I couldn’t turn my back on the guys I’d gone through everything with.” (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Dealing with losing, a pandemic

Sadly, that would be only winning season Fagot experienced as a Navy football player. The Midshipmen own a combined record of 9-25 in the other three seasons, including 0-5 against Air Force and Army.

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That is why Saturday’s showdown with archrival Army at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, is a must-win for the senior class.

“It leaves a bad taste in my mouth whenever we lose. It makes me sick to my stomach when we get beat by the other two service academies,” Fagot said. “Obviously, it would mean an awful lot to get this one. Beating Army would be the absolute best way to end my career.”

Life at the Naval Academy was simply miserable throughout the pandemic, which began during the 2020 spring semester. Fagot and his classmates faced the unique challenge of signing their two-for-seven paperwork during a time when the academy was on lockdown and midshipmen were restricted to their dormitory rooms in Bancroft Hall.

A significant number of Navy football players left the academy rather than commit to two more years in Annapolis and five years of military service. Fagot was among those who considered entering the transfer portal and was even contacted by coaches from major conference schools despite not doing so.

“Ultimately it came down to the people here — my teammates, coaches and everyone else who was around me here at the academy,” Fagot said when asked why he stayed. “I felt like I had started something I couldn’t quit. I couldn’t turn my back on the guys I’d gone through everything with.”

Dean Fagot was well aware of the mental challenges his son was going through as a result of spending way too much time in isolation. He revealed that Diego would sneak into the Navy weight room in the middle of the night and lift without the lights.

“I’m so impressed by the leadership characteristics Diego has developed during his time at the academy,” Dean said. “I’ve had so many mothers come up to me and say ‘thanks to your son’ for mentoring my son who is an underclassman.”

Army Navy game logo 2021
Army Navy game logo 2021 (Courtesy Photo)

Fagot is grateful for the constant support of sponsors Bill and Barbara McKinney, who he says have been “fundamental in keeping me here.” Bill McKinney, captain of the 1970 Navy football team, is senior pastor at Mariners Church and has been conducting weekly bible study sessions at the academy for more than two decades.

Barbara McKinney would prepare food that she passed to Fagot through the Naval Academy gates during the pandemic. Fagot lived at the McKinney home last summer while participating in offseason strength and conditioning workouts.

“My wife and I absolutely love Diego, who has become like family,” McKinney said. “I think Diego has grown a lot over the last four years here at the academy, not just athletically but also academically, militarily and spiritually.”

Fagot is a leader of the Thursday night bible study that is now held inside the new Terwilliger Student-Athlete Center. It routinely attracts 20 to 30 Navy football players.

“I think Diego understands the key quality in life is humility. He has a humble heart,” McKinney said. “I love his devotion to the Lord and passion for God’s word.”

This season has been especially difficult for Fagot, who has played almost every single defensive snap and is also a member of several special teams. He has been the heart and soul of the defense as well as the unquestioned leader, especially since co-captain and starting safety Kevin Brennan suffered a season-ending injury.

Fagot has started alongside four different inside linebackers, with the latest being freshman Colin Ramos. He has to be careful to not try to do too much for a unit loaded with sophomores and freshmen.

“Diego is very hard on himself. He’s also like a sheep dog who wants to keep everyone safe and going in the right direction,” Annemarie Fagot said. “Diego has learned to move on whenever he makes a bad play and to just control what he can control.”

Fagot will be commissioned as a Marine Corps officer and is looking forward to serving, hopefully after a lengthy NFL career. He has been invited to play in the East-West Shrine Bowl and is hopeful of also getting a chance to impress scouts at the Senior Bowl.

“I’m going to finish the season, heal up then get some training under my belt before I go to Shrine Bowl,” Fagot said. “I definitely hope to be drafted and get an opportunity somewhere. I feel confident I’ll find my way into a mini-camp next spring.”

Scouts from more than half the NFL teams have traveled to Annapolis to watch Fagot practice and interview Newberry, Volker and coach Ken Niumatalolo about the prospect. Newberry did not hesitate when asked what he would tell an NFL general manager considering drafting Fagot.

“I would say you better take him because he’ll find a way to make your squad,” Newberry said. “Diego’s got all the physical characteristics as far as size and speed, but what separates him are the intangibles. His football IQ, instincts, leadership and passion for the game are off the charts.”

ARMY VS. NAVY

MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

Dec. 11, 3 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 1430 AM

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