DC native son Stefon Diggs is the NFL’s best at catching a football—he’s even better these days at figuring out how to navigate his powerful position in life.
Photographed by Tony Powell
Long before face-painted fans file into the stadium, before the stretching drills, before the last glances at video playbooks, before the soft toss of warmups—before any of the Sunday rituals at the high church of pro football—Stefon Diggs listens to the neo-soul of Erykah Badu. “Old school. Love songs. I try to stay mellow before the game,” he says, grinning.
Given the profession Diggs has chosen, where human missles can and will smash into him with mind-bending speed and power, it’s an odd musical choice. But watch Diggs on the field for the Buffalo Bills—the first team All-Pro led the NFL last year in receptions (127) and total yards (1,535)—and it’s obvious the pregaming chill is what sets him apart. Those 127 catches from quarterback Josh Allen were indeed remarkable, but it’s what Diggs does after a catch that must be witnessed on game film. At 6 feet tall and a lean 191 pounds, the man is a bantamweight compared to the linebackers and strong safeties looking to knock him into the cheap seats. After making a catch, he glides, accelerates and dodges like he’s controlled by a video gamer with a magical joystick. It all looks effortless.
“Diggs is so special that, as I see him play, I just want to rip off my captain’s C and put it on his chest,” Bills’ offensive tackle Dion Dawkins told reporters after a game last season. “He’s a stud, man.”
Photographed by Tony Powell
Born in Gaithersburg, Md., Diggs participated in youth football around the region, including Alexandria (he played quarterback and running back, wearing number 21 to emulate his football hero, Deion Sanders). “I played with my best friend on those teams, and when we lost some tough games, I remember crying—winning meant a lot to me because I was so competitive. My dad was super hard on me, so I always wanted to perform well. I don’t even think he gave me my first ‘Good job, Dog’ until I was 12.” Two years later, his father was gone; he died from congestive heart failure when Diggs was 14. After high school at Our Lady of Good Counsel, where he graduated as one of the most coveted football recruits in the nation, Diggs decided to stay local and attend the University of Maryland, enabling him to become more of a father figure to his younger brothers, Trevon (who now plays for the Dallas Cowboys) and Darez.
For Diggs, drafted in the fifth round by the Minnesota Vikings in 2015, making the team, much less having a superstar career, wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The NFL, after all, is filled with blue chippers. Diggs kept his head down, learned the offensive system, worked diligently and eventually made the team. As a starter, his apotheosis was the Minnesota Miracle, the biggest catch in the team’s history, which led to a last-second victory and berth in the 2018 NFC championship game. National recognition and a mammoth Vikings contract followed—making Diggs one of the NFL’s highest paid wide receivers.
Photographed by Tony Powell
He’d made it as a standout in a coveted, marquee position. Diggs figured he would ride this wave of fame for a decade, topping the league in total yardage or maybe even earning a Super Bowl ring with the Vikings. But the mercurial nature of the NFL often overrides expectations. Diggs was traded to Buffalo after the 2019 season, shocking many league insiders and the player himself.
Some could have wallowed in disappointment or become enraged— at the Vikings, the league or the not-so-divine providence of how life unspools. Diggs wasn’t lost, but he did seek answers beyond the gridiron. He began reading books about leadership, and someone recommended The Alchemist, a novel by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho that tells the story of a young man on a long trip in pursuit of his dreams.
“It was such a pivotal time in my life with a new journey of leaving Minnesota—I wanted to read something that reflected this,” says Diggs. “In the book, the main character, Santiago, had to trust his gut, and he learned through trials and tribulations. For me, that’s kind of what my life has been built on. From childhood and everything I’ve been through, it prepared me for the moment.”
“Believing in yourself is real. Trusting yourself is real. Your gut feeling is real. I live that way now—trust yourself, believe in yourself.”
Diggs continues, now more animated: “The book manifested lessons that are real. Believing in yourself is real. Trusting yourself is real. Your gut feeling is real. I live that way now—trust yourself, believe in yourself. The things that are supposed to happen are absolutely going to happen.”
Photographed by Tony Powell
What transpired during his first year in Buffalo last season is the stuff of legend. Not only did Diggs lap the league statistically, he became a leader. “I can give you a million ways to be a leader, but there’s no one real answer,” he says. “Part of it is just being a professional and accountable. It’s like everyone in the NFL is from Missouri, the Show-Me State, because they ask what you’ve done for them lately. You have to show me what you can do for me every day in practice and in games. The Minnesota Miracle meant nothing to my new teammates in Buffalo. One teammate said to me, ‘We don’t care what you did in Minnesota; we want to see what you can do now.’”
AS it turned out, quite a bit: Last season, Diggs and Buffalo quarterback Allen (another player with lots to prove, given his unproven football pedigree) looked like the second coming of Buffalo football legends Andre Reed and Jim Kelly. Diggs says he squares his creativity as an athlete and individual— this is a man renowned for wearing wildly designed cleats each week (think cartoons, retro musicians and his favorite movie characters)—with the rigorous requirements of fitting into a high-powered offense.
“I like to buy into a process, and I want to blend in as much as I can and let my play stand out. This is going to sound crazy, but I’m a by-the-book guy. Josh will just look at me and say, ‘Stef, just get open and catch the ball. I really don’t care what you do before that.’ And that’s hard to hear because I’m so used to timing routes and doing things in a certain type of way. But this is where the creativity comes in. I can mix things up a little bit, and the quarterback trusts me. The only way you can build that trust is by making plays.”
One area where Diggs doesn’t blend in is sartorially. When we meet for a photo shoot in late April, he shows up—after having emptied half of his closet in his Penn Quarter condo—with suitcases of bespoke suits and shirts, leather jackets and pants, watches and necklaces. Our stylist gushes. Diggs laughs sheepishly. “It’s a newfound love—I enjoy shopping around town and picking out my own clothes, and I love dressing according to how I feel,” says Diggs, who loves one-of-a-kind pieces by Rick Owens (rickowens.eu). “It’s something I take a lot of pride in— it’s just another way to have fun outside of football.”
Everything about Diggs’ demeanor is smooth. He glides into a room like he’s on a hoverboard, shaking hands, smiling, taking selfies. He talks and listens and laughs. Easy. There are superstars who perform otherworldly deeds, and there are mortals who make it apparent that their frailties are works in progress. It’s refreshing when the two arrive in the same package.
Next month, training camp looms, and the quest to win begins anew. It’s a mental and physical grind, and maybe Diggs feels the pressure of a restructured contract (he’ll earn millions this season alone), but he shows no signs of it. Instead, he offers a mix of 27-year-old bravado and hardfought wisdom. “I haven’t reached the mountaintop yet,” he says. “I always aim high. I want five Super Bowl rings. I want the Hall of Fame. I want the glory. I believe I’m a champion. But, more so, I want to carry some people along with me. I want my brother, Trevon, to have a good career. I want to give my mom a place where she can be comfortable. I want to give people jobs. I want to do more for DC, my city. The mountaintop isn’t just for football; it’s for life in general. The more people I can help— that’s when I’ll look back and know I made a difference.”
Photography by: Courtesy of Tony Powell