The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Once, he had been homeless. Now he wanted a home in the NFL.

Aspiring Redskins linebacker Vontae Diggs gives a child a hug after playing catch outside Southeast Washington’s shelter for homeless families at D.C. General Hospital. (Bailey Conard/Playtime Project)
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If the 9-year-old was impressed by an aspiring NFL linebacker, he didn’t show it.

“I’ll bet you don’t run that fast,” the boy said, hurling a challenge at Vontae Diggs on a warm July night.

“Bet?” Diggs, a 22-year-old trying to make the Redskins’ roster, retorted jokingly. “Tell you what. We can go outside now. If you are old enough to talk trash, you are old enough to lose. Whoever loses does 20 push-ups.”

Diggs and the boy — a self-declared Cowboys fan — walked outside the battered, soon-to-be-demolished shelter for homeless families at D.C. General Hospital, followed by a gaggle of children who still live there. Broken glass littered the sidewalk. Weeds grew in a field that overlooks the D.C. jail and the city’s morgue.

Diggs was at ease in this desperate place in Southeast Washington. As a kid, he’d been homeless, too.

The boy and the 6-foot-2, 230-pound football player lined up near a stop sign.

“Ready, set, go,” the boy shouted, then took off sprinting as fast as he could. Diggs leaped with the speed of a highly trained athlete. Suddenly, his unlaced shoe flew up in the air, slowing him as his pint-size competitor kept running. Diggs, with one shoe, crossed the imaginary finish line second.

The boy celebrated.

“Next time,” Diggs vowed, then dropped to the black concrete for 20 push-ups.

And he hoped there would be a next time, though that depended on whether Diggs, who had defied the odds his whole life, could defy them again by making the Redskins.

He had just spent the past hour at an event hosted by the nonprofit Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, telling kids about sleeping in cars and on park benches when he was growing up just outside Chicago.

“Everything you’ve gone through or are about to go through, I’ve been through already,” Diggs said. “At your age, I’d seen and done things you’d never believe.”

The children at the shelter — a place still haunted by the 2014 disappearance and likely death of an 8-year-old named Relisha Rudd — sat captivated.

“How long did you and your family live in a car?” one asked.

“Our first time living in a car, it was about 2½ weeks,” Diggs answered. “In total for about a year-ish, we were on and off in a car.”

He paused. “That was the worst period of my life.”

Desperation for hundreds of homeless families in D.C. motels

A girl raised her hand: “How did you wash your clothes if you lived in a car?”

“We didn’t. My mom would wash them when she could. But for the most part, you give it a quick sniff to see whether it smelled clean.”

“Did any of your classmates know you lived in a car?”

No, Diggs said. “I became a very good liar,” reeling off the bogus reasons kids couldn’t come to his house: “ ‘I got in trouble because I wasn’t doing my homework.’ ‘I lost the key.’ Anything I could say to my friends or teachers to get them off my back, I did.”

He described how his talent as a high school football player led to a college scholarship and the opportunity to go even further. But as an unsigned free agent, his future with the Redskins was anything but certain.

He had been in town just a week before driving from Northern Virginia to Southeast Washington. In a city filled with more than 1,400 homeless children, Diggs knew he could be a source of inspiration.

“Who has a goal to play in the NFL?” a Playtime Project volunteer asked the kids at D.C. General.

Some children raised their hands. So did Diggs.

“Who here achieved the goal of playing in the NFL?”

Diggs took his hand down. “I haven’t played yet,” he said.

'Literally roaming the street'

The nights were the hardest.

His mother, Robin Jones, had lost her job at a waste management company in Downers Grove, a suburb of Chicago.

“We went from an apartment to a hotel, to another hotel, to a family member’s house to the Oldsmobile,” Diggs remembered in an interview with The Washington Post. His mother slept in the driver’s seat. His older brother, Jemal Jones, slept in the passenger seat. Diggs was in the back.

When his mother drifted off, Diggs would slip out of the car and walk the streets.

“They couldn’t stop me,” he said. “Once they were asleep, I would just go.”

“Sometimes,” Diggs said, “I would walk all night.”

‘They say we can’t play’: What life is like for D.C.’s homeless kids

He was a high school freshman when his mother announced that she wanted to move back to Chicago, where relatives lived.

Diggs broke down when she told him.

“She said she wanted me to come with her,” he recalled, but he didn’t want to trade Downers Grove for the violence of South Side Chicago.

At first, he stayed with a friend in a townhouse the boy shared with his mother and older sister. But then Diggs, who had trouble controlling his temper, got into an argument and found himself with nowhere to go.

“I felt like I was a burden, so I stopped staying with people,” Diggs said. “I was literally roaming the street. I didn’t sleep very much.”

And he didn’t go to school very much either, showing up for classes at Downers Grove North High School only on game days or when there were wrestling meets or track meets.

“If I wasn’t playing a sport, why be there?” Diggs said.

He spent a lot of time with a set of twins he had known since fifth grade: Andrew and Tony Zea. Their parents had no idea Diggs was homeless.

“I would see Vontae every day,” recalled the twins’ father, John Zea, 49, who works as a programmer for a financial software company. “He’d stay for dinner. We’d say, ‘Hey, Vontae, do you have to ask your mother whether you can stay for dinner?’ ‘Hey, Vontae, do you have to ask your mother whether you can sleep over?’ He would always say, ‘No, it’s okay.’ ”

Eventually, the Zeas learned his secret.

“One day, my son came home and said Vontae was sleeping on a park bench,” Zea recalled. “I said, ‘Go get him.’ ”

Zea and his wife, Nancy, lived with their three boys in a modest split-level home. “It’s not like we have a huge house,” Zea recalled. “There was a sofa in the basement. . . . We already had three sons of our own. It takes a lot to feed three boys. Adding an extra boy was intimidating.”

The plan was to let Diggs stay until he was able to reach his mother in Chicago. “A couple of days passed by. He was having a hard time getting a hold of his mom,” Zea recalled. “A couple days turned into weeks.”

The final hours in a lost refuge for the homeless

Late one night, Diggs walked into the Zeas’ bedroom with tears rolling down his eyes.

“I was dead asleep,” Zea said. “He was sobbing. He said he felt bad about the situation. He felt like he was taking advantage of us. I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We will help you out and make sure you are okay going forward.’ ”

“My wife took a part-time job to help pay for groceries,” Zea said.

Diggs did the best he could to blend in. All the boys did chores. Diggs often helped their youngest son, Alex, with his homework.

But at school, Diggs got into fights. “I had to explain he was welcomed in our house,” Zea said, “but he had to respect authority. His homework had to be done. His behavior had to change.”

Slowly, it did. By junior year, colleges were interested in Diggs: the University of Toledo, Ball State University and, eventually, the University of Connecticut. His high school coach, John Wander, pushed him to start taking his future seriously.

“He told me, ‘Hey, now you see you have the capability to be somebody. It’s time to put the BS away,’ ” Diggs remembered. “After practice and workouts, I had to go to Coach Wander’s house, sit in his kitchen until 9:30 or 10 o’clock at night, every night, and do all my homework. I would go home to the Zea house, eat, go to sleep and restart. That was Monday through Friday.”

Diggs hated it. But the work paid off with a scholarship to Connecticut, where he became a defensive mainstay for the Huskies and earned a degree in urban studies. And it earned him something else: a chance to play in the National Football League.

'A childhood dream'

The Redskins’ training camp opened in Richmond at the end of July with 90 players competing for 53 positions. Diggs was vying for one of nine spots as a linebacker.

Back in Chicago, John Zea was as excited and nervous “as any parent would be when your son puts himself out there. It is a risk for a young man to try to make it to the NFL. But what happens if that dream gets crushed?”

Diggs was trying not to think about that. On Aug. 9, he ran onto the field at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., wearing a No. 48 Redskins jersey for the team’s preseason opener against the New England Patriots.

He had received hundreds of texts and messages on Instagram wishing him well. “I sat on the field for a little while just soaking it all in,” Diggs said. “You have to soak it in, but when the whistle blows, it’s time to go to work.”

Though the Redskins lost, 26-17, Diggs made four tackles, including one for a loss.

A few days later in Richmond, he came off the field after practicing with the New York Jets exhausted but pumped.

“Everybody has an awe factor,” he said. “Every day you wake up, you think, I’m working out in the NFL. . . . It’s a childhood dream come true. There was a time I didn’t think I would make it. I’m here.”

He had put on seven pounds since he spoke to the children at the homeless shelter. Some of the veteran Redskins had been encouraging him. His game had changed, he said. “I play faster. I play smarter,” he said.

In the evening, Diggs and his roommate, Darvin Kidsy, a wide receiver who played at the University of North Texas, talked about the game, about their aspirations.

“We are always chomping it up at night,” Diggs said, “always trying to figure out how we can make each other better. He plays the opposite side of the ball. He is noticing things I do. And I notice things he does. We are feeding off each other, trying to make each other better.”

But Diggs also knew it might not be enough. He had thought about becoming a school counselor or a high school coach if he couldn’t make the Redskins’ roster or its practice squad.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “we are not all going to be on this team. There are only a select few that get to play this game at this level.”

On Saturday, the Redskins announced their 53-man roster, and Diggs sent a text to John Zea. It said simply, “I’ve been cut.”

The man who had been like a father to Diggs called him right away. Zea told Diggs how proud he was of what he had accomplished. And he told him to come home.

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