He led the charge toward the end zone, a single yellow jersey streaking ahead of the pack of white ones, hooting and hollering at another Maryland football teammate who had scored another touchdown. “I’m a charismatic young man,” Stefon Diggs would say later, in a moment of self-awareness. “I always got a smile on my face.”
The difference between Monday morning, when the rising junior wide receiver spiritedly returned to the practice field for individual work and seven-on-seven drills, and the pain endured over the previous six months was not lost on Diggs. There were tears. Agony, sometimes, too. Frustration over a season cut short, over a broken leg derailing all those grandiose plans.
It’s why, whenever Diggs wakes up in the morning, he looks at a simple poster hanging inside his bedroom and reads the two words written across the front: Thank you.
“I’m just happy to have my legs back,” he said, “because at one point I wasn’t even walking. I think about it every day. It’s my motivation. The return, ready to get back. For God to give me my legs back, this is my second chance.”
The return is almost complete, Monday marking another checkpoint for Diggs. He feels 90 percent now, exactly the same percentage given by fellow wide receiver Deon Long, which makes sense given that they suffered almost the same injury in the same game and spent the next half-year rehabilitating together in the same manner. They powered through six games together, best friends creating nightmares for opposing defensive backs, before their season ended in the seventh.
“We went through the good, went through the bad,” Diggs said. “We’re back at the good.”
So good, in fact, that Diggs somehow feels faster at 90 percent on a rehabbed leg than he did on two full-strength ones before the injury. He dropped some weight, around four pounds. This loss, he said, has made him more nimble, able to hone what Coach Randy Edsall called his biggest need for improvement: running routes.
There is a certain improvisational artistry to Diggs, a beauty that arises from never knowing what comes next. He could break the opening kickoff for a touchdown, like he did against Virginia in 2012. He could make the entire West Virginia defense play “follow the leader.” He could Superman-flip into the end zone (Old Dominion), make one-handed catches while absorbing contact (Florida State) and command an autograph line so long that it stretched across the width of Byrd Stadium (spring game, 2013).
But how will Diggs return from this injury, which relegated him to crutches, needing assistance to get to class? He thinks about the injury every day, from the moment his alarm rings to all those hours spent inside Gossett Team House, regaining strength into the leg. He tried to take mental repetitions, to meet with offensive coordinator Mike Locksley and new receivers coach Keenan McCardell, but nothing compared to Monday, when he finally slipped on the pads, strapped on the helmet, pulled over the yellow non-contact jersey and ran routes.
“I missed my team a lot,” he said. “I missed being on the field, missed being around them. It’s good to bring that energy and enthusiasm to the game as much as I can.”
When he and Long were injured, they served as a two-headed cheerleading squad, prancing around when offensive teammates made big plays. Before long, he hopes, that will be him in the end zone, welcoming hugs and high-fives. Until then, Diggs will keep on smiling, simply happy that he’s back.
Inside the Maryland weight room, Diggs addressed the media for the first time since his injury. He recognized some familiar faces and said hello to some reporters. The weather was cold and miserable. Diggs looked out the glass doors and onto the turf at Byrd Stadium.
“It’s raining outside right now,” he said. “Everybody’s mood right now is kind of gloomy. But you have to love the game, and I haven’t been out there but for so long, so when I’m back out there, I try to pick everybody up.”