Stefon Diggs, who burst into college football with 1,896 all-purpose yards as a freshman, enters his junior season on watch lists for four major national awards after last season was cut short by a broken leg. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Stefon Diggs was six years into his football career the first time his father, Aron, gave him a compliment about his play. It came on a field in Montgomery County. Diggs lowered his shoulder on a sweep play and ran over another teenage defender before looking over to the sideline and seeing rare joy on his father’s face.

“My dad was real hard on me. He wasn’t really big on congratulating and stuff like that,” Diggs said. “That was a proud moment.”

A few years later, in January 2008, the man who started Diggs in football was gone. Aron Diggs, who died of congestive heart failure at 39, would never see his son turn into a prodigy at high school powerhouse Good Counsel in Olney. He would never be able to sift through hundreds of recruiting letters with Stefon or watch him have one of the most prolific freshman seasons in Maryland football history in 2012. And he would never be able to help his son through one of the most difficult years of his life, which started when he broke his leg on an overcast Saturday last October at Wake Forest.

“He made me the man I am,” Diggs said of his father.

Aron Diggs had a collection of sayings, including, “If it’s not rough, it’s not right,” and “You can’t hit what you can’t catch.” Both describe his son’s mind-set as he enters Saturday’s opener against James Madison. The junior wide receiver has embraced the grind of the past year, overcoming an injury that forced him to sit out for the first time in his life. He has navigated the rocky terrain of training camp, answering heightened demands by the coaching staff in pursuit of returning to his freshman form. That year he had 1,896 all-purpose yards, second most in school history, and became a fan favorite for his wizardry in the open field.

Diggs has almost become his own brand in College Park: Football uniforms emblazoned with his number are available in three colors in Maryland’s online store, and his face is plastered on the team’s marketing rollout for the season. At Maryland’s fan appreciation day scrimmage in August, Diggs was the main attraction during the autograph session; fans formed a line across the field to receive his autograph.

“You can’t even get him on the phone anymore,” Good Counsel Coach Bob Milloy said. “Went to the spring game two years ago, and God almighty, there was 150 people standing in line to get his autograph. He’s at a different level now.”

Diggs drew a crowd of autograph seekers during Maryland’s fan appreciation day earlier this month. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Diggs has been named to the watch lists for four major national college football awards and to several publications’ preseason all-American teams. Last month at Big Ten media days, Coach Urban Meyer of No. 5 Ohio State called Diggs “one of the best players in the country.” But even with the rock star appeal, the past 10 months have been humbling. He watched as fellow wide receiver Deon Long broke his leg in last season’s seventh game, against Wake Forest and told his teammate, “It’s going to be okay,” as Long was carted off. About two hours later, Diggs was in the same predicament.

Diggs had a broken right fibula, and a few days after surgery in Baltimore he returned to College Park wounded mentally as well as physically. The big man on campus couldn’t shower without the help of his teammates. He went to class on a John Deere Gator vehicle or on crutches and was getting about three hours of sleep a night because of the pain, he said. His first real moment of happiness came a few months into rehabbing, when he was able to put two shoes on.

It wasn’t until this summer that he could start fully functioning on the field again, but at one point he hurt his Achilles’ tendon and his calf muscle because his leg was still overcompensating for the fibula injury, he said.

“It’s been a big adjustment because I’ve never got hurt before. I’ve never injured any part of my body that has kept me from playing . . . not even a quarter,” Diggs said. “This was a new experience.”

Diggs already knew something about loss. His father passed away when he was 14, an age when he was both impressionable and being heavily recruited by area high schools. He chose Good Counsel in large part because that’s where his father wanted to see him go. Diggs handled the loss of his father quietly and “was a little depressed,” said Stephanie Diggs, his mother. The family went to grief counseling for a while, and Stephanie relied heavily on Stefon to help raise his younger brother, Trevon, while she worked traveling shifts as a service attendant for Amtrak. With her husband gone, Stephanie also took control of her son’s recruiting activity as he became one of the country’s best prospects.

Aron “kind of put this all together and put [Stefon] in front of the right people. And when he got sick, it kind of fell all the burden on me. I didn’t know too much about it. I just basically showed up for games. I had to really get involved in the process and read up,” Stephanie Diggs said.

Diggs, shown during a scrimmage on Aug. 16, took a bigger role in caring for his younger brother Trevon, an up-and-coming high school recruit, after their father Aron died in 2008. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

She saw values of discipline in Maryland Coach Randy Edsall and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley that reminded her of Aron, and she encouraged her son to stay close to home. Even as Diggs has become a high-profile player, Maryland’s staff has demanded more of him in an attempt to make him a more complete receiver after he returned from his leg injury. Diggs was pushed to become a better blocker and more focused on his assignments, and he was largely inconsistent early in the preseason. He worked with the second-team offense during stretches of camp, including during the open scrimmage. Diggs was listed as a starter this week.

“The good thing is with Stefon, I did something there, and it motivated him,” Edsall said earlier this week. “It got him back on track, and sometimes you have to do that.”

Diggs said he and his family discussed possibly taking out an insurance policy in case of further injury this season, but nothing has come of it yet. He has made small adjustments to his daily routine. That includes health-conscious decisions such as cold-tub baths and stretching, although Diggs said “I eat whatever I want.” Part of his routine also includes regular counseling of Trevon, an up-and-coming class of 2016 recruit who recently made waves when he transferred from Wootton High to the Avalon School this summer.

“Our relationship is a father-son relationship. We’re very close. He guides me through everything,” Trevon Diggs said. “Ever since my father died, he’s always been there for me.”

Diggs not only remembers his father as the man who first signed him up for youth football but also as a 6-foot-3, 280-pound lion who “taught me the game of life.” He has one rule for processing those memories: He will think about his father before and after his games but not while he’s playing.

“I let that go a while ago,” Diggs said, “because it hurt to know that the person that started you in the game won’t see you at your best.”