MINNEAPOLIS — They love their history here, revel in it, tortuous as it may be. Glorious new U.S. Bank Stadium boasts of it around every corner. Bud Grant's first headset, silver footballs to memorialize Cris Carter's 1,000 catches, photographs by former linebacker Matt Blair of training camp days out at Mankato State, and statues of the Purple People Eaters themselves, sitting on an icy bench when they still had the fortitude to play outside.
As of 7:15 p.m. Sunday here, they had to be figuring out where to memorialize a once-forgotten fifth-round draft choice who people worried peaked during his freshman season at the University of Maryland. How, the Minnesota Vikings must decide, will they honor the indelible moment in their history that belongs to Stefon Diggs?
"It's kind of like a storybook ending, and it never ends that way," Diggs said maybe an hour later, the football he caught still in his possession, lest someone try to take it straight to Canton. "Usually it's reality. It's real life."
Stefon Diggs's real life changed Sunday, changed forever, when on the final play of a dizzying NFC divisional playoff game he caught Case Keenum's desperate heave at the New Orleans 34-yard line and took it to the end zone for a 61-yard touchdown, finishing a 29-24 Minnesota victory that just might go down as the best in franchise history.
Diggs is 24, in his third NFL season. Given his ability, he could be a diva. He is not. He fits with who these Vikings are, and that fits with what this state is. "Minnesota Nice," they call it. It's somehow neither forced nor fraudulent, and it will be on full display early next month when this town hosts the Super Bowl, a Super Bowl that — gulp — could include its very own Vikings.
Whatever the outcome of this weekend's NFC championship game in Philadelphia, it was clear in those moments following a play that will be shown for eternity — it's Minnesota's "Immaculate Reception" now, for sure — that Diggs carries with him an edge to go along with the smile. It has to go back to October 2013, when he was a sophomore at Maryland, really the only reason to watch any of Randy Edsall's Terrapins teams. The Terps played Wake Forest in a game that drew zero national attention. Diggs broke his leg.
That colored everything that happened next: his junior season, his early entry into the NFL draft, his drop from first-round talent to fifth-round reality. As a freshman, he was a threat as a receiver and a runner and a kick returner, electric in every way. As a junior, coming back from injury, was he compromised?
In the eyes of NFL scouts, clearly he was. Diggs lasted until the 146th pick in the draft. Fourteen receivers went off the board before him. So listen when he spoke after the play no one here will ever forget.
"Half the guys on this offense nobody really wanted," Diggs said. "Late-round guys, guys that got a lot to prove with a chip on their shoulder."
Clearly, the chip is on Diggs's shoulder. There's truth in what he says, because Keenum, the NCAA's all-time leading passer while at Houston, has been cut and traded and is here on a one-year, $2 million deal. Fellow wide receiver Adam Thielen was a local kid who went to Minnesota State (the rebranded Mankato State) because no prominent program wanted him, then went undrafted only to fight his way onto the roster of his hometown team and eventually make the Pro Bowl. Disrespect, perceived or real, can be a powerful motivator.
But what the Vikings have known since early in Diggs's tenure here is that they have something different. There were so many reasons, with 10 seconds left and Minnesota at its own 39-yard line, that Keenum was going to look for Diggs, that Diggs was going to be the deepest man on the route, that if there was going to be a player who would force Vikings officials to figure out a way to honor him, it would be Diggs.
"When the ball was in the air, honestly, I knew he was going to come down with it," Thielen said, "because Diggs is so good with the ball in the air."
What people have concentrated on, and understandably so, is what in the world New Orleans safety Marcus Williams was doing as the deep man in coverage. Williams arrived along the sideline where Diggs was leaping a hair early. When he lowered his head and went for Diggs's legs, he whiffed.
But focusing on Williams's error takes away from Diggs's brilliance on the play. Not only did he leap to make the catch at the Saints' 34-yard line, but when Williams blew past, he had both the athletic ability and the presence of mind to right himself, to eschew what several people — Keenum, Coach Mike Zimmer, probably 66,000 purple-clad folks who had been scarred so many times — thought was the right play, which was to go out of bounds and set up a long field goal try.
"I was preparing for someone to contact me," Diggs said. No one did. So why go out of bounds? He put his left hand on the ground to regain his balance. Then, he ran.
"For him to stay up like that, that's a player, man," Thielen said. "That's a Pro Bowl player. That's an all-pro player. That's one of the best players in the NFL right there."
When Zimmer held his postgame news conference, he had team officials open the blinds that separated the room filled with reporters and TV cameras from the Vikings public. When those fans could see in, they started chanting "Zim-mer! Zim-mer!" and the coach looked back out at them and performed their "Skol!" chant, clapping his hands above his head. Zimmer was reveling in it.
But there is no interaction with these people if not for Diggs, who quietly entered the room as Zimmer wrapped up. "Come here, baby," Zimmer said from the podium.
That's how an entire state feels about him now, beloved, one of their own. There are paintings of Ahmad Rashad and Jim Marshall and Fran Tarkenton and so many others hung in different spots around U.S. Bank Stadium. Pick a pose for Diggs now — leaping to grab the ball, balancing himself with his hand, spreading his arm as a disbelieving stadium pulsed around him, flinging his helmet in celebration afterward. The kid from Gaithersburg, Md., who felt slighted all this time needs to feel that way no longer. His life changed Sunday night, and he will forever be a hero here.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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