CHICAGO (CBS) — NFL dreams will come true for hundreds of college football players starting a week from Thursday. Downers Grove native Vontae Diggs has been hard at work to make sure his name is called during the 2018 Draft.
He survived a lot of blood, sweat, and tears just to make it to this point.
“Actually being out on the field, it made me forget everything, and it just kept me going,” Diggs said.
University of Connecticut linebacker Vontae Diggs says football saved his life. A star at Downers Grove North High School, many of his teammates didn’t know he was homeless on and off since he was in 4th grade while his mother battled some issues.
“I had a broken home, a broken life, a broken family,” Diggs said.
His mother, Robin Jones, said she feels “a lot of regret” for the way Diggs grew up.
“I feel bad about some things that happened,” she said.
Diggs, his mother, and his brother slept in a small hotel in Downers Grove, then for a stretch of about seven months they slept in their Oldsmobile on the streets. Diggs also spent many nights on a bench in Loy Park, and would wash up at a nearby McDonalds before he went to school.
“Half my life, I didn’t have meals to eat, or I sat on a bench from 2 in the morning until the time I had to go to school,” he said.
His mom moved back to Chicago while Diggs stayed in Downers Grove and bounced around at friends’ homes. After his freshman year, the Zeas, who have three boys of their own, took Diggs in and provided stability.
“We’ve done a lot for him. At the same time, I think he’s done a lot for us,” John Zea said. “I looked at it as an opportunity for my children to see that sometimes you make a sacrifice in life that may be uncomfortable for you to help someone else out.”
Diggs said the Zea family has done “anything you can imagine” for him.
“A roof, attention, love, food, shelter, love,” he said. “From day one, they’ve never saw me any other way than family.”
Jones said she’s glad the Zeas were able to step in when she could not.
“How do you thank someone for stepping in and taking over and raising your son to be a man?” she said.
Diggs started his last two seasons at UConn, registering 77 tackles, and he graduated early. He’s been training for months for his pro day in the hopes of making in to the NFL.
Down the road, he wants to be a high school counselor to help kids.
“I just could not give up on this young man, because he was not giving up on himself,” John Zea said.
Diggs said he has the Zeas tattood on his arm.
“They all mean so much to me, and that’s why I keep pushing forward, because they saw something greater,” Diggs said. “If I can touch a little kid … they see me playing, they hear my story, ‘Oh, I can go do something like this.’”
Diggs is projected to be a late round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. He graduated from Connecticut in 3 ½ years, with a degree in urban community studies. He wants to be a high school counselor when he’s done with football. He already has mentored several Downers Grove North students.