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A fine line: The Jordan Diggs Story

414 days ago
Brad Muller | South Carolina Athletics
Photo: South Carolina Athletics

Jordan Diggs isn't the first member of his hometown, or even the first member of his own family, to play "big time" college football. The list of renowned football players from his hometown of Fort Myers, Florida, reads like a Who's-Who college all-star roster, including his father, Shed Diggs, who also played at South Carolina in the mid-1980s as well as other well-known names such as Deion Sanders, Jevon Kearse, and Sammy Watkins. It is Jordan's ability to overcome tragedy, adversity and temptation that makes his path remarkable.

"My area, the Dunbar Community, I would say is rough for a kid being that there is so much temptation," Jordan said.

Far from the perfect postcard picture of white sand beaches and palm trees, Jordan was surrounded by crime, drugs and violence.

"I saw a lot growing up, and as a kid you're exposed to a lot," Jordan recalled. "I remember seeing police raiding houses, and then I just saw this guy at the store and today he's being arrested. And a kid walking down the street, and two guys shooting at each other and a stray bullet hits the kid. These are the types of things we see, and it happens often."

DUNBAR DILEMMA

Whether it's at his grandmother's house or inside Chaney's Barbershop, which acts as a center piece for the community, it's easy to find proudly displayed memorabilia of the famous local young men who made it out to play college and professional football. There are many others who could have been up on those walls, if not for some bad decisions.

"There are a lot more kids who were way more talented," said Jeremy Ware, Jordan's brother and former Michigan State standout who played one year for the Oakland Raiders. "You just go through so much. It's like there is some pit here that just holds on to some people, and they can't make it."

Sometimes that "pit" grabs them even after they've had a taste of success. That's what happened to Jordan's father. Shed Diggs is one of Dunbar's earliest football products who played linebacker for South Carolina from 1984-1987.

"It was like my dad was some kind of superstar," Jordan said. "It's like my dad was some kind of a celebrity. Everyone had so much respect for him. It was awesome."

"He spent a lot of time with me. I remember many fishing trips and us just spending that time. I cherished that. I really did."

"He was like 'Mr. Mom,' " said Altemia Diggs, Jordan's mother. "He was on task. If there was a problem at school, they could call him and he was always there. He was not only checking on our kids but on other kids he coached in football."

Shed was living proof of the opportunities football could provide in getting away from the temptations within the Dunbar Community. When his playing days were over, Shed's positive public image took a dark turn, and the Diggs children didn't realize that the days with their father around were numbered. Altemia began to notice some gaps in Shed's routine and how it affected the family. After he was laid off from his job, she knew something wasn't quite right.

The day Shed was arrested had started like any other day as 12 year-old Jordan got ready to go to school. When Jordan returned home, Shed was gone. He had been arrested for drug distribution and sentenced to a ten-year term in federal prison.

"It was really a lot thrown at me," Jordan said. "It shook my world up a little bit. The toughest part was that he was gone. Life was so great with him, and then he goes away and I was facing struggles that I had never seen before."

"It was the worst time in my life if I could have chosen this to happen," Altemia said of Shed's arrest. "I'm here trying to work a minimum wage (job) with seven kids. So he left me with all that. We had to restructure and regroup."

Jordan remembers breaking down in tears when his father tried to tell him what had happened. To make matters worse, the family's house caught fire soon afterwards, causing them to move to a much smaller rental house across the street. A few months later, Jordan's older brother Justin, who was 17 at the time, was convicted of selling cocaine and sentenced to four years in prison. Several years later, Justin was sentenced to life in prison under Florida's Habitual Violent Offender law for his involvement in an armed robbery. With another older brother, Jeremy Ware, playing football at Michigan State, Jordan had to take on a new role in his family.

"I went from playing outside with my friends and doing stuff that normal 12 year-old kids would do, to mom telling me, 'hey son, I've got to work late tonight. I need you to make sure the kids are bathed, feed them and make sure they go to sleep on time,' " Jordan said.

Jordan's mom later came up with the idea to send him to Bishop Verot High School, a private Catholic school on the other side of town where Jordan would be surrounded by discipline, away from the temptations that eventually caught up to his father.

"I believed strongly in education, and that was going to be their way out." Altemia said. "Your athletic ability will make room for you to get the education that is going to prepare you later in life."

"For my mom to get me out of that community, I got a chance to see kids from different backgrounds," Jordan said. "It actually helped me because I was able to think outside of what was going on at home. She has just always been there for me. My mom is, I know for sure, my biggest supporter. She has always believed in me even when I didn't have the confidence to believe in myself. She always pushed me to keep on going and to keep trying."

Jordan transferred back to public school for his senior year, attending Island Coast High School where he was interested in the natural science program. The transition didn't go smoothly at first as Jordan was ruled ineligible for football due to zoning questions. After several appeals, he was finally ruled eligible after the fourth week of the season.

"Jordan was always a positive kid," said Island Coast football coach Joe Bowen. "He gave it his all every time he was out there. All of the stuff he went through coming to Island Coast, he showed a lot of class. That's what I remember the most about Jordan.

"I can't tell you that a lot of high school kids could have done what Jordan did. Life gives you some adverse situations, you have to fight through them. You have to face the challenges head on. I admired him for all that he went through."

With more than two dozen scholarship offers, it seemed the tide was turning for Jordan, but it wasn't long before tragedy would strike the Diggs family once again. Family-friend Constantine Bailey, known as "Mr. B" to the Diggs children, had been helping the family get back on their feet when he was killed during a robbery at the family home six days before what was national signing day for Jordan.

"I had never experienced anything like that," Jordan said. "To see something happen, so tragic, so close to home, it was devastating. I remember not feeling safe in that community for months. Things didn't feel right anymore.

"I sort of look at 'Mr. B' like an angel that was sent to protect me and my family. I would like to believe that he went down fighting to protect us."

Signing day became bittersweet, but with a family filled with college and professional football standouts, Jordan felt that it was his destiny to follow his father's footsteps on the field and attend the University of South Carolina.

"I flipped," Jordan said about receiving a scholarship offer from the Gamecocks. "I went home and told my mom. I told her 'I'm going to South Carolina. They offered me.' It was a really big deal being that was always the family dream - following in my dad's footsteps and continuing the legacy.

"Most people don't get a chance to live their dream. This was my dream, to come here and play at this school, for my dad to see me play at this school and for my family to be in the stands, for me to wear number 42, and have success on the field, just like Shed Diggs."

Despite his father's absence, Jordan maintained a good relationship with Shed and proudly chose to wear his number while remembering the good times.

"It goes back to me always looking up to him and having so much respect for my father and the kind of man that he was," Jordan said. "It also meant a lot being that my dad was in his situation, so I kind of felt like every time I put on that jersey, I was carrying my whole family on my back. If I could restore my family's good name instead of everyone referring to Shed Diggs as the guy that got into trouble and made some mistakes - it was way bigger than just wearing his number. I'm pretty sure me wearing that number means a lot to him, and I hope it means just as much to him as it does to me because it's special."

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