Stefon Diggs is Buffalo’s miracle man

How a trade and the most unusual offseason in NFL history turned Diggs into the league's top receiver.

Note: This story originally ran on Dec. 17, 2020. We are republishing it ahead of the Bills' playoff game against the Colts at 1:05 p.m. on Saturday.

Stefon Diggs is nervous. First-day-of-school nervous, that nervous where it feels like a pebble fell down your throat and now it's just sitting there, steady, pressing hard against your gullet. It is late May, and Diggs is in Miami, about to join a makeshift workout put together by some of the players on the Buffalo Bills. He was traded to the team two months ago, and because of the pandemic, he hasn't met any of his teammates in person.

He walks onto the field. Josh Allen, the Bills' quarterback, comes over to shake hands. Diggs looks around. Receiver Cole Beasley is there. Running back Devin Singletary. Tight end Dawson Knox. It is basically the whole offense, Diggs realizes. And he is the new kid.

Diggs doesn't know what they think of him. Doesn't know what they've heard about his final, frustrating year as a Minnesota Viking. Doesn't know if they see him as just another diva wide receiver. Doesn't know if they care. Diggs enjoys the spotlight as much as any person paid millions of dollars to catch a ball on television would, but here he's just hoping to blend in.

It is a weird feeling. Diggs is usually relaxed, confident. You can see it in the custom cleats he wears in games, each with sharp, artistic renderings: a montage of "The Hangover" for a game in Las Vegas; a message about heart disease; a tribute to Kobe Bryant, and one to the Popeye's chicken sandwich; a portrait of Dave Chappelle as Rick James. Whatever it is, it's almost always bright and bold, always sharing something bigger.

But today he's wearing more modest cleats. Today is different. This is months before Diggs will break out as arguably the league's best wide receiver, months before he will help put the Bills in position to win their first division title in 25 years. Months before he and Allen will start making Buffalo fans reminisce about Jim Kelly and Andre Reed. This is the beginning.

So Diggs hangs back. When the players prepare to run through their first set of drills, Diggs lingers, figuring he'll find a spot near the end of the line. He wants to see how the Bills go through their paces, wants to take it all in for a second. Maybe swallow that pebble.

Then veteran wideout John Brown speaks up. "Stef, why don't you lead us off?"

Diggs looks up, startled. "What?"

Brown smiles. "Why don't you lead us off?" He motions toward the front.

Diggs gulps, nods and steps up. He's made hundreds of catches in his career, caught passes from a slew of different quarterbacks, in games and practices big and small, but none quite like this.

He runs a short route and turns back to see Allen fire the ball his way, right on time. The ball smacks into his hands and sticks.

Diggs jogs back in line. Then he laughs. Then he chirps at the others. Then he bounces up and down. The pebble is gone.

"I was just ... happy inside," Diggs says now, remembering Brown's gesture. "I felt that he trusted in me."

To anyone watching, it was a nothing moment in a nothing drill during a nothing workout, three seconds out of a few hours when a bunch of football players got together to run routes on a field in the sun. But even six months later, Diggs' face lights up at the memory. Brown was asking Diggs to lead.

"I'm not shunning away from it," he says. "I'm ready."

For Diggs, Buffalo was never football Siberia. He sees a team, and a city, that is pushing for a new beginning because it believes that it can be something more than its past. Clay Patrick McBride for ESPN

IF YOU KNOW Diggs for one play, it is almost certainly the catch he made in January 2018, when he scored an out-of-nowhere, game-winning 61-yard touchdown as time expired and the Vikings beat the Saints in the NFC divisional round.

That catch, which has become known as the Minneapolis Miracle, is probably the greatest play in Vikings franchise history (the team has been around since 1961), and Diggs makes clear, right from the top, that he is undeniably thankful he was at the heart of it.

There is also, however, a certain fatigue when he talks about the play. His tone is just-the-facts, like he's a court reporter reading from an incident report: "He threw it, I tried to make a play on the ball. The guy missed. I get to run into the endzone. ... And, you know, like the movies say, the crowd goes wild. My teammates jump on me. History."

This intonation isn't surprising. Diggs is asked about the play a lot. This time he does add a wrinkle: how in the huddle, quarterback Case Keenum called that play three times in a row, finally saying before the third attempt, "I'm going to give someone a chance, all right?" "He kinda cut his eyes at me, but he didn't look at me," Diggs remembers, "so I was like, 'Well, s---, it probably ain't coming to me.'"

But there isn't the excitement you might expect, and part of that is very likely because of all that came afterward. The Minneapolis Miracle seemed like one of those classics, the kind of play that links a player and his team forever; in fact, later that summer, the Vikings rewarded Diggs with a 5-year contract and more than $40 million in guaranteed money.

Instead, by the fall of 2019, Diggs was miserable, and unpacking that incredible deflation is important in understanding how he reached where he is now. "I was in a very, very dark place," he says.

"Do you think you were depressed?" I ask, and Diggs hesitates. Then he curses through a smile. "I don't know," he says, then: "It's kind of hard to say." Finally, he says, "I wouldn't say I was depressed. Things weren't perfect in my life, but nobody has a perfect life. It was more so the mental stuff. ... I believed in myself, you know? I wanted more for myself."

That is the crux of where things derailed for Diggs with the Vikings. The Minneapolis Miracle happened to him when he was 24, and almost immediately it felt like he had already lived his defining moment, even if he was certain there should be something more. Anyone, let alone a confident professional athlete who imagines himself having a long career in the NFL, would struggle to process the idea that his legacy might have been sealed in the first act of his life's play.

In 2019, the Vikings also turned over their offense to Kevin Stefanski, who preferred to focus on the running game and the emergence of Dalvin Cook as one of the league's top backs. Suddenly Diggs' life became two trains going in opposite directions: He was sure he could top the unbelievable moment he'd already experienced, but he was trying to do it for a team that, despite paying him well, wasn't much interested in giving him the ball. After averaging 10 targets per game in 2018, Diggs saw fewer than half that -- just 23 total -- in the first five weeks of the 2019 season.

Even through his struggles, Diggs says he never had a real issue with any of the Vikings players (including quarterback Kirk Cousins), and he remains close with many of his old teammates; Adam Thielen reached out recently with a question about shoulder pads because the two receivers wear the same type.

"People have a common misconception that I don't love my old team," Diggs says. "I have nothing but love and respect for those guys. But where they were and where they were headed ... in my eyes, it wasn't going to be in the best interest of my career. As a receiver, if you want to have success, you've got to catch the ball."

In truth, though, Diggs' biggest problem wasn't the lack of touches; it was that he felt his conversations with Vikings officials were inauthentic. He didn't feel heard.

"I'm not gonna say [they were] peeing on me and telling me that it's raining," he says. "That's a little bit harsh." He considers his words. "But something like that. ... Once you don't have trust with a person, it's hard to do business."

It should be said: Diggs had his moments in all this too. He shied away from throwing tantrums around the media, though he did publish a slew of fairly unsubtle social media posts that many who were connected to the Vikings took as signs of his obvious displeasure. One read, "If I can't make it with you, I'll make it without." Another: "You know what they say ... what goes around comes around." The low point came in the days after a September 2019 loss to the Bears, when Diggs skipped work without an excuse, drawing a $200,000 fine from the team.

Looking back now, Diggs offers a halfhearted explanation for the social posts ("Some of those were song lyrics") and says, "I don't necessarily regret" blowing off a practice and some team meetings, although "maybe part of me wishes I had that money back."

In the end, Diggs says he just felt trapped. "That was my only way of saying something at that time," he says. "I just didn't feel like I had that belief from them anymore, you know?"

“I love my old team. But where they were headed ... it wasn’t gonna be in the best interest of my career. As a receiver‚ if you want to have success‚ you gotta catch the ball.”

- Stefon Diggs

As each day passed, it seemed less and less likely that Diggs would play out his five-year deal in Minnesota. The Vikings said repeatedly that they didn't want to trade Diggs, but on March 16, word came: He was going to the Bills, for a massive haul of four draft picks, including a first-round selection. ("That's our first-round pick," Bills GM Brandon Beane said of Diggs in explaining why he was willing to part with so much.)

Minnesota's public stance was that Buffalo's offer was simply too good to pass up. "Diggs didn't have to go," coach Mike Zimmer told Rich Eisen earlier this year about the trade, which has worked out equally well for the Vikings after drafting Justin Jefferson (who's already topped 1,000 yards on the season himself) in the first round. "We really didn't have any intention of trading him. Quite honestly, he put out a couple tweets, and there was some things going on there, but Stefon works extremely hard, he practices like crazy, he wants the ball like all receivers do. Really what happened was Buffalo came in and gave us all those picks."

Through his final months in Minnesota, Diggs leaned on his mother, Stephanie, for support. So after he learned of the trade from his agent, he called her to tell her he was headed to Buffalo.

"My mom was screaming at the top of her lungs," Diggs remembers. "Originally, she said, 'I want some of them chicken wings!'" He laughs. "She was happy for me. She was happy for a new beginning." Before they hung up, Stephanie told her son, "I know you're going to handle yourself extremely well, and I'm looking forward to it."

Diggs laughed. "You ain't the only one," he said.

"Day one, since I reached out, he's been nothing but great," Allen says. "I'm super happy that we traded for him." Christian Petersen/Getty Images

DURING THE OFFSEASON, Diggs put himself through what he calls a "personal reevaluation." The goal, he says, was "self-healing," and the process involved several days of reflection, isolation and reading. One of the books he chose was "The Alchemist."

The novel, written by Brazilian Paulo Coelho, is a tale about a young shepherd in Andalusia who literally follows his dreams. The story focuses on the importance of destiny and belief. It spoke to Diggs. "It's probably the best book I've ever read," he says.

The idea that each of us has a personal legend we should be chasing -- chasing, as opposed to idly hoping will someday happen -- resonated even more after the trade to Buffalo. Diggs had fought his way into the league as a fifth-round pick out of Maryland in 2015, and even during the slog of 2019, when he caught the fewest passes since his rookie year, he made the most of them, totaling 1,130 yards. Now in Buffalo, he would push forward in a different way. This time and place was about self-direction.

In the days after the deal was announced, Diggs found himself wanting to do so much: talk to his new coaches, look at his new playbooks, meet his new receiving corps and, more than anything, get to know his new quarterback. The only problem was that a pandemic had just enveloped the world.

There would be no OTAs. No minicamps. No official team activities of any kind. And Diggs couldn't just hop on a plane and show up to hang out with Allen either. He had to get creative.

Diggs' brother, Trevon, who plays cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys, had been really into video games for a while and was always asking Diggs to play. Diggs never was all that interested, and he admits he would even mock Trevon and others for the gear they used. "Like, 'Oh, you got a headset on? You too serious about it,'" he says, laughing.

Only then Diggs learned that Allen was a gamer. And he got a headset of his own.

“He just kept saying, ‘He’s real, bro.’ He could tell it was going to be special. He just kept saying it to me over and over. ‘He’s real, bro. He’s real.’”

- Trevon Diggs on his brother's relationship with Josh Allen

The game that Diggs and Allen played together, Call of Duty: Warzone, is pretty much what you'd imagine: a mission-based game with lots of weapons, artillery and shooting. Diggs, as a relative novice, spent a lot of time dying (or being "downed," to use the vernacular), but that actually turned out to be a good thing.

While most players simply fight on if someone they know is downed, Allen always retreated from whatever battle he was in -- even if he had an advantage -- to run over to Diggs' avatar and resuscitate him.

"It didn't matter if I was getting shot or not," Allen says. "I was going to revive my guy."

Allen's commitment to helping Diggs ran so deep it infuriated Trevon, who sometimes played with them. Turns out Allen's caring approach to his new receiver isn't the ideal strategy for others playing in the game who might have been counting on Allen to, say, spray a hail of bullets at a passing ATV.

"I had to stop playing with them," Trevon says. "It was getting ridiculous."

Diggs and Allen spent hours on the game, talking to each other on their headsets and bonding over their repeated attempts to dominate whichever console heroes tried to obliterate them on that particular day.

When the two finally met face to face at the Miami workout, Diggs felt like they weren't starting from scratch.

Trevon, who was staying with Stefon in Florida, giggles when he recalls how excited his brother was about Allen after getting back home from the first in-person session with his new internet buddy.

"He just kept saying, 'He's real, bro,'" Trevon says. "They'd played games for a while and now they'd done passing and he felt like he knew. He could tell it was going to be special. He just kept saying it to me over and over. 'He's real, bro. He's real.'"

With three games still to go this season, Diggs has already tied the Bills' franchise record of 100 catches and is currently leading the NFL in receptions (no Buffalo player has ever finished a season in that position). Clay Patrick McBride for ESPN

AT ONE POINT during my conversation with Diggs, he muses for a stretch on whether he could join Trevon in playing cornerback in the league. Stefon grew up playing running back and sort of stumbled onto playing receiver, but he always had eyes on the defensive backs, entranced by the way they snatched a floating pass out of the air and took off running the other way.

"It'd be hard to cover," he says, "but I know I could sit back and zone or double a guy all day." This is a typical Diggs tangent, and he seems somewhere between intrigued and amused by the notion.

"I'd be like ... top-seven corners in the league," Diggs says finally. He cackles. "Might have to talk to Coach about that."

At this point, it's hard to imagine a world in which Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll agrees to give up any of Diggs' time. With three games still to go this season, Diggs already has tied the Bills' franchise record of 100 catches, and he's currently leading the NFL in receptions (no Buffalo player has ever finished a season in that position).

Diggs' showing against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 14 was emblematic of how he can drive Buffalo's attack: In the first half, the Bills looked as if they were playing in quicksand, and the offense punted or turned the ball over on six of their seven possessions.

In the second half, Allen turned to Diggs, who caught six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter alone as the Bills took control and won by 11. Along the way, Diggs showed off the versatility that makes him such a weapon: He caught passes over the middle. He went to the sideline and toe-tapped for a first down. He ran a perfect route into the seam and caught a laser. On a crucial third-down play, he did a quick cut inside, leaped up to catch Allen's pass and literally bounced off a defender who was trying to lay Diggs out before whizzing away for a 23-yard gain.

All that was missing was a deep ball, though Diggs has that too -- earlier this year, he and Allen connected on a 49-yard play against the Raiders.

"Diggs is so special that as I see him play, I just want to rip off my captain's 'C' and put it on his chest," offensive tackle Dion Dawkins told reporters after the Steelers win. "He's a stud, man."

That sort of acceptance is what Diggs craved. The whispers about what happened in Minnesota haven't colored his new teammates' impressions of him, and in a short time, Diggs has been able to make connections with the others in the locker room. He feels linked to the group. "This dude is nothing like what people make him seem like," Brown says. "It was just time for a new start for him, and people love the energy he brings."

Now, Diggs knows the jokes. He has concocted individual handshakes. He is at ease with his role enough to be able to make the sort of outlandish claims that inspire eye rolls and belly laughs simultaneously. He talks trash. He hugs.

"He makes other players around him better," head coach Sean McDermott says. "That's some of the gravy we didn't know we were getting when we traded for him."

"I'm not shunning away from it," Diggs says of his new responsibility as a leader in the Bills' locker room. "I'm ready." Clay Patrick McBride for ESPN

ONE DAY EARLIER this season, Diggs went to a local ice cream shop near his house in the Buffalo suburbs. Diggs loves ice cream, but while there is no shortage to his boldness when it comes to personal style (a famous leather-on-leather ensemble he once wore to a game still draws comments from teammates), he remains deeply conservative when it comes to flavor selection. Sherbet is a frequent pick, but Diggs often just goes for plain vanilla. "Some rocky road maybe," he says hesitantly. "But I'm mostly just a simple guy."

That day, while waiting for his vanilla scoop, Diggs was struck by what he heard all around him: The only thing people in the shop were talking about was the Bills. Allen. Himself. The defense. The coaching. The division.

"The Bills are doing pretty good," someone said, and when Diggs got to the front, he smiled at the person behind the counter. "Yeah, they're not half bad," he said. "You know, hopefully, they can do even better."

It was, Diggs says now, just a sliver of what he imagined his life would be when he learned he was joining the Bills. The pandemic has made impossible the normal, typical, commonplace interactions of our everyday lives, and specifically for those in Buffalo, that has meant missing out on the unique intensity that comes with living among those who support the local football team.

Diggs has not gotten to meet Pinto Ron, the fan who prefers to be doused in ketchup and mustard before every game. He has not had the opportunity to sample the various wing shops in town and settle on his favorite. He has not had the chance to sit down with anyone who identifies as part of the "Bills Mafia" and discuss, at some length, the inscrutable tradition that involves a fan climbing onto the roof of something -- any car, camper or portable bathroom will do -- and then, in a fit of glory, launching himself or herself down at full speed and destroying the flimsy, helpless folding card table stationed below.

"I wanted the whole shebang," Diggs says. "I think I'm going to have to jump through a table to really start getting some of the experiences."

Some might still think of Buffalo as a football Siberia; this is, remember, a place that features an outdoor stadium despite a typical annual snowfall of nearly 100 inches, as well as a group of fans that carries around several decades of scar tissue formed from losing four Super Bowls and spending the better part of two decades looking up at Tom Brady and the Belichick Patriots. There is plenty of pain to go around here.

But Diggs sees something else.

He sees the recent quiet rise of the team, the wild-card spots in two of the past three seasons. He sees the slow development of the roster, with receivers like Brown and Beasley, and a quarterback like Allen, who is one of the brightest young talents in the league. Diggs sees a team, and a city, that is pushing for a new beginning because it believes, more than anything, that it can be something more than its past.

"I see a family more than a fan base," Diggs says.

It is nothing less than all he wanted. "He's just getting started," Brown says.

There have been plenty of highlights already: The bomb against the Raiders. A 41-yard catch-and-run against the Patriots where it felt like he was carrying half New England's defense with him. A staggering, diving touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone against Arizona.

But to Diggs, that catch back in May -- that first ball in practice -- still stands out. Brown said "Lead us," and Diggs did. It has taken some time, to be sure, but the ingredients are finally there. Diggs feels love. He feels trust. He feels ready.

He feels that thing we all crave so often, that sensation that comes when we get to a place where the pebbles in our throats disappear.

He feels at home.

Sam Borden A senior writer for ESPN, Borden previously worked for The New York Times as a foreign correspondent based in Paris.

Styling by Stefon Diggs; grooming by Cassandra Lyons; field production by Greg Addo/Addo Productions; bandanna jacket by Kapital; cap by Fear of God; necklace by Rafaello & Co.; suit by Homme Plisse Issey Miyake; turtleneck by JohnLawrenceSullivan; shoes by Hermes; silk top by Taakk; knit hat by The Elder Statesman; leather jacket by Saint Laurent; shirt by Acme Studios.

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