Original publish date: February 2, 2012
Jordan Diggs thanked his family and friends who gathered in the Island Coast High School auditorium Wednesday to share a day he has envisioned for most of his life.
It was National Signing Day, and he was celebrating his commitment to play football at the University of South Carolina.
Foremost on his mind, though, were the two men who couldn’t be there.
His father, Shed Diggs, sits in a federal prison in Montgomery, Ala.
His mother’s fiance, Constantine Bailey, was slain six days ago during an attempted break-in at the family’s home.
“It does take a little of the joy out of today,” Diggs said. “My dad, he’d give anything to be here. But I know he’s proud of me.
“And Mr. B, it’s a tragic situation because that’s someone who was very important in my life. He was a very high-spirited person, so I know he’d want me to be happy, even though it’s tough to be.
“I’m trying to take a bad situation and make it good.”
The 18-year-old Diggs has an even bigger responsibility these days.
“Jordan’s just a kid, but right now he’s the one holding our family together,” Diggs’ mother, Altemia, said. “I’m falling apart.”
Diggs was 13 years old when Shed Diggs, a Cypress Lake High graduate and four-year letterman at linebacker for South Carolina, went to prison for cocaine distribution.
“I’m not going to make any excuses,” the elder Diggs told the U.S. district judge who sentenced him to a 10-year term in May 2007, a sentence lengthened because of prior convictions for aggravated battery and selling drugs. “I have to fight every day in my neighborhood. Sometimes you fall.”
Two months later, Jordan Diggs’ older brother Justin, then 17, was convicted of selling cocaine in an unrelated case and was sentenced to four years in prison.
With another older brother, Jeremy Ware, playing college football at Michigan State, Diggs suddenly had a new role thrust upon him.
“It was my time to stand up and be the man of the household,” said Diggs, who has three younger siblings. “It was a desperate time, because Jeremy was off at college and Justin was off to prison.
“It was my time to grow up and I had to do it fast.”
Despite their separation, Diggs said he has a good relationship with his father. The two talk every week and exchange frequent emails. There’s one subject, however, the two haven’t discussed.
“He never really talked to me about what happened and I preferred it that way,” Diggs said. “I know my dad made some mistakes and he knows it, too; he’s owned up to them.
“There were definitely times when I was upset. Going to football banquets and seeing all my teammates with their fathers, those father-son moments, I didn’t have that. Those were the times I felt like it wasn’t fair.
“But it’s hard to be too bitter about my dad because when he left, there was nothing but good memories from my childhood.”
Justin’s absence proved equally hurtful to Diggs because the two were so close.
“He was the brother I had all the fights with,” Diggs said with a smile. “He was a great athlete and he was the one who taught me to work hard. I hated him for making me work out, but he helped make me the player I am today.”
Justin Diggs was released from prison last February and lives across the street from Jordan.
“In some ways, what happened to my dad and my brother made me the person I am,” Diggs said. “It made me more focused on my future.
“It’s also made me strong on the football field, too, because there’s no challenge out there that’s bigger than what I’ve gone through.”
Those challenges included a five-month battle with the Florida High School Athletic Association to play football at Island Coast this fall. After losing two appeals in which Diggs argued his transfer from Bishop Verot High School wasn’t based on athletics, the association restored his eligibility after the fourth week of the regular season.
“I was so impressed with the way he handled that,” Island Coast Principal Pete Bohatch said. “I told both him and his mother it might be easier if Jordan left and went to another school. But they were willing to sit out the whole season because they knew they did nothing wrong.”
Diggs was a freshman at Bishop Verot when his mother met Bailey, a native of Jamaica.
“He was like an angel to me because he came into my life at a really tough time,” said Altemia, 45. “At the time we met, I had a husband and a son in prison, two children in college, one in high school, three in elementary school and my day care business just closed. What kind of man takes that on?”
The 51-year-old Bailey did, serving first as more of friend to Jordan Diggs and the rest of his siblings.
“I’d tell him he needed to be tougher with them,” Altemia said. “I’m the one that wants to go after them when they do something wrong but he’d say, ‘Let me go talk to them,’ and it would get worked out.”
Bailey’s relationship with Jordan deepened during the past year. With Diggs garnering widespread attention as a top national recruit, the two traveled together to football camps and visited colleges that clamored for Diggs’ commitment.
“Any time I needed him, he was there,” Jordan Diggs said.
At approximately 1:30 a.m. last Friday, Bailey was smoking a cigar on the patio of the Diggs’ home on Ellington Avenue in Fort Myers. Altemia said she was upstairs when she heard a knock at the front door.
“I was putting some clothes on to go down and answer the door when I heard somebody shooting in the backyard,” she said.
Altemia started to come downstairs and said she saw “a shadow” running through the house and out the front door. She said the assailant got into a car and sped away. According to a Fort Myers police report, the car, a gray 2005 Toyota Scion with tinted windows and tag number AIHA17, was stolen. Police are still seeking the suspect.
On the back porch, Bailey lay dead.
“He was very protective of the family; he’s always been,” said Altemia, whose three youngest children were home when Bailey was killed. “When it came down to it, he was going to fight to the end to protect us, and he did.”
Jordan said he was at his brother Justin’s house when Bailey was shot. The pair heard the commotion and raced across the street.
“He gave up his life for us,” Diggs said.
Altemia said some of Bailey’s family members arrived in Fort Myers from Jamaica on Wednesday. She picked them up at the airport prior to her son’s signing day celebration, an event she wasn’t sure she was up to attending.
“He was the one who talked me into it,” she said of Jordan. “He said, ‘Mom, you can’t give up. This is something you have to overcome.’ I don’t know where he gets his strength from.”
But Jordan does.
“My mom, that’s a strong lady right there,” Diggs said, his voice quivering slightly. “I have the utmost respect for her. The things she had to go through, so many ups and downs and she never gave up. She was always there for me.”
A bright future
Diggs, a hard-hitting safety blessed with power and excellent football instincts, had no shortage of college suitors, with more than 25 offering scholarships. Included among them was South Carolina, his father’s alma mater, which Diggs visited in November.
“I tried to set aside that my dad went there and make the decision that was best for me,” Diggs said. “But when I walked into that stadium, this feeling just came over me.
“Once I left there I called my dad and told him all about it. He said he was happy I had a good experience, but that I had to make my own decision. But I could hear a little chuckle in his voice. I think he could tell by the way I was talking where my heart was.”
Shed Diggs is scheduled to be released from prison in early 2016. That fall, Jordan Diggs hopes his father gets to see him play during what would be his senior year.
“That’s going to be a special time,” Jordan Diggs said. “I plan on wearing No. 42, the same number he did. I’m going to be carrying a whole lot of other people with me when I go out on that field.”
While proud of her son for persevering through their shared tough times, Altemia Diggs has mixed feelings about his departure for college.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do without him,” she said.