Monday, May 27, 2024

‘Is this real?’: After unique football path, Qwan’tez Stiggers on verge of NFL draft dream

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ATLANTA – It was a whirlwind tour that illustrated just how close Qwan’tez Stiggers is to realizing his NFL dream. He visited 13 teams in a little over a month. Talk about being on the NFL map.

Qwan’tez who?

Never mind that Stiggers, 23, never played a down of college football and wasn’t among the 321 prospects invited to the league’s scouting combine a few weeks ago. He’s not listed on anybody’s mock draft as a first-round pick. Nor did he figure he was always destined for this.

Yet if you’re looking for an improbable storybook journey reflecting the hope, dreams and perseverance that can come with a selection in the NFL draft, Stiggers is your guy.

At one point during his travels, he essentially pinched himself.

“I looked in the mirror and asked myself: ‘Is this actually going on? Is this real?’” Stiggers told USA TODAY Sports over the weekend, back home from the tour.

Yes, it’s real. Nearly half the teams in the league brought in the chiseled, 204-pound cornerback for a closer look as one of their “top 30” visits, part of the due diligence that comes with the draft process. One day it was Baltimore, another day Denver. One night he was in Indianapolis, the next night Buffalo. And so on. Airports. Tours of team headquarters. Interviews with coaches and decision-makers.

“It was almost surreal, visiting the cities, the coaches, seeing how some of these teams are the standard of the NFL,” Stiggers said.

Learn anything?

“I learned that if you’re a good person and can play good football, the NFL, they’ll find you,” he shot back.

This trek to the doorstep of the NFL draft included a definitive statement in 2023 in his one and only season in the Canadian Football League. He balled out for the Toronto Argonauts to the point that he became the first defensive back in 25 years to win CFL Most Outstanding Rookie honors.

Before that, it was a one-season stint in Fan Controlled Football that reignited his gridiron dream after, well, his mother, Kwanna Stiggers, came across the 7-on-7 semi-pro indoor league while scrolling on Facebook and signed him up for a tryout.

His résumé is stamped with such resourcefulness. And not just from a football perspective.

He got his first paycheck from Walmart, where he collected the shopping carts in the parking lot at the store on Cascade Road in Southwest Atlanta. He washed cars at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. He was a car salesman for Superior Chevrolet. He worked temp jobs and made deliveries for DoorDash.

Hey, this dude hustles.

“I even had my own mobile oil change and brake service business,” he added. “I’ve had a lot of jobs.”

Now, Stiggers is poised to line up his next job with a dash of history. According to ESPN, Stiggers, projected as a mid-to-late-round pick, could become just the third player selected in the common NFL draft who didn’t play in college. The first was Eric Swann, a former Pro Bowl defensive tackle drafted sixth overall by the then-Phoenix Cardinals in 1991. The last was Moritz Boehringer, a German tight end taken in the sixth round by the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, who never elevated beyond the practice squad.

Why Stiggers didn’t play in college was not for a lack of trying. After graduating from B.E.S.T. Academy, a small charter school in Atlanta, he planned to play at Lane College, an HBCU school in Jackson, Tennessee. Then the pandemic hit and Lane’s season was canceled by COVID-19.

That was only part of the reason Stiggers separated from football. In September 2020, he lost his father, Rayves Harrison, who had been a coma since being injured in a one-car accident on Valentine’s Day of 2020. The ordeal with his father devastated Stiggers.

“I kind of went into a depression state, and I put my dream on hold,” Stiggers said. “I just wanted to be there for my mom and my brothers.

“Getting that opportunity to play in the Fan Controlled league, it kind of opened my eyes, helped me mature a bit.”

It helped that his coach in the indoor league, John Jenkins, was a former Argonauts assistant coach, which led to Stiggers’ word-of-mouth shot to play in Canada. He made a quick impression in the CFL, producing a pick-six in his first game and finishing the season with five interceptions. Reflecting on the turning point that got him back into football, he calls his mother’s role “a blessing” that he almost dismissed. He had never heard of the indoor league when Kwanna saw it as a possibility.

“At first, I kind of brushed it off,” he said. “It was kind of like a debate.”

Encouraged by his mother and his now-fiancee, Cheyenne McClain, he wound up on the right side of history with that decision.

“I felt like I left football too early and I needed to get back to it,” Stiggers said.

Fast-forward to mid-March. Weeks after Stiggers turned heads at the East-West Shrine Game, 29 NFL teams were represented at his pro day at B.E.S.T. Academy.

“I wanted to see if he could run,” Reggie McKenzie, senior personnel executive for the Miami Dolphins, told USA TODAY Sports, after watching the workout. “And he can run.”

Stiggers put on a show, clocking at 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash, which would have tied for 12th among cornerback times posted at the combine. He posted a 1.52-second 10-yard split (which indicated explosiveness), a 36 ½-inch vertical jump and a 10-8 broad jump. He looked fluid, too, as he turned and tracked the football on deep throws to the sideline.

A few months ago, Stiggers wasn’t on the NFL’s radar. But he’s nobody’s sleeper now.

“The fact that he played in the CFL was good for him,” McKenzie said. “It gave him the experience of playing a lot, getting on film. And the East-West was huge.”

For that, Stiggers can thank his agent, Frederick Lyles of NZone Sports, who lobbied the NFL and bowl game organizers to get an exemption that allowed his client to compete in the all-star game. Typically, players with pro experience such as the CFL are prohibited from college all-star contests.

“I just had to go there and prove a point, that I can play American ball,” Stiggers said. “What I did in Canada was just the beginning of it. Imagine what I can do once I get into the NFL and get around the right coaches.”

Lyles was the agent for two other unheralded cornerbacks who blossomed into NFL stars – Chris Harris and AJ Bouye. Naturally, he promotes the notion that he has another gem in the works.

“This kid, at the same stage, is at least at the same point as they were,” Lyles told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s got some amazing talent. I see it.”

How much NFL teams agree will be proven in the coming days. McKenzie said that in addition to the physical skills, he is struck by the mental toughness gained on Stiggers’ unique journey.

“His path, it wasn’t by choice,” McKenzie said. “He had some issues with his family, his father. And then he didn’t get a chance to play at Lane. He’s had a lot of obstacles to overcome. But there are no issues off the field. It’s just that things didn’t work out football-wise after he left high school.”

But look at him now. Stiggers will gather with his family, which includes his and Cheyenne’s 2-year-old son, Legend, during the draft and wait for the big call. He won’t even try to guess when and where that call will come from. During the tour, he picked up no clues – which is just like NFL teams to keep intentions close to the vest.

“No, I’m not nervous,” he said, answering the question. “I’ve been through adversity before and I handled it. There’s no such thing as being nervous in my system.”

For a man planning to make a living trying to keep up with big-play receivers, that’s a good thing.

He senses what his father would tell him as he prepares for the next level.

“Save every dime I can and not everybody is your friend,” he said.

In other words, be cautious. Stay grounded.

“One day you could wake up and your whole life can be changed,” he said.

He’s living proof of that. Which is the stuff NFL dreams are made of.

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