On a visit home for the weekend early in the fall of his freshman year of college, Qwan’tez Stiggers braced himself for the news his mother was about to share. Her tears indicated what was coming.
His father, Rayves Harrison, who had been in a coma since Valentine’s Day 2020 after a one-car accident, died in September 2020. Harrison’s death shattered his son’s life — and not just from the natural emotional fallout.
“I just shut down because he meant the world to me,” Stiggers said. “I didn’t eat. I turned off my phone. I didn’t come out of the house for a couple of weeks. I dropped out of school and stayed away from football. I gave up on my dream.”
Encouraged by his mother and fiancée, Stiggers recovered from depression and went on a ground-breaking journey that led to an invitation to play in the East-West Shrine Bowl on Feb. 1 that will likely get him selected in the NFL draft in April. Although he played one pro season in Canada, he believes a solid showing in the bowl game will bolster his cause.
“My goal in the East-West Shrine game is to put it all out there and show how my life is not just a good story,” Stiggers said. “There’s a lot behind it. I can really play football, and this isn’t just a fairy tale.”
Stiggers excelled at multiple positions at B.E.S.T. Academy, a small charter school in Atlanta that had only 27 players on its football team. He was so far under the radar that he received few scholarship offers from NAIA and Division II programs.
Stiggers chose Lane College, an historically Black college and university in Jackson, Tennessee. His college football career never got started because the season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic and his father died.
“Why play football if your biggest fan couldn’t be there?” Stiggers said.
Managing his depression, Stiggers took jobs that included driving for DoorDash and washing cars at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Encouraged by his mother Kwanna, Stiggers trained and did individual football drills. He even considered returning to college to play football, but hit some roadblocks.
“I called several schools, and either they wouldn’t call back or the coaches would say they filled their last spot,” Stiggers said. “So, I just stopped trying and continued to work out.”
Meanwhile, Kwanna Stiggers had other ideas. Knowing her son was still deeply passionate about the game, she kept her eyes out for any football opportunity. One day, while perusing Facebook, she came across the Fan Controlled Football, a pro 7-on-7 indoor football league in Atlanta. Games were streamed online. Players earned about $450 per week.
“I wanted him to be around people that enjoyed football as much as he did with hopes that someone would encourage him to chase his dreams,” Kwanna Stiggers said. “I saw the Fan Controlled Football and thought maybe this would be fun for him and help bring him back to the Tez that I know.”
She registered her son and entered him in tryouts. The thought of playing a bite-size version of football made Stiggers pause, but he changed his mind after a close look.
“When she first told me about it I was confused because I’d never heard of indoor 7-on-7 football,” Stiggers said. “But when I looked it up on YouTube, I thought it was the move to make. What I liked most was the one-on-one aspect of the game.”
Stiggers made enough of an impression at the tryout to make the team. He was back in organized football two years after high school, and his presence was undeniable.
As the youngest player in the league at 20, he led the FCF with five interceptions in 12 games (including an interception for a touchdown in his first game) and was runner-up for defensive player of the year. Before Stiggers joined the league, several former NFL players played in the FCF, such as Terrell Owens, Johnny Manziel and Josh Gordon.
Now, with a successful season under his belt, Stiggers was ready for the next challenge. He had a private workout with the Orlando Guardians of the XFL. He also had another offer to consider: Stiggers’ FCF coach, John Jenkins, a former assistant with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, told his former employer about a 6-foot, 197-pound 20-year-old cornerback who they should look at.
Argonauts assistant general manager Vince Magri took Jenkins’ information about Stiggers, but shelved it because they were in the midst of playing for the Grey Cup, the CFL’s version of the Super Bowl. After winning the Grey Cup, the Argonauts obtained game footage of Stiggers and saw everything Jenkins had claimed.
“We saw the ball skills and the athleticism,” Magri said. “They had guys in their league who played in various parts of pro football in training camps, scrimmages. We’re talking about grown men, and we saw a 20-year-old popping off the screen against them. We saw he was something special.”
Stiggers’ journey to Canada almost didn’t happen. He favored the XFL since it was closer to home. But the possibility of joining the XFL through a supplemental draft, and because the league sent his contract to the wrong email address, made the CFL an easier choice. But it came with a bigger challenge.
“I’m showing up to a league second to the NFL with no college experience,” Stiggers said, “so I thought I’d be the first player cut.”
Stiggers wasn’t alone in his assessment. Former Argonauts defensive back coach Josh Bell, now with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, already had a predisposition when it came to rookies.
“I received an email that we signed Qwan’tez Stiggers and there was no college next to his name,” Bell said. “I was like, oh, no, we’re going to get him out of here real quick. I don’t have time to deal with this guy and I already don’t like rookies, and he never went to college? There’s no way he’s going to pick up what we do on our defense.”
It didn’t take long for Stiggers and Coach Bell to change their minds as Stiggers started to separate himself from the pack during his first two days of training camp. Bell was especially impressed by how Stiggers was able to pick up the terminology and concepts of the CFL game.
Bell learned that Stiggers developed a solid football foundation in high school, where his coach taught advanced defensive concepts. Stiggers also displayed athleticism.
“His explosion is dangerous,” Bell said. “I call him a barracuda. That first day, he was moving around bursting and shooting across the field. He crushes the earth when he plants his feet into the ground . . . At the end of training camp, I went from Qwan’tez couldn’t do anything for me to becoming everything we needed.”
Stiggers didn’t disappoint, with an interception in his CFL debut in the season opener against Hamilton in June 2023. He picked off a pass from Bo Levi Mitchell, one of the league’s premier quarterbacks. And he held former University of Georgia wideout Terry Godwin to four catches for 28 yards.
Over the course of the season, Stiggers started in 16 games with 53 tackles and five interceptions. He played well enough to receive 58 of a possible 61 votes to win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie for the 2023 season. He became the first defensive back to win the award in 25 years. Stiggers also earned East Division All-Star honors.
“I couldn’t believe it when the team told me that I’d won rookie of the year,” Stiggers said. “It’s such an honor, especially when you look at how I got here. It’s truly a blessing.”
The end of Stiggers’ season began yet another football journey. Several NFL organizations inquired about the young player who became a larger blip on the prospect radar.
Stiggers’ agent, Frederick T. Lyles, of NZone Sports Management, can see why so many teams are interested in his client.
“I’ve represented Pro Bowl and All-Pro corners in the past [AJ Bouye, Chris Harris] that signed lucrative deals at this same point in Qwan’tez’s career,” Lyles said. “He’s just as good as those guys were, and that speaks to what his abilities are at this stage of the game.”
Since his graduating class is up, Stiggers is eligible to enter the NFL draft. He won’t be the first CFL player drafted into the NFL, but he’ll be the first who didn’t attend college. Although he has one more year left on his contract with the Argonauts, the team agreed to terminate their deal with him.
Stiggers, who turned 22 earlier this month, will become the first CFL and former pro player to participate in the East-West Shrine Bowl. That game, which has traditionally been only for seniors, will also include a select group of underclassmen this year.
The eligibility rules for the game are determined by the NFL. Changes were made so all of the NFL teams can get a close look at Stiggers. It will end his time with the Argonauts, but the organization supports his advancement.
“We want what’s best for Qwan’tez, and we hate losing a player of his caliber,” Magri said. “But on the flip side, this game will show some light on our league, and it’ll tell players that they can come to Canada and get some exposure.”
For Stiggers, the East-West Shrine Bowl is just another step on his ladder of achievement. Since the death of his father, his hero, he’s gone from not wanting to play the game that connected them to striving to make it to the NFL despite his unconventional start.
“My goal is to get drafted,” Stiggers said. “There’s nothing like hearing your name on draft day. Just to hear someone say ‘such and such has drafted Qwan’tez Stiggers’ will mean so much. I can make history.”