ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As Diontae Spencer was told, he was 3 years old sitting in his father’s barber chair at his dad’s barber shop in New Iberia, La., when dad said he had to walk out for a minute. Be right back.
“He was cutting my hair and he had to go up the street,’’ said Spencer, the Broncos’ first-year full-time returner and part-time receiver. “And he never came back. Crazy.”
His father, Clifton Williams, was arrested on drug charges and put away for 25 years.
“It was tough because growing up in sports, you see your friends with father figures always being around,’’ Spencer said this week in a sit-down interview with 9News. “But my mom and my family, they were strong. They made sure I had all the support that I needed.
“Once I got older, me and my dad we had a good relationship. I would always go see him while he was in prison. He would always preach, “Can’t stop, won’t stop.” That’s something that was molded and instilled in myself. Continue to work hard, no matter what it is in life, and I feel like it’s paid off.
“Once I was old enough to go visit him, that’s what made us closer. Knowing he would be getting out and having that chance to hug him and be with him, it was a great thing as a child.”
Dad served seven years in prison and when he came out, Diontae’s dad started making up for lost time. He had kicked drugs and went back to running his neighborhood barber shop named, ‘Clifton’s Impressive Cuts.’ A talkative sort with a hurt heart, he dispensed friendly advice and freebies to kids in need and men confined to nursing homes.
“It was tough growing up, but once he came home, he was a barber so I would always get a chance to go there and cut my hair and just be around him,’’ Spencer said.
On Sept. 23, 2010, two armed, masked men walked into Clifton’s Impressive Cuts while two more men waited outside in the getaway car. Money was taken from Clifton Williams, customers and the cash register, and then one of the robbers shot and killed Williams. He was 45. (Spencer said three were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. A fourth, the alleged driver, is still awaiting trial).
Spencer was less than 2 hours down the road at McNeese State, where he was two days away from playing in his third college game.
Diontae Spencer could have gone in the wrong direction, as so many of the kids he knew did. But with mom Vanessa and older sister Vaneisha deserving much of the credit, Spencer almost always made the right choices.
“It’s one of those things where you sit back and learn from the mistakes he made,’’ Spencer said. “And you grow from that. It was big not having him, but I also learned a lot from it.’’
“I’m a New Iberian homegrown kid, Louisiana. I grew up with my mom and my sister. Throughout my whole life I always played sports. That was my outlet. My dad was incarcerated for a period of time and sports and school were my outlet. I focused on that a lot. My family as a whole made sure I was going in the right direction to be successful.
“I’m a mamma’s boy. I went to McNeese State University, right down the road (a 99-mile drive), so I was always close to home. Sports was always what I was around. I was pretty good as a kid.”
In high school, he was a leadoff-hitting, base-stealing outfielder; a freshman point guard on Westgate High School’s Class 5A state championship team; and an all-state quarterback who passed 906 yards and rushed for 987 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior.
Goodness. What did you do in high school?
A receiver and returner at McNeese State, Spencer’s 5-foot-9, 161-pound frame gained little notice from NFL scouts until he went to the Canadian Football League for four seasons in Toronto and Ottawa.
He was a dominant returner and receiver, a star who did commercials and anti-bullying public service spots.
“I feel like going to the CFL changed my whole outlook on football and in life in general because I had never been that far away from home,’’ Spencer said. “I was pretty scared, you know. I was scared to go there. But once I got there I realized this can jumpstart my career. If I put my best foot forward and put 100 percent into this I can be where I want to be. Going up there I learned more about me as a person and as a player. And I had a great four years up there.”
The Steelers gave him a chance this past training camp and preseason, but when he was cut, the Broncos claimed him off waivers.
His primary role has been as a returner – his 33.0-yard average off three kickoff returns leads the NFL – and he’s been a steady-to-explosive punt returner. He’s simply been the Broncos’ best returner since Trindon Holliday in 2013-14.
“I like kickoff return,’’ Spencer said when asked to pick which he likes best. “Just because I can see pretty much the whole field. It’s more of a scheme behind things also, and there’s a lot more space. Where punt returns a punter can put you on one side of the field, kind of box you in. But sometimes on a kickoff return there’s a lot more space and you have a lot more room to wiggle around.”
He’s more recently been used for a few snaps on offense as a flanker, as the slot receiver was once called. He doesn’t get many chances, but he’s been effective, catching four passes for 31 yards and getting two rushing attempts for 14 yards.
“I would say I’m a playmaker,’’ he said. “Anywhere on the field, my job is to make plays. I feel like I’ve been doing that my whole life.’’
He got some guff for catching two punts back near his own 5-yard line, but it didn’t become a habit.
“I was trying to make a play for my team,’’ Spencer said. “At the moment, you’re not thinking too much about it. But in this football game it’s a lot about field position so you’ve got be smart. And it’s one thing, once I made the mistakes, coach Tom (McMahon), he told me you’ve got to be smart back there.
“So now I pride myself in trying to get in early and studying where I’m at on the field and making sure I’m putting the offense in good field position. It’s something now I’m always thinking about. The plays are going to come. So I’m back there, being patient and trusting myself.”
The Broncos are 2-6, getting ready to play the Cleveland Browns today at Empower Field at Mile High. His mom and much of his family are in town for the game. Despite the disappointing first half of the season, Spencer said his teammates have done a good job keeping perspective with their jobs.
They’ve still got it better than almost everybody.
“When you lose tough football games like we have, you’ve got to learn from it and you can either go downhill from it or you can go up,’’ he said. “I feel like the spirit is always up in the locker room. It’s hard to win those football games, especially the close ones in the NFL. But guys, we rally around ourselves.
“Just from a receiver room aspect of it, we always say, ‘Man, we’re blessed. Blessed to be here. Blessed to be playing a game we love. We’re healthy and we get to come in and do what we love every single day.’
“Guys in the locker room, I still see smiles. I still see the upbeat guys, still trying to have fun and trying to enjoy this whole moment. We can’t dwell on the past. We try to worry about the future and if we can get this win this week going into the bye and come back rejuvenated, the sky’s the limit.”
Can’t stop, won’t stop.
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