The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

‘Heart of a lion’: Iowa football’s Diante Vines refuses to give up amid adversity

The wideout battled his way through a life-threatening illness as a young teenager and suffered countless injuries that kept him from playing the game he loved.
Grace Smith
Iowa wide receiver Diante Vines runs the ball during a football game between Iowa and Western Michigan at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. The Hawkeyes defeated the Broncos, 41-10. Vines had 7 receiving yards and one touchdown.

Diante Vines felt a comforting presence wash over him when he scored his first touchdown in an Iowa uniform.

Vines said it was his Uncle Mike, who had just died from Stage 4 metastatic cancer a few days before Iowa’s 41-10 win over Western Michigan.

Vines and his uncle were known jokesters, and Mike always teased his nephew about when he was going to score his first career touchdown.

Mike never got the chance to see Vines, a junior wide receiver with the Hawkeyes, compete in college but was glued to the TV any time his “superstar” was playing. He made sure an Iowa hat was put in his casket so he would always be with his nephew.

“When Mike got sick, he told Diante, ‘Don’t ever give up. Go for your dream,’” Vines’ mother, Joyce Russotti, said.

Few have experienced the adversity Vines has had to overcome in his 22 years of life.

He battled his way through a life-threatening illness as a young teenager and suffered countless injuries that kept him from playing the game he loved, but Vines refused to give up.

Now, the Connecticut native feels he’s finally where he always strived to be.

“That was everything to me,” Vines said of his touchdown reception, a 3-yard pass from quarterback Cade McNamara in the Sept. 16 game. “It’s just a true testament to what can happen when you keep your head down and keep working.”

‘Knocking on death’s door’

Vines started playing sports when he was 5 years old. His older brother, Davi, was 7 years old at the time and played basketball. Vines wanted to play on Davi’s team but had to be at least 7 unless one of his parents was the coach.

So, Russotti applied to be the head coach of the basketball team, and Vines’ father, Marshall Vines, got the assistant coaching job.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Russotti said. “I was labeled the head coach, and Marshall was the assistant coach, which really was the reverse.”

Russotti said Vines was a natural athlete and had no problems keeping up on the court.

Vines started playing baseball at age 7 and said it was the sport he was most skilled in. Marshall pushed his son to continue his baseball career, but Vines eventually got bored of it.

“Maybe I should’ve kept playing baseball because the money is hitting over there,” Vines joked.

He didn’t like football much as a child but was inspired by Davi to start playing and began his career in middle school as a quarterback. Vines was prepared for the physicality of football, as he often was the victim whenever Davi practiced pro wrestling moves.

“I was just getting beat up all the time,” Vines recalled with a smile.

Vines quickly fell in love with football, but just before he turned 15, his health got in the way of his athletic career.

Vines got salmonella, a food-related illness that affects more than 1 million people every year. Some that are infected experience no symptoms and can recover within a few days to a week without specific treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic. Such was not the case for the young athlete.

By the time Danbury Hospital had called the ambulance to transfer Vines to a children’s specialty facility, he was in critical condition. 

The exact source of Vines’ sickness was never determined, but the CDC narrowed it down to three possible causes. A few days prior to Vines becoming sick, he had eaten at a sushi spot with his family and gone to breakfast at a local diner with his friends. The morning before he started vomiting, Vines cooked himself a breakfast sandwich at home.

Russotti said Vines lost 33 pounds due to the illness and was suffering from sepsis, which occurs when an infection triggers a chain reaction throughout the body and can rapidly lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death without timely treatment, per the CDC.

“The doctors told Diante, ‘You are knocking on death’s door,’” Russotti remembers. 

Medical professionals found out Vines also had E. coli, another food-related illness that was a different bacteria than salmonella. Because both infections were fighting against one another, it was difficult to find an antibiotic that would fend off both.

Russotti said Vines’ left leg was “dragging” and filling with fluid for about two months. Doctors had to drain his knees and hips often for him to regain mobility. The infection also compromised Vines’ vision and caused redness and swelling in his right eye.

“You’re staring at him, and you’re thinking, ‘Why can’t I save him? Why can’t I protect him?’ This is my job,” Russoti said. “I’m supposed to always be able to take care of him and make him better. And that was a time where I felt I couldn’t help him.” 

Infectious disease specialists gave Vines two options: take two different pills at the same time, which could potentially be fatal, or opt out of medication and risk death anyway.

“We went for the two pills at the same time because he couldn’t battle these infections,” Russotti said. “My sister was with me, and we watched him take those two pills and prayed like there was nothing else we could do.”

Doctors didn’t hold Vines back from the field and wanted him to enjoy his young life. He continued to play football while fighting the infection and made the varsity football team at Danbury High School as a freshman, which is when he realized his potential and started dreaming of playing at the next level. Vines was motivated to earn a full athletic scholarship so his mother didn’t have to worry about paying for school.

The two medications Vines was taking made him feel so nauseous that he would vomit on the sidelines when he came off the field. But with Vines’ determination, he would go right back in on the next play. Vines never allowed himself to miss a full football season. Russotti said she didn’t know her son was puking during games until one of the coaches mentioned it and told her how much of a “fighter” the high schooler was.

Russotti said she would hide at home so her son wouldn’t hear her crying. Vines stayed optimistic and told his mom that he was a “beast” and that the illness wouldn’t defeat him.

Russotti received a call from Vines’ doctor, Henry Feder, who specializes in pediatric infectious diseases and immunology. Feder said that Vines needed to be transported to Boston because his medication wasn’t responding to the salmonella, and doctors in Boston could provide different treatments. 

Russotti had her bags packed to head to Boston, and within an hour, Feder called back and said the CDC found the specific strain of salmonella that Vines had, meaning he could now be properly treated.  

After almost two years of suffering, Vines was successfully treated for the infection on Sept. 15, 2017. He was released from the hospital on Sept. 16 and went to his grandma’s house, where his favorite meal was waiting for him—chicken parmigiana and pasta with a side of freshly made garlic bread.

“They treated him, and they looked at him and said, ‘Diante, don’t ever look back. Fully realize you are free and clear,’” Russotti said. “And that was the day we never looked back.”

Impact player

Vines played football with Davi during his sophomore year at Danbury. Vines started at running back and Davi played quarterback, but the pair switched positions later in the season. Vines also got reps at safety.

One play in particular stands out to Vines from that year.

“We were playing Staples [High School], a really good team. It was a close game,” Vines said. “I ran up the sideline for a wheel route. He threw a pass and got hit on it. I caught a one-hand catch on the sideline, and it was like our Vines-to-Vines moment. It was so awesome.”

Ahead of his junior season, Vines wanted to challenge himself athletically and academically, as well as get more exposure on the field.

His friend, Ayinde Johnson, was then playing at Taft, a private boarding school located in Watertown, Connecticut, about 35 minutes from where Vines grew up. Johnson suggested that Vines consider Taft, which currently has about 600 students from 60 different countries and 32 different states.

Vines reached out to Taft head coach Tyler Whitley and sent his game film and transcripts. Whitley was impressed and invited Vines on a visit. It was a done deal from there.

“The type of player he was, his toughness—all those things came through loud and clear on film,” Whitley said. “So just off the film itself, I knew he was going to come in here and be a major impact player for us.”

When Vines arrived on campus, he asked his head coach if he could play wide receiver. Whitley said it was the right move in Vines’ development and where the high schooler saw himself playing in college. 

On the first day of practice, Whitley said the transfer made a couple of plays that inclined the coaching staff to look at each other in awe.

“He took off from there,” Whitley said of Vines’ first practice. “He was relatively raw and inexperienced as a receiver. But all of those natural skills — the ball skills, the speed, the route running — were innate in him, and he just built upon them.”

Vines played in 16 games in his two years with the Rhinos and had 1,131 total receiving yards and 19 touchdowns. Dubbed “Hollywood” by his coaches and teammates, Vines holds career records at Taft for receiving yards, catches, and touchdown receptions. 

One of the head coach’s favorite memories of Vines came in a hard-fought 33-26 loss to Brunswick High School in 2018 when the junior had two receiving touchdowns and an 89-yard kickoff return for a score.

“He made that game the ‘Diante Show,’” Whitley said. “With Diante, we had a chance to beat anyone because he could make a play that no one else could make.”

After Vines ran the 40-yard dash in 4.66 seconds and had a shuttle run of 4.13 seconds at The Opening Regional in New Jersey in April of his junior year, schools started to pay more attention to him. 

Iowa wide receiver coach Kelton Copeland made the trip to Connecticut prior to Vines’ senior season and watched the athlete work out. That same day, Copeland offered Vines his first FBS scholarship.

“The fact that Iowa was the first one to take a shot and be the first to offer him, that hit home, and that stayed with him for sure,” Whitley said.

On June 4, 2019, Copeland called Vines and asked if he would be interested in visiting Iowa. The pair scheduled a visit for June 21–23.

Vines couldn’t pick out the Hawkeye State on a map and had never been to the Midwest, so his first impression of Iowa came from 35,000 feet in the air. 

At first glance, it was not where he imagined himself playing college football.

“I came on my visit, and when we were on the plane, I popped open the window and looked outside. All I saw was cornfields and dirt. I was like, ‘I’m not coming here. This probably isn’t for me,’” Vines said. “I’m a city boy.”

With the help of his tour guide and former Hawkeye wideout Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Vines changed his mind about Iowa by the time he hopped on his return flight home. 

“A lot of people know him as a crazy guy, so he gave me a crazy time.” Vines said of Smith-Marsette. “It was fun. He was a great host.” 

Russotti said she appreciated the honesty from Copeland when she and Vines were in Iowa City. 

“We didn’t want to hear, ‘Oh yeah, you’re going to start right away,’” she said. “We were concerned because we did know that there wasn’t a big passing game at Iowa, but they said that would be changing and they were going to factor in wide receivers more. Diante just felt so comfortable with Iowa.” 

Vines’ grandma wanted him to stay close to home, but Russotti told her son to follow his heart. 

Vines said all his other visits were great, but when the wide receiver boiled down his options, he felt Iowa was the best place for him to develop as both a player and person and hopefully reach the professional level. 

Vines committed to the Hawkeyes on July 3, 2019. He picked Iowa over Boston College, Syracuse, the U.S. Naval Academy, Army Westpoint, and other FCS programs. 

Move to the Midwest

Russotti had a tough time dropping her son off halfway across the country after all he’d been through. 

With Vines’ experience living away from home while attending Taft, he didn’t have a hard time being independent when he arrived in Iowa City. But he did miss his family, who were now an 18-hour drive away.

Vines said he talks to his older sister, Jovana, every day on the phone. He referred to her as the “second mother of the house” growing up and said the two never fail to make each other laugh.

Phone calls of support from family became even more frequent when Vines tore an Achilles tendon as a true freshman in 2020.

Russotti said there was an “unusual” number calling her cell phone while she was at work. On the caller’s first attempt, Russotti didn’t answer. But when the number called back a second time, she knew something was wrong.

When she was informed of what happened to Vines, her heart sank. She told Copeland and the doctors that she was just two flights away and that she could fly in for the surgery, but the medical staff said they couldn’t wait that long.

The doctors reassured Russotti that her son was in good care, but as an emergency room nurse herself, she was worried for her son to go through that scenario alone.

The surgery went well, and Vines made a full recovery. He played in five games the next season but recorded no statistics.

Then, when everything seemed to be going right for the wideout, adversity struck again. In an August practice, he dislocated the lunates in his left wrist. Vines jumped to make a catch and put his hand down as he landed.

Forced to miss the first six games of the season, the injury hit Vines hard. 

“There was a point when I hurt my wrist that I didn’t know if I was going to be out the whole season, and I was like, ‘If I’m out the whole season, maybe I just don’t even want to do this anymore,’” Vines said. “It takes a toll on you, and you feel like you’re letting people down back home or letting the team down because you’re not able to be out there and perform and help them out.”

Vines said he never got too low, though, as his coaches and teammates kept him involved and his love for the game was too strong to just quit.

Russotti said she told her son he didn’t have to keep playing, but Vines said he would “never give up until the day God says it’s over.”

Vines said Russotti always sent him motivational quotes during his rehab process and never failed to help him through his darkest days. He added that his mom would offer to fly out and stay with him, but Vines always declined.

“Just knowing that I love football, want to be out here, and help the team kept me driving,” Vines said. “Even when I was on a little scooter pushing around, I knew it couldn’t last forever.”

Happy and healthy

Now a 6-foot, 198-pound junior, Vines is healthy and making the impact the Iowa coaching staff always knew he could.

“He’s had so much hardship,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s just good to see him out there playing. I think he’s having fun right now, and he’s able to practice every day. It sounds pretty mundane, but those are things he hasn’t been able to do during his career.”

The wideout doesn’t necessarily stuff the stat sheet, but his presence is felt whether he has the ball in his hands or not.

In Iowa’s win over Western Michigan, Vines bullied a corner all the way down the field to lead running back Leshon Williams into the end zone.

“Whatever he was doing to that corner wasn’t nice. He was literally killing that man,” Williams said.

Vines’ first career touchdown made the day more special. Not only had Vines’ uncle passed away a few days before, but Russotti’s mother, who she said never got sick, was rushed to the same hospital as Mike, where she had to have emergency surgery.

Russotti took three weeks off work to come stay in Iowa City with Vines and watch the Hawkeyes’ first three games. She felt guilty that the rest of her family was back in Connecticut suffering the loss of Mike, but she was then reminded of why Iowa City was exactly where she needed to be at that time.

Since Vines arrived in Iowa, Russotti has had a close relationship with Janelle Hurkett, the mother of third-year defensive lineman Ethan Hurkett. Whenever Russotti is in town, she and Janelle make sure to set up a dinner date so they can catch up.

When the two met for dinner, Uncle Mike had already passed, and Russotti started crying when Janelle asked her how she was. When Russotti explained the situation, Janelle told her that if she wasn’t in Iowa City, Diante would be struggling all by himself.

“[Janelle] just looked at me, and I felt something come right over me, and I felt so relaxed,” Russotti said. “She couldn’t have said it better. God puts us where we belong when we belong there.”

Vines was more than happy that he got to spend time with his mother, whom he calls his best friend. Russotti is amazed at her son’s strength and resiliency, adding that the athlete has the “heart of a lion.”

“That’s my favorite person in the world,” Vines said of his mother. “She does everything for me. Anything I need, she’ll get done for me. And, you know, her coming out for three weeks just to watch me means the world to me. Getting to score my first touchdown and just experiencing that with her after the game and hugging her—it’s been a long time coming, so that was awesome.”

During Russotti’s time in Iowa City, she and Vines went to an escape room, had a few meals at Longhorn Steakhouse, and binge-watched Criminal Minds and Law & Order. Russotti watched the two crime shows when Vines was growing up, so now whenever they see each other, they catch up on episodes.

Russotti stayed at her son’s apartment, and Vines made sure to make her feel comfortable and welcome. Vines doesn’t drink coffee, but he bought a coffee pot and stocked up on his mom’s favorite creamer before she arrived.

Whitley recalled Vines being just as charismatic when he was in high school.

“He’s got a great heart. And he is such a family person. That’s a really cool thing that maybe on the outside, you don’t really see,” Whitley said.

One thing that is obvious on the outside, however, is Vines’ fashion taste.

The wideout is known as the fashionista of the Iowa football team. He started out young as a shoehead and eventually started asking his older sister, Jovana, for advice on all his outfits because he liked her style.

Russotti said when Vines was in high school, the local newspaper asked to come and take photos of all the sneakers and shoe boxes that were organized so carefully around the house.

Vines said he doesn’t spend much money on designer clothes but would rather find something that looks nice on a budget. He likes to browse through Boohoo and PacSun, occasionally dropping a bigger buck on some Amiri jeans.

“Now that I’m older, I definitely have way better fashion than [Jovana], so now I have to help her out,” Vines laughed.

He often has fashion wars with fellow Connecticut native and sixth-year Iowa wideout Nico Ragaini. The two lived just 45 minutes apart in Connecticut but didn’t meet until Vines arrived in Iowa. Since then, they have become best friends.

Vines said he’s supposed to match up with Ragaini on NBA 2K but joked that the veteran is “too scared” and doesn’t want to play him yet.

One thing Ragaini has been in full support of is Vines’ decision to change his nutrition this past offseason. The junior stopped drinking alcohol and added vegetables and lean meats to his diet.

Vines’ body now feels stronger, and his mind feels clearer. He thinks this change in lifestyle will help prevent him from getting injured.

“He looks great,” Ragaini said. “He goes 100 percent in everything he does. I feel like that’s the Connecticut in him right there.”

Vines currently has just four receptions on the year and his lone touchdown, but the junior and the supporting staff around him are more confident now than ever in what he can accomplish.

“This young man has faced adversity at every turn,” Copeland said. “He just continued, and I give him the highest praise because there were times when my faith was starting to be challenged a little bit for him, wondering if this young man was going to be able to push through with all the stuff that was going on in his life. This guy just kept showing up every day, and he’s still the same guy. He’s still the same guy with a smile on his face.”

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About the Contributors
Kenna Roering
Kenna Roering, Sports Editor
Kenna Roering is The Daily Iowan's sports editor. She is a junior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism with a minor in sports and recreation management. Kenna previously worked as a sports reporter for men's wrestling and volleyball and was the summer sports editor in 2023. This is her second year with the DI.
Grace Smith
Grace Smith, Senior photojournalist and filmmaker
Grace Smith is a fourth-year student at the University of Iowa double majoring in Journalism and Cinematic Arts. In her four years at The Daily Iowan, she has held the roles of photo editor, managing summer editor, and visual storyteller. Outside of The Daily Iowan, Grace has held an internship at The Denver Post and pursued freelance assignments for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Des Moines Register.