- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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When Dameyune Craig left Florida State to return to his alma mater, he was leaving behind a national championship contender and a potential Heisman Trophy quarterback in Jameis Winston. It’s no wonder Craig turned down Auburn the first time they offered.
But it wasn't the talent and future success that made it such a difficult decision. It was his relationship with Winston, the quarterback he was responsible for bringing to Tallahassee. Craig had served as a mentor, a father figure and a friend to the Seminoles’ redshirt freshman.
“Without Coach Craig being in my life -- he was a good reason why I came to Florida State,” Winston said. “He kept me on the right path. He used to call me every morning. If he had one of his visions or something, 5 in the morning he’d call me and let me know, ‘Aye Jaboo, don’t do this.’ Coach Craig’s got a lot of visions.”
The relationship began when Winston was a sophomore in high school. Craig had just become the new quarterbacks coach at Florida State, and it didn't take long for him to make Winston a recruiting priority.
It helped that Craig could relate to Winston. He, too, was a star quarterback from the state of Alabama. While at Auburn, he set numerous passing records, including completions (216) and passing yards (3,227) in a single season. He led the Tigers to 10 wins in 1997. He was who Winston wanted to be at the next level.
“Just talking to him, meeting his family and everything, I see him as me,” Winston said at Saturday’s BCS media day. “When I grow up, I want to be like him.”
Craig also made an impact on Winston’s family. He was the first recruiter to bypass the high school coach and talk directly with Jameis’ father, Antonor Winston.
“He was willing to break through the walls,” Antonor said. “Coaching-wise, you never go to a school for a coach because they could be a dime a dozen. As a mentor, Dameyune just understood Jameis. He said some stuff that nobody would think about saying about Jameis, and it came to pass.”
According to Antonor, Craig told his son that if Jameis went to Auburn, he would start as a true freshman. If he chose Alabama, he might make some people mad because he would take AJ McCarron’s spot. But at Florida State, he could redshirt his first year, learn from future NFL quarterback EJ Manuel and focus on his baseball career, too.
That’s what the family wanted to hear. It was a win-win situation. So Winston, the No. 1 quarterback and No. 14 prospect in the 2012 ESPN 300, signed with the Seminoles.
“Coach Craig doesn't get enough credit for bringing Jameis there,” Antonor said. “Their relationship -- Jameis knew leaving home, Dameyune was going to make him do right. He got recruited by a lot of schools and a lot of recruiters, but I don’t think anybody came in and cared about Jameis’ well-being the way he did.”
It couldn't have worked out better for the prized recruit. Jameis redshirted his first year with football. In the spring, he started 30 games for the baseball team that ended up reaching the super regionals. And this season, with expectations high, he took over as Florida State’s starting quarterback and led the Seminoles to an undefeated season and a spot in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.
The only downside? Craig wasn't there to be a part of it. He left after Winston’s freshman year, a decision that was difficult for Winston and his family.
“It hit me pretty hard,” Jameis said. “I didn't really express that because I had to talk to Coach [Jimbo] Fisher about it. I was sad when Coach Craig left because it was unexpected. I had talked to him about it, and I knew he had done the right thing for him. I trusted him and told him I supported him the whole way.
“I told him, ‘Coach Craig, if you gotta go, then go. Because I’m going to be with you no matter what.’”
Little did Winston know, he’d be going against his former mentor and coach in Monday’s national championship game.
The decision to leave Florida State for Auburn worked out for Craig, too. He works with the wide receivers now, but he helped recruit quarterback Nick Marshall, who has been instrumental in the Tigers’ miracle season. The two have already developed a relationship similar to what Craig had with Winston.
“He’s the same type of guy,” Marshall said. “He doesn't let anything change. What’s his is ours. That’s with all the coaches. If we have anything to talk about, we can call any one of our coaches on the coaching staff and just talk to them about it. It’s like another dad to us.”
However, Craig will always hold a special place in his heart for Winston and his family. It’s the reason Winston mentioned Craig in his Heisman Trophy speech. It’s the reason Winston deleted Craig’s number from his phone -- he was afraid he’d be tempted to call his former coach. It’s the reason why Monday’s game won’t affect their relationship.
“I don’t think he’s concentrating on beating me,” Winston said. “He’s concentrating on beating Florida State. It’s just like I’m not concentrating on beating him, because at the end of the day, win or lose, me and him are going to remain the same. He’s going to be happy for me if we win. I’m going to be happy for him if they win.”
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