- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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Beginning Aug. 3, we're counting down the days until the college football season starts with a look at the 25 most interesting people in the sport.
It was an unseasonably cool July Fourth weekend in Hueytown, Alabama, and the town that hated Jameis Winston long before it was fashionable to do so had decided to throw him a party.
Jameis Winston Day festivities had been announced on Hueytown's Facebook pages and elicited nearly 200 comments ranging from overt racism to impassioned defenses, bitter name-calling and conspiratorial rebuttals that, hey, if Winston had just gone to Alabama or Auburn, he wouldn't be so reviled in his hometown. And, of course, there were jokes about crab legs.
But when Mayor Delor Baumann took the stage at midfield of Hueytown High's decrepit former stadium, the tone was far different. Everyone wanted to be Winston's friend.
The mayor offered a rambling story about buying pizzas for Winston's old high school team and mispronounced Winston's father's name. That gave way to a string of local politicians offering proclamations of Winston's greatness that sounded more like small-town stump speeches. One city councilman, a cousin of Winston's mother, talked about how his son bragged in school that he was related to the Heisman winner. He asked Winston to give his boy a shoutout, and the quarterback happily agreed, then whispered under his breath that he didn't know the kid's name.
After all the gushing concluded, Winston took the microphone and addressed a crowd of a few hundred people -- friends, relatives, neighbors and a handful of Florida State fans. He had a speech he wanted to give about confidence, work ethic and determination in the face of criticism, but he opened by acknowledging the obvious.
"Y'all probably think you know me," Winston said. "But you don't."
Winston understands this is a losing battle. People don't want to know him. When Florida State tried to connect Winston and his fans on Twitter last week using the hashtag #AskJameis, the results were ugly. The hashtag trended nationally as hundreds of taunts, allegations and, yes, crab-leg jokes, overwhelmed the few earnest inquiries.
He was perhaps the most polarizing person in his hometown at age 15, and the rabble has only grown louder since. In the past year, Winston has skyrocketed to national fame. He led Florida State to an undefeated season and a national championship, was at the center of a high-profile rape investigation, emerged without charges filed, won a Heisman Trophy and endured countless jokes after he was caught stealing from a Tallahassee grocery store. And somewhere along that winding road, most everyone made up his or her mind about him.
"They just want me to be a person I'm not, so they tell themselves something else," Winston said. "I'm a people person. I like to make someone laugh when they're having a bad day. I can always put a smile on somebody's face. I feel like I'm just a good guy. ... Sometimes that gets sucked under the radar with all the drama in the media."
But as Winston prepares for the second act of this ongoing drama, that media spotlight will only get brighter and the scrutiny more intense.
After Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel set the precedent for post-Heisman celebrity, it's not unreasonable to say that no college football player in history will be more exposed, dissected, criticized and debated than Winston will be in 2014.
Winston wants the world to know who he really is, but, as his sophomore season begins, what might matter more is who he's going to be.
"I have a certain standard I have to hold myself to," Winston said. "If I go even an inch below that standard, it's going to be chaos."
The gaggle of reporters had been expanding for more than an hour by the time Winston bounded into a ballroom at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, North Carolina, this past month. It was ACC media days, but this was less a showcase for the conference and more a circus crowd awaiting its main attraction.
"How does it feel to have an ACC team come in here with the national championship," Winston shouted. "Can I get a round of applause?"
The stoic crowd barely responded. They had a more serious agenda, but, of course, Winston had already broken the ice and, in turn, taken command of the proceedings. What followed was a typical Winston news conference, hitting on everything from mechanics in the pocket to the level of sweat that accumulated in former FSU center Bryan Stork's bosom.
Even Winston's harshest critics admit that the guy knows how to work a room. There's something about his personality, his energy; it's infectious. There's the beaming smile and the preacher's cadence, the enthusiasm that makes it easy to believe there's nowhere in the world Winston would rather be than right there, talking to you.
A month after winning the national championship, Winston was in Fort Worth, Texas, to pick up the Davey O'Brien Award. Bill Brady, the executive director of the O'Brien board of trustees, introduced Winston to the dignitaries on hand, but, to his surprise, Winston already knew most of them. Brady said Winston had memorized their pictures and biographies from paperwork the trust had sent along to Florida State in advance of the ceremony. Winston chatted up locals, slumped to his knees to pose for photos with children and delivered a speech that earned a standing ovation from the crowd.
"He didn't throw a pass or pitch a baseball," Brady said, "but he connected with 680 people in a room, every single one of them."
This, as much as the arm strength or the football IQ, is what makes Winston so successful. He's always upbeat, always eager. For the people who know him, it's contagious. For those who don't, however, it's often viewed as arrogance.
In high school, Winston had a reputation for barking at coaches or officials or the opposition. He was obsessively competitive, and too often it got the better of him. Fans would approach his coach, Matt Scott, after games furious that he'd tolerated such behavior from a kid. Scott eventually stopped trying to explain.
"When he's right there on the edge of boiling over a little bit, when he's running over people, breaking tackles, making big plays, they love all that," Scott said. "But what makes him able to do that, his mentality, it's what causes him to do that other little bit, too. You want the dirt without the mess."
That mess has fueled plenty of criticism for Winston, and that's been a tough lesson to learn.
His appearance in Greensboro was peppered with talk of maturity, of growth, of understanding the harsh glare of the spotlight. He has repeated, again and again, Jimbo Fisher's mantra that, to become a man, the child must die. But how can Winston kill that child inside him? How can he keep the pot from boiling over?
"People don't like when you have success," Winston said. "They're not comfortable, and I don't understand. Do they want me to be quiet or what? I just can't carry myself like that."
Fisher hopes there's a balance somewhere, a sweet spot between the goofy, eager kid and the man Winston wants to become. They've talked often about finding that sweet spot. That, Fisher said, might be Winston's biggest challenge this season.
"I don't want him to go into a shell and not be comfortable around people all the time," Fisher said. "I think that could be just as detrimental to him as being out there and so fun-loving that you don't see the danger in anything. He's got to pick his moments and be smart, but his genuine love of people and being outgoing, he has to have that. That's just who he is."
It wasn't Winston's words but his silence that defined his public image during the rape investigation. This was not by choice.
As the world speculated about what happened that night in December 2012, Winston and Florida State followed the lawyers' advice and offered no comment.
In his first game after the investigation became national news, Winston completed 19 of 21 passes for 277 yards. He called the field his sanctuary, the one place he felt in control. In the three games he played with the assault investigation hanging over his head, Winston threw nine touchdowns and just one interception. After each win, he'd dart across the field, hug friends and family and teammates, smile for the cameras and talk about football while carefully avoiding the controversy swirling around him.
"It was hard not to say things," Fisher said. "I wish I could've screamed to the world. I knew the kid, I knew the situation, and I believed in him 100 percent. It had nothing to do with him being our quarterback. It had to do with believing in him as a person and knowing he was right and being willing to stand there with him and say that."
After three weeks, state attorney Willie Meggs decided there was insufficient evidence to warrant any charge in the case. But questions remained about how police handled the investigation, whether it was even possible to get to the truth in football-crazed Tallahassee.
Winston wouldn't face a trial, but public opinion had already turned.
"He won a national championship and a Heisman Trophy and was accused of rape. That's all they know," said Rick Rabb, Winston's close friend and former Hueytown teammate.
Winston wants to shrug off the accusations, to ignore the gantlet he'll face through another year as college football's most recognizable face. But he can't.
"I don't focus on that, knowing somebody will always say something, but I don't want to live my life in lies, either," Winston said. "When someone calls me a bad person, that's disrespecting my family and the people that raised me. I know my grandma, my mama and my daddy, they raised me well, so yeah, I sometimes feel disrespected."
Surrounded by trophies and awards and framed magazines with his son on the covers, Antonor Winston is perched on a worn chair in his living room, and he's annoyed. His patience for this whole circus diminishes over the course of a few hours as he relives each fresh round of criticism, beginning with today's news: "Winston held at gunpoint by local police."
This is the problem, Antonor says. Jameis is defined by headlines, not context. The latest controversy surrounds an incident report nearly two years old. In the fall of 2012, Jameis and teammate Chris Casher were approached by FSU police after residents complained of gunshots in the area. Turns out, Winston and Casher were out hunting squirrels with a BB gun. Yes, police initially thought they were brandishing a firearm and responded accordingly, but the drama fizzled quickly and ended without so much as a citation. But it's the headlines and the hot takes everyone remembers, Antonor said.
Before Jameis set out for Florida State, his world was organized around three things: football, baseball and Antonor. The father kept a close eye on his son and pushed him on the field while holding him to a far higher standard off it. Excelling at football wasn't just about talent. Jameis worked harder and practiced more. Teachers offered no free rides and instead challenged him more because of his star status. He kept a 4.0 GPA and helped tutor other students. It's what Antonor expected of his prodigy.
But between sports and school and that immense spotlight of being the biggest fish in Hueytown's shallow pond, Jameis was hardly a regular kid, and there were times when Antonor and his wife, Loretta, wondered whether Jameis' goofy personality was as much a result of a lost childhood as anything. It worried Antonor, so he pulled the reins tighter.
"Ant held Jameis to a really, really high standard, and Ant's a very strict disciplinarian," said Matt Stephens, the defensive coordinator at Hueytown during Jameis' playing career. "He knew where Jameis was at all times. He held him to a standard higher than other kids because he knew Jameis was a guy people were looking at a lot, and he tried to teach him that not everybody wants to see you succeed."
The spotlight on Jameis has grown with the wins and the Heisman and, of course, with the rape allegation, but in reality the Winstons have been living under the microscope for years. During Jameis' recruitment, there were fires started on their lawn, bricks thrown at their house, so many harassing phone calls that mobile numbers were changed routinely. During football games, Antonor and Loretta would sit on the visiting side of the stadium. The heckles from the out-of-town fans were easier to stomach than the vitriol spewed by their neighbors.
"We asked why," Antonor said, "but it got to a point where it really didn't matter unless you had a reaction."
That's the paradox the family faces now. Every instinct tells Antonor to defend his son, to shout from the rooftops that Jameis is a good kid, that he doesn't deserve the criticism, the hate, the lies. But they've seen this movie before, and to fight only rips open wounds they want so desperately to heal.
"Everything we went through in Hueytown, it was a blessing that helped us through [the past year]," Antonor says. "God sends you on a path not knowing you're going to go through the wilderness, but when you do, you have all the tools to fight it. We're just waiting to come back on the other side of the path."
Asked when the family might emerge from the darkness, Antonor pauses and collects himself. He has thought ahead, about another run to a Heisman or the NFL draft, about how all the stories will be written again and all the questions will be asked with renewed vigor. There is a light ahead, he's sure, but the wilderness stretches onward beyond the horizon.
"I don't know," he says. "Only time can tell."
Chad Babin was at home in Texas a few weeks ago when his phone buzzed. It was Jameis, hoping to FaceTime with his former coach.
Babin is one of Antonor Winston's closest friends, and he has always looked at Jameis as a surrogate son. Babin's wife gets a card from Winston every Mother's Day, and Babin even got a mention in Winston's Heisman speech.
Babin answered the call, and Winston was laughing.
"Look at this," the quarterback chirped, panning back to show two Florida State students following close behind with their own phones glowing in their hands. They'd followed Winston into a men's room on campus, shot video of the Heisman winner at a urinal while shouting "It's Famous Jameis" as they recorded.
"I don't think any of us had realized the extent of his popularity," Babin said. "And people don't realize what that brings."
At Florida State's annual fan day this past week, more than 100 people were in line by 8 a.m. to meet Winston. He wasn't scheduled to arrive for another five hours, and, in the interim, police were called to break up numerous scuffles.
When Antonor suggested his son needed round-the-clock security in the wake of the shoplifting citation this spring, it garnered national headlines, but the reality is Famous Jameis is constantly at the center of a storm.
A year ago, the storm swallowed up Manziel, who posted on Twitter that he "can't wait" to leave Texas A&M to escape the glare that came with being a Heisman winner in a college town. But Winston hasn't been fazed.
"I walk around campus every day," Winston said. "People say hey, we speak. That's how it is in Tallahassee, such great people. I take a lot of pictures."
Still, what awaits Winston this season is unique. The spotlight is unflinching, and he's not perfect. He might have matured, but past mistakes still haunt him. He's unwilling to play the part of the reclusive superstar, but there is a danger in being so exposed. He has lived it already.
"I don't know that there's any amount of preparation that could get you ready to be this guy," said Scott, his high school coach, "to stay focused on those goals in the midst of the storm around him."
Florida State has provided Winston with near-constant security. It has taken out an insurance policy against future earnings that could potentially be lost. A potential civil suit in the wake of the rape allegation still looms, and the Winstons understand there could be more lawyers and controversy ahead. Fisher has talked with Winston often about what awaits and armed him with advice from other stars who've lived in the public eye.
"I think he can handle it," Fisher said. "I think he'll do a great job with it, but I always worry about it."
Winston isn't worried.
"I'll be even better than last year," he said. "I'll be myself. I'll be great."
1hAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna
1hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information