The legend of Jameis Winston

Originally Published: September 2, 2013
By David M. Hale | ESPN.com

James WinstonESPN.com IllustrationFlorida State QB Jameis Winston will take his first collegiate snap for the Seminoles Monday night.

Antonor Winston dug up the notebook a while back because he knew people wouldn't believe. Even in Hueytown, the small Birmingham, Ala., suburb where he and his wife, Loretta, live, there are plenty of non-believers.

The notebook is tattered and faded, but the words are still clear. The pages are filled with carefully printed instructions written by -- as the inscription at the top of the first page reads -- Jameis Winston, Hueytown Middle School.

[+] EnlargeJames Winston
Courtesy of the Winston familyWinston's quarterback education began at an early age, detailed by handwritten notes he made while in middle school.

Page 1 begins with a list of the characteristics a good quarterback should possess: leadership, dedication, desire, mental toughness, character, confidence. It concludes with a detailed schematic breakdown of how to properly attack a Cover 2 defense.

Jameis Winston was 12 years old when he wrote it.

In a cover 4, the outside linebackers are the key. The best routes are go route and eagle.

In man coverage, the defense's job is to put pressure on the offense. The best routes are trail, mesh, shallow, smash.

In a cover 3, bend, don't break. The best routes are curl-flat, smash, vertical.

On it goes, with increasing precision, the prodigious beginnings for a boy who would eventually become one of the country's most coveted recruits. The legend of the prodigy grew, with coaches and writers and casual fans feeding the narrative. Jameis would win a Heisman. Jameis would be a first-round draft pick in football and baseball. Jameis was the next Bo Jackson. Jameis was the next Johnny Manziel.

Antonor, his father, doesn't believe it, either. That's hype. The reality is so much better.

"He hasn't thrown a pass yet, so you've got people saying there's no way that boy's that doggone good," Antonor said. "But people still don't know."


They call him Jaboo (pronounced jay-boo). It's a nickname Loretta gave him when he was a baby. Everyone calls him Jaboo now -- teammates, friends, coaches. It's a nod to his personality. He's a kid at heart, always. Maybe it's because he didn't get a normal childhood. He asked for a bike once, and he got it, but the rest of his childhood was just preparation.

[+] EnlargeJames Winston
Courtesy of the Winston familyWinston fell in love with football as a four-year old in Hueytown, Ala.

"From 4 on up, he was always playing two sports," Antonor said. "I know that sounds crazy."

The truth is, Antonor and Loretta signed their boy up for football mostly for the photo opportunities. They knew how ridiculous 4-year-old Jameis would look, his body swallowed up by a baggy uniform, tottering around a field occupied by 7- and 8-year-old behemoths. But Jameis felt at home.

His coach was Fred Green, as prolific a youth football adviser as there is in the area, and he's never forgotten Jameis. Green was instantly enamored with the tiny kid wearing the helmet two sizes too big. He was amazed by the way the kid attacked much older competition without a hint of fear.

"Game time, he never flinched," Green said. "He'd play his heart out, and he'd do just what you'd tell him."

After games, Jameis would retire to his parents' living room, flipping on the cartoons after finishing his homework. When his eyes grew heavy, Antonor would poke an elbow into his side and feign a reporter's cadence.

"Who's the best quarterback in the league?" Antonor would say, hoping to rattle his groggy son.

"Randall Cunningham," Jameis would say. He loved Randall Cunningham.

"Not you?" Antonor would retort.

"No," Jameis would say. "I've got to get better."


By the fifth grade, Jameis was working with a trainer. Antonor knew Mark Freeman, a baseball and football coach in nearby Bessemer, through a friend. They struck up a relationship, and for the next few years, three or four days a week, Jameis would come to Bessemer to learn.

The usual routine went like this: An hour on hitting. Another hour on pitching. A quick break for Winston to change his cleats before an hour on the football field practicing three-step drops, five-step drops, low routes. Then the pair retired to Freeman's office for "chalk talk," with Winston drawing up plays on the blackboard. They'd start in a base defense, then envision hypothetical scenarios: What if there were three safeties? What if a Cover 2 turns to quarters? How do you recognize a Cover 3? Winston had all the answers.

"I knew Jaboo was going to be special," Freeman said.

Winston was a star in middle school, but Hueytown's track record of success in football was minimal, and there was talk of moving him to another district for high school. The plan never materialized. Before the start of Winston's sophomore season, however, Hueytown hired a new coach. Matt Scott had talked with Freeman, and he knew he had a potential star in Winston.

"He's wired completely different than anybody I've ever been around," Scott said. "His football IQ is through the roof."

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Courtesy of the Winston familyWinston was a two-sport star at Hueytown High School before committing to Florida State to play football and baseball.

Improvement for Winston always came quickly. After a particularly dismal 40-yard dash in front of coaches at Alabama in ninth grade, he began working with Otis Leverette, a former NFL player who trains athletes in Birmingham. Leverette gave him a crash course in running fundamentals -- some strength exercises and changes to his form.

Three weeks later, Winston returned to Tuscaloosa for a second try. He cut his time from 4.8 to 4.6, a margin that Alabama coach Nick Saban refused to believe. He made Winston run it twice more, and Winston hit the same mark again and again.

"It literally takes me a year to get kids to understand the fundamentals of running," Leverette said, "and he picked it up in three weeks."

But for the rest of the players at Hueytown, adjustments weren't so easy, and Winston had little patience for failure. During that first practice, a senior receiver -- a kid with real talent, Scott said -- was running drills with Winston. He ran a simple out route, and the quarterback put the ball on the money, only to watch the senior bobble it away. Winston was irate. He grabbed the receiver by the jersey: "You're a senior," Winston told him. "Catch the damn ball."

Over the next three years, Scott would see that fire again and again. Winston could erupt on the field, and flags from the refs were plentiful. On several occasions, Scott threatened to bench his quarterback if he couldn't calm down. But quieting the fury seemed counterproductive.

"Every Friday night, he was the meanest son of a gun out there. I've never been around anyone as competitive as he is," Scott said. "People say quarterbacks shouldn't get too high or too low, but I mean to tell you, when he's in a rage, he's pretty good."

It's not that Winston was an angry kid. Far from it, actually. No one on the field had more fun, had a better sense of humor or was more willing to cut the tension of his own intensity with an impromptu dance routine or gut-busting non sequitur. He knew how to read people, get a feel for the moment. He could flip a switch. When it called for anger, he delivered fury. When it called for a laugh, he delivered a stand-up routine.

"He's that dog that when he jumps the fence, he's wagging his tail and seems friendly, then he bites the hell out of you," Leverette said. "He can laugh and have fun, but at the same time, he's a killer, man. The strive he brings to the game -- don't let the smile fool you."

By the end of his senior season, there was no room for privacy. Winston's life was under a microscope. He was selected in the 15th round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Texas Rangers, and he might have gone higher had he not been adamant about playing college football. He committed to Florida State, much to the chagrin of fans hoping he'd stay in-state.

"I said people can come see you play easier in Alabama versus Florida State," said Rick Patterson, Winston's baseball coach at Hueytown. "He said, 'Coach, if they want to see me, they'll come to Florida State.'"

When he finally arrived at Florida State in 2012, the buzz only grew, with the video of the fraternity house kicking off the circus.


The Pi Kappa Alpha house is the biggest on campus, built in a giant U shape, with a courtyard in the middle where members slug cheap beer and devise intricate feats of strength and skill to test their manhood and kill time. Former FSU QB EJ Manuel was a member, and so Winston would visit occasionally. He'd join in stickball games and smack tennis balls over the wall with ease -- switching from lefty to righty with each swing, just for fun. Eventually, someone mentioned the roof.

The origins of the challenge are vague, but everyone agreed it was nearly impossible. In the history of the house, only one member had successfully heaved a football over the roof from the far end of the courtyard -- a 75-yard bullet that must clear a 35-foot peak at its apex. A few years back, former FSU quarterback and first-round draft pick Christian Ponder tried it again and again, but never came close. It was the perfect scenario for the ultra-competitive Winston.

"They said a guy had done it," Winston said. "I just said, 'I've got to throw it farther.'"

[+] EnlargeJames Winston
AP Photo/Phil SearsWinston split time in the spring, practicing with the football team while also playing for the Seminoles baseball team.

So out they scrambled, Winston and a cadre of fraternity members, spilling into the courtyard to watch the legend add to his mythology.

The first throw smacked the crown of the roof, and Winston laughed. "No problem," he assured as fraternity member Austin Burr whipped out his cell phone. The next throw cleared the top with ease. The crowd erupted.

Burr sent the video to an older fraternity brother. He forwarded it to a former homecoming chief who sent it along to his sister. She posted it on YouTube, and within a few days, it was everywhere. They worried Winston might be angry, but he relished the spotlight.

"I don't find anything embarrassing," Winston said. "I like that. I accept that. It's a blessing I'm getting that publicity."

Winston's coming-out party for the media last month was a showstopper. He waxed poetic about Manziel's offseason troubles, encouraging reporters to whack him on the head if he duplicated such indiscretions. He expressed his love for cheese balls. He underscored his agreeable nature by assuring a white reporter that "I'd make you feel comfortable in a black church." He suggested nothing in the world was worse than a rainy day without laughter, then proceeded to practice his MC Hammer dance in front of the cameras.

"We call him 'Random,'" receiver Kelvin Benjamin said. "You never know what he's going to do."

On the practice field, Winston will dance between drills or belt out a ballad that invariably worms its way into the consciousness of his teammates hours later. Around campus, he's a butterfly, floating from one conversation to another with complete strangers. But when it matters, he's a bull.

Jimbo Fisher insisted Winston travel for all road games last year, in spite of his redshirt status. Winston made an exceptional cheerleader, and that alone was worth the expense. When Florida State was in the process of getting shut out during a horrific second half in a loss against NC State, however, it was Winston who marched down the bench, yelling and prodding his sulking teammates to rebound from disaster.

During a baseball game in March, Winston was riding the bench. But when a rally was needed late, he called the team around him to offer words of inspiration.

Fisher erupted on his team during a practice this spring, ending the session early, sending the masses to the locker room with obvious ire. Winston waited by the entrance to the practice field, slapping each of his teammates on the back as they departed, urging them to work harder the next day.

He was a part-time baseball player and a redshirt quarterback, but he had the respect of everyone around him.

"I've seen guys that were phonies," said longtime FSU baseball coach Mike Martin, "but this guy's the real deal."

Winston ended the spring on a high note. For more than a month, he'd been shuffling back and forth between the film room and the weight room, the football field and the baseball field, the batting cages and the classroom. Martin said he never saw Winston tired, but fans insisted the routine would derail his progress. Everyone asked when the kid with all the talent in two sports would officially nix one dream in pursuit of the other, but he never relinquished.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher and Jameis Winston
AP Photo/Phil SearsIt was widely assumed Winston would be the Seminoles' starting QB in 2013, but Jimbo Fisher didn't announce his decision until late August.

He's from Alabama, just down the road from Auburn, where Bo Jackson legitimized the quest for two-sport stardom. Jackson would occasionally stake out one of Winston's games in high school, offering a nudge toward his alma mater during the height of recruiting season. That was the standard, and so when Winston was asked to choose baseball or football, his answer was always the same. He chose both.

On the day of Florida State's spring football game, the baseball team was embroiled in a doubleheader against Duke. Winston, as always, had an eye on both events.

He entered the spring game at the start of the second quarter. His first pass was a bomb down the middle of the field, over All-American defensive back Lamarcus Joyner, and into the arms of a walk-on receiver for a 58-yard touchdown. He'd burn Joyner once more before the day was out, finishing 12-of-15 passing for 205 yards and two scores. In spite of Fisher's denials, the quarterback race at Florida State was all but over, and Winston simply jogged across a parking lot and into another locker room, changing uniforms before taking a seat in the dugout for a nightcap.

"I asked him how the spring game went," Martin said. "He said, 'Alright.' I asked if he completed one, and he said, 'a few.'"


After all the buzz and hype, Jameis Winston will make his official debut as Florida State's quarterback tonight against Pittsburgh. He's been kept under wraps since he was announced as the starter, and the air of mystery has only added to the excitement. There's a sense that anything could happen.

Behind the scenes, though, not much has changed.

Florida State's players have watched Winston handle all the publicity with utter disregard these past few months. He jogs to the practice field, cracks a few jokes, then he attacks. Some people are just different.

You know great players when you see it. Some guys, you question. Some guys, you try to beat around the bush. He's just a talented kid and everybody knows it.

--Florida State DB Lamarcus Joyner

"You know great players when you see it," Joyner said. "Some guys, you question. Some guys, you try to beat around the bush. He's just a talented kid and everybody knows it."

None of the buildup has mattered much in Hueytown, either. Antonor and Loretta talk to Jameis often, but it's rarely about football. They weren't expecting him to compete for a starting job so soon, but they're not surprised by what's happened.

Antonor has always expected his son to do the impossible, to make the exceptional seem mundane. It's not that he's numb to the experience. The outcome just always seemed to be a formality.

"Whatever that kid puts his mind to, it's going to get done," Antonor said. "It's in his blood to compete, in his blood to win. So I'm more proud of him making the decision to do it than how it actually comes out."

When Jameis was young, Antonor had surgery on his feet. Jameis took an interest in the procedure and peppered the nurses with questions. When Antonor came home, it was Jameis who changed his bandages. For a while, Jameis figured he'd become a doctor.

It may still happen.

"It's not to say he doesn't amaze us," Loretta said, "but there's still work to do."

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