- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- He knew the nickname would stick, so there wasn't much sense fighting it. Maybe if his parents could have guessed at his future from the moment he entered the world, they would've picked a name less mnemonically agreeable for headline writers, but who could have predicted this?
Jameis Winston was still in Little League when he became "Famous Jameis." An assistant coach watched Winston dazzle on the field, and the moniker was born. Those who really know him still call him "Jaboo," the nickname his mother gave him as a baby, but each time he takes the stage in a new place, delivers another gasp-inducing escape act and unfurls another breathtaking throw, it's that other nickname that catches on.
"When people call me 'Famous Jameis,' I'm like, 'I'm not famous,'" Winston said. "Our team is famous. But that stuff comes with winning."
That's the right thing to say, of course, and Winston has said all the right things throughout his meteoric rise to national prominence these past seven weeks. But after one of the most impressive opening acts in recent college football history, there's no denying Winston's fame. At every turn, he has ratcheted up the hype with increasingly astonishing performances, and as he prepares for the biggest stage of his young career, any vestiges of tempered enthusiasm have been buried under a sea of unabashed optimism.
"This goes back to the best you've ever had -- that's the way I think people are looking at him," former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said of Winston. "This young man is as good as anybody we've ever had. Maybe as a freshman, that's asking too much, but before he leaves here -- and he might do it this year."
Bowden perfectly captures why Winston has galvanized fans so quickly. It's no longer about the hype surrounding a top recruit or the potential of a talented freshman. At every turn, Winston has exceeded even the most absurd expectations to a degree that setting limits on what might come next seems pointless.
Winston's career began on the prime-time stage against Pittsburgh amid massive hype. He delivered a debut for the ages, completing 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and 4 touchdowns. Since then, he has racked up 13 more passing touchdowns, including at least four in every ACC game he has played, and he ranks among the top five quarterbacks in the nation in virtually every statistical category.
When Florida State's compliance department gathered for a meeting the day after the Pittsburgh game, the rising tide of popularity for the new quarterback was already a priority.
"We were like, 'Well, we probably need to start getting some cease-and-desist letters ready to go,'" said Jim Curry, FSU's associate athletic director in charge of compliance. "And sure enough, a couple days later, it started."
There were the T-shirts for sale near the stadium featuring Winston's number and nickname. Then a wave of shirts with images of Winston's face superimposed over an image of Jesus followed. Most years, the school responds to just a handful of similar issues, but Curry said Florida State already has sent out nearly two dozen cease-and-desist letters to vendors selling Winston-related memorabilia. Even so, a Google search easily locates ample inventory still on the market.
Merchants going through the proper channels are riding the same wave of popularity, too. The digital sign in the parking lot of Garnet & Gold, a locally owned store that sells Florida State gear near Doak Campbell Stadium, advertises the arrival of No. 5 jerseys for fans eager to don the same uniform as their new star quarterback.
With Winston battling Jacob Coker for the starting job in fall camp, the store hadn't requested the No. 5 jerseys before the season. After Winston's sterling debut at Pittsburgh, however, the demand was obvious, and Nike was forced to rush an order out to vendors.
"From there, we had so many requests," said Nicolle Moumousis, an associate at Garnet and Gold. "The demand for them was awesome. It was an immediate fan response. That No. 5 jersey is very important to them."
Winston's jerseys are in high demand, but so is his time. Florida State has worked to limit his exposure, but interview requests pour in daily -- from national sports media to a Q&A he did with a podiatry magazine sparked by Winston's interest in the field as a potential post-football career path.
For a player with only five games of experience under his belt, the attention could be a distraction. Instead, the Seminoles all seem to be enjoying the ride.
"He's playing great, and I can't take anything from him," linebacker Telvin Smith said. "We're happy to have somebody around that's getting that much attention for this team."
It's not just Winston's teammates basking in his reflected spotlight.
In the week leading up to Florida State's game against Nevada, Winston said he was excited to play against Wolf Pack defensive end Brock Hekking, whose blonde mullet hair style had captured Winston's attention while watching film.
Almost immediately, Winston's comments were plastered on sports websites across the country. Hekking's pictures were tacked underneath, and dozens of reporters began calling Nevada's sports information offices looking for a comment.
"I was definitely taken back by it," Hekking said. "It was pretty funny."
After a 62-7 dismantling of Nevada in his second career start, Winston sought out the player he'd noticed on film, shaking Hekking's hand and praising his performance.
"That was a rough game, and for him to come out and say 'good job' and stuff like that, it was pretty cool," Hekking said.
That's part of Winston's magic formula, too. On the field, he's a fiery competitor whose numbers have vaulted him into the Heisman discussion. Away from the field, however, he's bubbly and gregarious, laughing and joking with complete strangers, more likely to wax eloquent on cartoons such as "Phineas and Ferb" than the intricacies of a Cover 2 defense.
It's Winston's personality, as much as his performance, that has endeared him to the masses.
"With Jameis being the type of person he is, I don't think there's anyone that couldn't like that kid," receiver Rashad Greene said.
Gary Roberts knows exactly how easy it is to like Winston. It's simply a matter of clicking a button.
Roberts, a longtime Florida State fan living in Maryland, took an interest in Winston after spring practice, setting up a Facebook fan page on a whim. He wanted a forum to discuss the Seminoles and share information about his new favorite player, and it didn't take long before a slew of fans joined the conversation. Roberts said the page gets several hundred new "likes" after each game, and the page currently has nearly 6,000 fans.
Winston's own Twitter feed and Instagram account were popular before the season, but the FSU blackout on social media during the season has meant a boon in popularity for sites such as Roberts', which is only one of dozens of Winston tributes on social media.
"From what I see, I feel like it's just happened really fast," Roberts said. "It's right there, right now, everybody's a fan and saying he's going to win a Heisman and a national championship possibly."
For a fan base eager to recapture the glory years of Bowden's teams that dominated college football in the 1990s, Winston provides hope. But even inside the locker room, there's an understanding that Florida State's quarterback is special.
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher, who just two months ago refused to peg Winston as his starter, now says the freshman can be the face of the program. The fame has come quickly, but Winston hasn't changed a bit, his teammates insist. He has simply viewed it a necessary side effect to his ultimate goals.
"It amazes me some of the things he does, especially at such a young age and how he keeps his composure," left tackle Cameron Erving said. "He has an edge that you don't see often. It's just amazing. When you have that type of leadership on the field, everybody wants to follow."
Winston insists that's all he cares about right now. With five superb games, he has galvanized his teammates around him. It just so happens that the fans and media have followed suit.
And it is just five games, Winston points out. There's so much more to come, starting with this week's showdown against No. 3 Clemson that figures to be the biggest test of his young career.
Winston isn't worried. He was made for the big stage, plays his best when the lights are brightest. It's why the nickname isn't so much a burden as it is a reward.
"It's exciting, but I don't pay that stuff any attention," Winston said of all the attention. "I'm all football right now. As long as we keep winning and keep doing things we want to do, publicity and all that stuff's going to come."
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