Jameis Winston is the nation's No. 1 quarterback and a top MLB draft prospect
This story originally appeared in the May/June issue of ESPNHS magazine.
Three words drive Jameis Winston: "I hate losing."
He's certainly not the first athlete to say this, but the Hueytown (Hueytown, Ala.) senior is one of the few who takes his hatred to the brink of extreme.
His best friend, Richard Rabb, remembers when they played the video game NCAA Football 12 for an entire day. Fifteen times Rabb beat Winston. And fifteen times Winston asked for a rematch. When Winston finally did win, there was no talk of a rematch -- he suddenly had to go home.
"Even if you've beaten him, you can't tell him that he's going to lose," Rabb says. "And whenever he does win, he won't let you live it down."
Winston's disdain for defeat colors just about any conversation about his high school football career, too. Here's a guy who used his dual-threat ability this past season to total 3,487 yards and 43 touchdowns as the No. 1-ranked QB in the ESPN 150; reeled in prestigious awards like Under Armour All-America Game MVP, Elite 11 co-MVP and Gatorade State Player of the Year; and had so many recruiters pursuing him that he had to change his cell phone number multiple times. But ask the Florida State recruit how he'd sum up his prep career, and it all points to one shortcoming.
"It wasn't like I wanted it to be because we didn't win a state championship," says Winston, whose Golden Gophers suffered their only defeat of the season in the Class 5A semifinals. "I don't care if I broke all the records and was the best player in history. I'm still so mad about not winning."
That's how the mind of Jameis Winston works. This 18-year-old doesn't just see greatness; he identifies with the great ones, pursuing the success they have with near reckless abandon.
"I use Cam Newton as an example with him all the time, because that's the next path for Jameis," says Winston's trainer, Otis Leverette, a Hueytown assistant and former NFL player.
"I tell him to study Cam and LeBron and how they remain great while being scrutinized. And mentally, he's ready. If it's an amazing feat, Jameis can tackle it."
And that, more than anything else -- from his on-field skills to his off-field charisma -- is why Winston is NEXT. See, not only does Winston star on the gridiron, but he's also a standout outfielder/pitcher on the diamond. Pro scouts have come out in droves to see the player likely to get scooped up in the early rounds of June's MLB draft. Meanwhile, Florida State fans can only hope whatever contract an MLB team offers Winston won't pull him from his present plan of playing football and baseball for the Seminoles.
In some ways, Winston's future is as certain as it is uncertain. He knows what he wants: "I want to be one of the elite players and play both sports professionally like Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson." But as of now, he's not sure which path will take him there.
"Honestly, money is probably the biggest factor in my decision," says Winston, who was hitting .382 with 24 RBIs and two home runs for the Golden Gophers at press time. "It's not that I'm about money, but since both options provide a way to reach my ultimate dream, if it's a good situation, I will surely have to consider the money."
Thing is, if Winston's will to win wasn't so strong or if he could just say no to a challenge, he probably wouldn't even be in this situation.
About 18 months ago, following Winston's junior football season, Rusty Riley of the Alabama Baseball Academy presented Winston with a challenge.
"I saw his ability and athleticism, but baseball was always on the backburner to football," says Riley, who's coached Winston on the AAU baseball circuit for the past three years. "So after that football season, we sat down and I asked him to dedicate the next eight months to baseball in the same manner he had dedicated the last three years to football."
Several times a week, Winston trained with Riley, refining his pitching and fielding skills while pushing himself to be a dangerous switch-hitter at the plate. Three months into the process, Winston began to see the fruits of his labor, which carried over into a breakout junior campaign. He hit .424 with seven home runs while going 8-3 with 93 strikeouts on the mound.
"The scariest thing is to think how much he could improve if he played baseball year-round," Riley says. "I've had about five or six scouts watch him train and come sit and talk with him, and their biggest concern is if he's really serious about playing at the next level. Every answer I tell them is yes."
Hueytown baseball coach Rick Patterson relays the same message to the handful of scouts who regularly attend practice to see Winston. And like Riley, his reasoning goes beyond Winston's obvious talent. "His determination and competitiveness stick out more than anything," Patterson says. "If somebody tells him he can't do both sports, he's going to prove to them he can do both. He tells people that he's not trying to do both. He's going to do both."
Matt Scott doesn't doubt it, either. When he took over as Hueytown's football coach in 2009, he switched the offense from the run-based Wing-T to the more passing-oriented zone spread attack. He figured the change would call for a rebuilding first season. But with Winston under center, the Golden Gophers went 5-5 in 2009 before going 24-3 over the past two seasons.
"The first thing I noticed was how fast he picks up stuff," Scott says. "To me, his ability to throw and run aren't what set him apart. It's the mental side of things. I've worked with a lot of smart quarterbacks who it may take a year to get smooth at mechanics. Not Jameis. He picks things up right away."
Maybe that explains how Winston is able to maintain a 4.0 GPA while juggling a year-round commitment to two sports, the intense recruiting process and, now, one of the most important decisions of his life. Not to mention a community-service schedule that includes instructing youth baseball players and tutoring his classmates in math.
"During the process, you're going to say he's crazy because it seems like he does so much," says his dad, Antonor. "But whatever he puts his mind to, it's going to get done."
No matter what Winston's future holds, he can bet people will continue to call him crazy. To some, he'll be crazy if he turns down millions of dollars in favor of college. To others, he'll be crazy for picking baseball and pursuing arguably his second-best sport. But to Winston, they're all crazy for even thinking about counting him out.
"I don't get stressed over it all or worry about people pressuring me," Winston says. "I'm not cocky, but I'm confident. I don't think anybody will tackle me. I don't think anybody will strike me out. I'm blessed to have this opportunity and I'm going to make something great of it."
Brandon Parker covers high school sports for ESPNHS. Follow him on Twitter @brandoncparker or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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