Before anyone else knew
In early March, as Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher insists that replacing EJ Manuel will be a wide-open four-way battle, offensive tackle Cameron Erving is not the only Seminole who's not sure Jameis Winston is ready to be QB1.
"He's just so goofy, man," the redshirt junior tells his roommate, senior corner Lamarcus Joyner, in a debate that has been ongoing since the Noles beat Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl in January. The two go back and forth in the weight room, between classes and at their off-campus apartment, usually hitting on the same theme.
"I don't see how he can be serious on the field," Erving says.
Don't get Erving wrong -- he likes the kid. For a redshirt freshman, Winston is smart, lights up any room he's in, loves to play ball, but ...
Joyner stops Erving right there. "I've seen it," he says, "and I'm telling you: Jameis is a natural leader. The kid is special, man."
Erving, on the other hand, has barely seen Winston play. Jameis spent most of his time the past fall on a different field, running the scout team, pretending to be the quarterback of FSU's next opponent, guiding a bunch of walk-ons, mostly, against the first-team defense. But Joyner went up against him day after day after day.
"He's making throws right now," Joyner says to Erving, "that I didn't see EJ make until his fourth year."
Joyner marvels at Winston's decision-making and mechanics, his mastery of all that arcane playbook minutiae. He talks about getting challenged, burned even, by the scout team, which Is. Not. Supposed. To. Happen.
But none of that is what most impresses Joyner. Big-time recruits who get stuck on the scout team tend to pout or go through the motions for a year. From the start, Winston embraced the job.
"Here's an 18-year-old kid," Joyner explains to Erving, "playing against some of the best defensive players in the country, right?" NFL-bound guys like Bjoern Werner, Xavier Rhodes, Tank Carradine, Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith, Christian Jones and, yes, Joyner. "From the very start, Jameis is out there with the attitude of Let's get better. He's coaching defensive guys up. Like, watch the back shoulder -- whatever." Joyner shakes his head. "I can't believe I'm taking this from a freshman. But I did. We all did. I can't really explain it, but we all did. That's when I knew."
"That he'd be our quarterback?" Erving asks.
"That he's a natural leader," Joyner says.
Erving nods. But he's still trying to picture how, in practical terms, it could work, having a goofy teenager like Jameis Winston at quarterback.
On March 20, spring practice gets under way. All four QBs are playing reasonably well. If there is anyone resembling an incumbent in this race, it's Clint Trickett, a redshirt junior and son of Rick, FSU's offensive line coach. He started two games when Manuel was hurt: one terrific, one lousy, for an average of decent.
Nobody's going to call Fisher the Quarterback Whisperer. He handles his QBs with the bluntness most coaches reserve for linebackers. "A lot of guys make mistakes with quarterbacks," he says. "And as a result, they can't deal with harshness. They can't deal with criticism. They can't deal with pressure."
Clint Trickett seems to like this method. At minimum, he's comfortable with it, not just because he's an upperclassman but due to a lifetime of seeing his dad address linemen with even more unrelenting explosions of profane vitriol. But with young QBs, you never know. Many take time to adjust after entering Fisher's crosshairs, as seems to have been the case with Manuel.
The first time Winston makes a mistake big enough to trigger Fisher's whitest fury, play stops. A couple of veteran wide receivers stand off to the side, wondering how the kid is going to take this. How he's going to hold up. Winston's attention is focused on his coach. He's listening to what Fisher is saying, not how he's saying it, which, really, is the test here. Somehow, though, Winston has the presence of mind and field vision to sense what his receivers are thinking. Somehow, he knows they need to know he's got this. They want to be reassured.
For a split second, Jameis Winston turns his head. He winks.
Winks! What 19-year-old thinks to do that?
It's not long before his teammates and coaches come to expect moments like that. Ask them and they invariably say:
"That's just Jameis."
Wait and see
All of January and February had been filled with giddy, intemperate clamoring for the public debut of Jameis Winston, partly because the No. 1 prep QB of 2012 was kept under wraps for a year. With Winston, though, there was more to the anticipation than his resume (MVPs from both the Under Armour game and Elite 11 QB competition). More to it even than the coup FSU scored in landing a four-star from Hueytown, Ala., whom Nick Saban dearly coveted. With Winston, the buildup to March felt more like glimpses of a leaked next-generation iPhone.
There's that YouTube video of him in street clothes standing at the gate of the Pi Kappa Alpha house and chucking a football across a courtyard, over the two-story peaked roof: a 70-, maybe 80-yard bomb with about a 40-foot hump in the middle. Current Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder gave it a try more than once when he was a Seminole and failed. Manuel, a brother at Pi Kappa Alpha, also failed. Only a small group gathers, and the video has only about 115,000 views. But the witnesses quickly spread the word across campus.
There are other eyewitnesses. All the guys in the local media seem to have developed man crushes on Jameis, gushing but apologizing as they go. "But wait and see," says ESPN Tallahassee radio host Jeff Cameron. "If anything, we're toning it down."
Then there's the baseball stuff. Winston signed with FSU largely because the baseball and football programs, both perennial winners, have a history of working together to let players do both sports (see Deion Sanders). The Rangers drafted him in the 15th round out of high school, lower than he'd have gone if teams thought he'd give up football. But Winston's dream is to play both at the pro level. Each sport, he says, makes him better at the other. "Baseball is a game of failure," says Winston, an outfielder and reliever. "You can't be stressing every single day when you mess up. Baseball, you go 0-for-3? That day's over. That helps me out with football. I can't get overexcited if I throw a touchdown. The next play could be an interception. You have to stay loose."
The Seminoles' baseball season has bled into the QB derby, but even as he's running back and forth from spring football to the adjoining Dick Howser Stadium (and, on the side, getting mostly A's; he plans to major in exercise science), Winston doesn't stop proving himself on the diamond. One of the more impressive moments is really a daylong feat.
On Saturday morning, April 6, Winston plays a full-pads practice. Then he gets on a plane to Miami, changes into his uniform in the dugout bathroom, stretches, warms up, takes the mound against the archrival Hurricanes and throws three perfect innings. The stadium radar gun clocks his fastball at 97 mph. His curve is 82 to 84 and filthy. "My expectation was, let's see if we can get an inning out of him," says coach Mike Martin. "He looked as fresh as if he'd been with us five straight and had two days off. I mean, he was cookin'."
When the Noles knew
A week later, April 13, at the spring game, Jameis watches as Clint Trickett, running the starting offense for the first quarter, plays decently. When the second quarter starts, Fisher sends in Winston.
Fans come to their feet. It's obvious that the people's choice is finally in the game.
Finally. That's how Jameis Winston sees it too. Finally.
Last season had been tougher than he'd expected. Sure, he'd come to FSU knowing he'd likely be redshirted. And yeah, it was a great opportunity to be mentored by Manuel, to become almost like a little brother, to learn the playbook backward and forward. Jameis took full advantage of that year. But it was cold comfort for the ache of standing on the sideline as a whole season went by, of watching uselessly, craving a chance to play with all these crazy-talented guys.
Back at Hueytown High, Jameis had teammates who could scrap, a couple who got offers to small schools, but it was hardly a powerhouse. Playing with elite recruits at camps and all-star games made him yearn even more for the chance to do that in games that really count. Nothing against the guys on FSU's scout team, but to be so close every Saturday to the best players in the ACC and just ... watch? Torture.
And now, finally, here he is.
This is a scrimmage, not a real game. But as he looks around the huddle at all this talent, Jameis can't help but laugh: I'm in my happy place.
"Let's do it, guys," he barks.
Winston takes his first snap in public as a college quarterback. He throws it deep, over Joyner's head to a walk-on named David Tyrrell. A scout-team player. His fourth option. Because Jameis expected Joyner not to be worried about him. Touchdown.
Joyner, embarrassed to have been gamed, still can't help but smile a little.
Winston goes 12-of-15 for 205 yards and two touchdowns. After the game, he races to the showers and then runs across the green to Dick Howser Stadium in time to DH in the second game of a doubleheader against Duke. He goes 1-for-2 with a walk and a hit by pitch. FSU wins 8-3.
Four days later, Trickett announces he is transferring and leaves for West Virginia.
The real thing
At FSU media day in August -- shortly before Winston is named starter -- the national public gets its first good look at the kid people (as they invariably do) call "goofy." When reporters bait him into answering questions about Johnny Manziel's offseason troubles, Winston says, "If I ever get Manziel disease, I want all of you to smack me in the head with your microphones."
He's not Famous, he says. His nickname is Jaboo; his mom called him that as a baby. Family and close friends call him that, he says, but if it's all the same to everybody else?
"I'm just Jameis."
At one point, flanked by several teammates, Winston grabs a TV reporter's mic and -- in a performance that's one part revival call-and-response, one part Will Smith-as-Ali -- does a mock rant about the team's upcoming opponents. Somehow, it doesn't come off as cockiness but rather a send-up of cockiness.
"Jaboo ain't scared of nothin'," he says. "Not Pitt!"
"What?" calls out junior receiver Rashad Greene in a high-pitched, from-the-choir voice.
Winston scowls. He pauses.
Other teammates join in. "Okay, okay!" one calls, egging him on.
Winston drops the mic.
"Hammer dance!" teammates call out. "Hammer dance!"
Jameis Winston does the Hammer dance.
That's just Jameis.
"I'm being myself," he'll say later. "In college, guys try to gain new egos. They were that man in high school. Now they're not typically 'the man' anymore, so they try to do different things so people will like them. My teammates, they realized Jameis isn't going to change. I'm not going to change for nobody."
But what gets lost -- because no one outside the team seems to understand it as more than an athlete's blah blah blah -- is Winston's deep-seated humility. The Manziel disease quote shows up everywhere. His comments about how he'll have it easier than Manziel did last year because Manziel had only one first-round pick blocking for him and Winston believes he has five? Less tweetable. When he talks about the veterans on the team, all the talent around him, how there's "no pressure" playing quarterback when you have teammates like this, Winston's whole face lights up.
People who just read about him might think it's an act. But to witness it? It's impossible to imagine you're not looking at the real thing.
Meet Famous Jameis
Prime time, Labor Day, in an NFL stadium, the only game on TV that night, Winston goes out and ... what? Shreds Pitt? Destroys?Embarrasses? What verb do you use to describe going 25-of-27 for 356 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for another one? Every verb sounds too mild and imprecise for what was arguably the best debut for a freshman quarterback in college football history.
Afterward, Winston dwells on himself only when he takes the blame for being sacked twice. Maybe this is the right thing to say. But watch him: Nothing about this seems remotely scripted. When the cameras come to Joyner, he tells the world he's not a bit surprised.
Within days, football experts come out of the woodwork to proclaim that -- having seen the first glimpse of what Joyner has been watching for a year -- they too are essentially unsurprised. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. says Winston is a legit candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. Based on only one game. Which Kiper concedes sounds hyperbolic. But even if bad games come, as they inevitably will, it's hard to find anything you'd want an NFL QB to do that Winston is not already doing.
Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer and private QB engineer George Whitfield Jr., who run the Elite 11 competition, say that -- the extremity of the gaudy stats aside -- this is exactly how they expected Winston to play.
In the summer before his senior year, Jameis showed up at the camp, in the middle of his baseball season, having misunderstood that it was a real competition, not some PR stunt. He hadn't been playing any football and hadn't learned the playbook. Day 1, he got by on pure ability. He didn't embarrass himself, but Jameis was still embarrassed.
Around 1 a.m., Dilfer was up and noticed Winston's light on. He was studying. The kid pulled an all-nighter. In the morning, he knew the playbook better than anyone. And even though it was a competition, one involving blue-chip recruits with alpha-dog personalities, in nothing flat everybody was Jameis' pal. Everybody was looking up to him. The quote-unquote goofy kid.
Then, in the camp's very last on-field moment, in the competition that would decide the MVP award, Jameis threw a deep ball to the corner of the end zone -- an awful, wild throw. Or so it looked. Somehow, the receiver (who was not especially fast) came into view, running full stride, making what turned out to be an easy catch. Every player sprinted onto the field and mobbed Winston. Nobody who saw Jameis that week could have been entirely surprised by that night in Pittsburgh.
A perceivable difference
Predictably, Jameis is more or less as impressive the next two home blowouts over Nevada and Bethune-Cookman and is no less goofy.
As one practice ends and reporters pool around Fisher, Jameis practically skips by, shouting, "It's fixin' to rain! It's fixin' to storm!" Over and over. As the shouts fade, Fisher shakes his head and, smiling, says to the reporters, "I've got to coach that."
"Coach Fisher accepted it when he saw how the team reacted around me," Jameis explains. "If the team didn't react the way they did, I think Coach Fisher would have a talk with me. He did talk with me at the beginning of the season, like, 'Hey, you gotta know when to be goofy. You gotta know when to lead. They aren't going to follow a guy who's messing up all day.'"
On Sept. 28, at Boston College, Winston faces his first real challenge and first real opportunity to lead. The Seminoles come out flat and go down early 17-3. For the past several years, FSU has had a genius for suffering at least one baffling upset, and this feels like that game. By late in the second quarter, Jameis has brought the team back to 17-17. Then, on the field Doug Flutie once called home and with one second left in the half, Winston takes the snap, eludes the rush, waves senior Kenny Shaw toward the right pylon and hits him for a 55-yard TD. Just like that, the air is sucked out of the stadium.
Following the win, whispers of Heisman sleeper grow louder. Jameis hears them but will have none of it. "When you start caring about that, you're bigger than the team," he'll say later. "Have you seen our team? If I didn't have those guys around me, I would be nothing."
The next game, a 63-0 thrashing of Maryland, includes a highlight-reel-for-the-ages, escape-artist TD pass, this one to junior tight end Nick O'Leary. After it, Erving -- who'd been in the middle of the mound of players from which Winston somehow emerged -- goes from teammate to teammate, asking if he'd really just seen what he just saw.
The Heisman hype machine whirs louder. Winston handles the ensuing media swarm with the same animated ease as he did when his weekly Q&A drew half a dozen beat writers. Meanwhile, veterans are even more vocal about how effortlessly the offense's youngest player has become its unmistakable leader.
"It's just amazing to see how this transformation's come," Erving says. "He's the same guy. But one thing he's changed is how he perceives things, how he reacts to certain situations. He knows when to show his personality and when to be serious."
Now everyone knows
For two weeks -- preparing to face third-ranked Clemson in Death Valley -- Winston looks like he couldn't be having any more fun. During one practice, when Fisher finishes bawling out an offensive lineman, Jameis puts his arm around his teammate. "Don't worry, man," Winston says. "It's just Holler Tuesday. Coach'll love you tomorrow."
There's a subtle difference in how Winston's teammates are talking about him. Jameis was always preposterously likable, but now there's a little awe seeping in. Instead of growing weary about the daily barrage of Jameis questions, they are, if anything, growing happier to have a chance to talk about him.
Shaw marvels that, if anything, Winston is getting more humble as the season goes along. One day before practice, junior running back James Wilder Jr. is walking by a TV reporter about to interview Jameis. The reporter begins with something about "Jameis Winston and the Florida State Seminoles." Winston asks the reporter to stop the camera. "Please," Jameis says. "Just say 'Florida State Seminoles.'"
On the eve of the team's biggest game so far, the conventional wisdom, to which not a person in the FSU locker room subscribes, is that the kid will be nervous.
"I missed football so much," Winston will say later, after defeating Clemson 51-14. "I was so ready. People thought, He's gonna be nervous. But I miss having to play in big games. A whole year without having that? I miss going to somebody else's house and beating them in front of their own fans. I miss going onto a field, getting booed by fans. I miss having to play rivalry games. That's not something I'm ever going to be nervous about."
Indeed. His now-famous pregame talk? The furthest thing from the "we're going into battle" rah-rah BS you'd expect from an uptight quarterback. Instead, it's smile. It's have fun. It's full of joy and wonder and a big playful dose of preacher under a revival tent.
On FSU's first offensive series, the Clemson fans have planned to achieve a Guinness World Record for the highest decibel reading at a sporting event. As they give it the old college try and the volume rises well above jet engine, inside the Seminoles' huddle Jameis Winston makes a face: the kind Eddie Murphy makes when Mr. Landlord knocks or when he's seen a ghost. The players crack up. The noise subsides. On the third play, Winston throws a touchdown to redshirt sophomore Kelvin Benjamin.
That's just Jameis.
After the game, Winston showers as fast as he can and puts on a suit. Coach Fisher told them that's what Michael Jordan did. Come out after the game and make that good first impression. Winston's suit is slightly ill-fitting, endearingly modest, nothing like what he'll be able to afford in a couple of years. It only serves, though, to underscore that he's still 19 years old. That he puts up with the Famous Jameis stuff only because it makes people pronounce his name right but that otherwise he wishes they'd stop.
This is a 19-year-old you're watching deflect everything about this game to his teammates. He's authentically beside himself at what they can do, just as he will be two weeks later, when FSU beats then-No. 7 Miami 41-14 despite Winston's two first-half picks. He has no issue with it not being a Jameis moment, because in his mind, these are all Seminoles moments.
You really do believe that he believes his teammates are making everything easy for him. He's 19 years old, but you actually know this kid is for real, that you'd follow him anywhere.
Mark Winegardner is the Burroway Chair of English and a distinguished research professor at Florida State. He is also the author of the novel Crooked River Burning. Follow him on Twitter @WinegardnerMark.