TAMPA, Fla. -- Tucked inside a small North Tampa shopping plaza, across the street from a Salvation Army and several small used car lots, is one of Jameis Winston’s favorite hangouts. It’s 20 minutes from One Buc Place, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice, but it might as well be two hours away, and it’s where he and several of his teammates go to escape on their day off – the barbershop.
“I like coming to the barbershop,” Winston said. “You get a chance to be around people you can consider as family. Everybody around here is like a brother or an uncle.”
Inside the Whoo's Nexxt Barber Shop, the walls are yellow and red with a crisp white trim. The owner, Ray Demoulin, might be the first to greet you, or Ernest Brown, the manager, whose station is also close to the front. Then there’s Gary Thomas, or “G,” with a bold, blond streak in his beard rivaled only by his thick Jamaican accent. They’ll offer a cheerful “hello" or handshake, but more than likely, it’s a hug.
There are flags of NFL teams lining the walls and pictures of athletes who have had their hair cut there. Thomas, who is cutting Winston’s hair, is even wearing a Tampa Bay Buccaneers shirt. But very little is actually made of Winston being the Bucs' starting quarterback.
“No one is looking at me being ‘Jameis Winston.’ They’re looking at me as the person waiting to get their hair cut as well,” Winston said. “Aside from being at home, this is a good place because you can actually talk to people and people won’t take what you say personally because everyone is entitled to their opinion at the barbershop.”
Thomas, who's been barbering professionally for about 13 years, cuts the hair of several Buccaneers players – Winston, Louis Murphy, Donovan Smith, Kwon Alexander, Noah Spence and Mike Evans, Cecil Shorts III and Caleb Benenoch, to name a few. They come by the shop or he’ll go to their homes or even to the team facility.
“To be honest, I don’t look at none of these guys like superstars," Thomas said. "I look at them for who they are. I deal with them according to who they are. And that’s how me and most of these guys’ relationships grow."
Before the San Francisco game this year, when the team left early Friday evening, Thomas was there with his clippers. And this week, with a quick turnaround because of a Thursday night game, most of the players have been at the facility until about 9 p.m. So on Wednesday afternoon he was in the team’s locker room, doing his best to re-create the barbershop atmosphere.
“Noah was telling me today, ‘Man, when we look good, we feel good and we play good,’” Thomas said.
He brings in hot towels and works on their shoulders with massage. "It's the least I can do ... so [they] can feel good getting up and go play well. Haircuts change things. They really do."
Winston agreed wholeheartedly. “If you look good, you play good," he said.
"No one is looking at me being 'Jameis Winston.' They're looking at me as the person waiting to get their hair cut as well." Jameis Winston
From the time Thomas first picked up a pair of scissors as a teenager in Jamaica and tried to cut a friend's hair -- leaving a bald spot so bad that he purposely created one on his own head to make his friend feel better -- hair has always been his passion. That passion helped him rise above very difficult circumstances. Three years ago he was living out of the trunk of his 1996 Toyota Camry. Now he's someone NFL stars such as Winston depend on.
"If you need him at 3 in the morning to get you a cut, he’ll open up his shop," Winston said. "Three o’clock! He’s never done that with me yet, but I’ve heard many stories of him getting out of his bed. He’s like a doctor, like he’s on call when he goes to cut someone’s hair.”
Thomas said he's gotten up at 1:45 a.m. for a client. He sometimes doesn't finish up until 2:30 a.m. and he's back in the shop at 6:30. He's been to Winston's house plenty of times, but never late.
"For him to trust me enough, even when he’s not home, to trust me enough to say, ‘G, just wait for me at the house. I’ll be there.’ That says something."
"Jameis is very, very smart," Thomas added. "Like out of all the guys, Jameis is extremely intelligent. And he knows what’s at stake. The closer you get to Jameis, it’s because he allows you to get close to him and he has to trust you to a certain extent. ... He has to really feel your soul."
Winston and his teammates rely on Thomas for more than just haircuts. He listens to their problems. He offers advice. He can sense when there is a bad day at practice or if something is weighing on them. He doesn't judge. He guards their privacy. The same for Demoulin and Brown.
"We uplift them," Thomas said. "They have rough days, too. I’m telling you, these guys have rough days. ... Some days they don’t want to talk. Sometimes they’re going through something with a family member or something." Thomas does his best to encourage. "They appreciate that. Sometimes I know when to not say anything because I know that they’re in their zone and when they’re ready to come out of their shell, I’m ready to talk to them."
So what do he and Winston talk about? Family, for one. And Florida State football.
"Jameis and his brother, that’s his guy. Like he looks up to his little brother," Thomas said.
Jonah Winston is eight years old and just recently began playing football. Jameis got to see him play for the first time during the bye week.
"To Jameis, Jonah is the star. And I admire that, too. He’s a very humble guy, too. When it’s all said and done, he’s very humble."
They do talk football as well. "Out of all these guys, like I know Jameis really loves football. ... He’s a geek for football. He’s not pretending out there on the field. Like what you see, this is who you see."
The same goes for Thomas, who believes the best part of his job is helping people transform inside and out.
"It's more than just a haircut. Back in the day, barbering used to be just a thing. 'Oh, he's a barber,'" Thomas said. "It's a blessing to be able to understand that your craft allows people to feel great about themselves. When these guys get up out of the chair, they feel great. They smile. They're feeling themselves. ... The cut lets them feel that good, but it has to be a good cut!"