NEW YORK -- Florida State's sports information staff attempted to shuttle quarterback Jameis Winston away from his pre-Heisman press conference before he could field a direct question about the sexual assault accusation that smeared his name and clouded both his run toward the Heisman Trophy and the Seminoles' run to the BCS title game. But Winston eventually returned and delivered an answer to the following question: "Would you like to give your side of the story as far as the investigation is concerned?"
"I knew I did nothing wrong," Winston said. "That's why I knew that I could respect the process and I'd eventually be vindicated. It was more about me being silent for my family, because I didn't want to put my family in those situations. We had so much respect for [defense attorney Tim] Jansen and everything going around, I knew I did nothing wrong and everything would be OK."
By putting those words into the public record, Winston will likely avoid getting such blunt questions while holding the trophy on Saturday. His answer may not satisfy everyone who prejudged him before the evidence in the case was released last week by the state attorney's office and the Tallahassee Police Department, but it does offer a window into the mind of a 19-year-old dealing simultaneously with the crush of sudden fame and an allegation that cuts directly to a person's core.
It would have been shocking had Winston offered his version of the events of the morning Dec. 7, 2012. Jansen, who joined Winston and the Florida State group on Friday in New York, advised Winston to stay silent throughout the process. "There's always a right time to have your client speak," Jansen told SI last week. "We really didn't need it in this case. ... The other thing I was concerned about were the leaks. They were leaking out the DNA. I was afraid they'd leak out his interview."
Winston also has to be careful about what he says because, while the criminal investigation is closed, his accuser could still file a civil suit. The woman's attorney, Patricia Carroll, said in a press conference in Florida on Friday that her client is not contemplating a civil action at this time. But Carroll did question the integrity of the investigation and called for an independent review, so the process may not be completely finished.
Florida State officials have tried to shield Winston from questions about the investigation by demanding that reporters ask exclusively about football, and they did so again on Friday. After questions that obliquely referenced the investigation, associate sports information director Kerwin Lonzo grew impatient. "He's only answering football questions and about the Heisman," Lonzo said. "Move on." Lonzo then cut off a question about whether there is a character component to the award. After a few minutes, Winston was taken out of the interview area even though he was supposed to be there for another 10 minutes. He returned shortly after, and Seminoles officials blamed a miscommunication with the Heisman PR staff.
In the second session, Winston took the direct question about the accusation and handled it well. His handlers did him no favors by trying to shield him. Winston's own words helped him more than any of their demands for football-only questions ever had. Besides, his thoughtful answers on Friday should reduce the awkwardness of the actual trophy ceremony on Saturday.
This certainly can't be how Winston imagined winning the Heisman would be. There was a moment on Friday when -- with five of the six finalists gathered around the trophy -- he reached down and touched the 50-pound statue with a look on his face that said, "I can't believe I'm touching the Heisman Trophy." But when he dreamed of hoisting the trophy as a boy, Winston probably didn't expect to have his defense attorney hovering nearby. That is nevertheless how it will happen. Winston made the situation a little less difficult by facing a direct question without blinking.