GREENSBORO, N.C. – There were a record 449 people credentialed for ACC Kickoff this year, and it’d be more than a bit foolish to assume Jameis Winston had nothing to do with it. The polarizing Florida State quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner led the Seminoles to a national championship as a redshirt freshman a season ago, but he’s made as much noise off the field as he has on it so far.
The throng to get to Winston, who was one of the two FSU players selected to attend the ACC’s two-day media day event, ran about eight deep. UNC, Wake Forest and Boston College were in the same time frame on Sunday afternoon, but they didn’t stand a chance against the crush of the Winston Circus, although Tar Heels quarterback Marquise Williams drew what would’ve been a sizable crowd if this were any other day.
Set against the backdrop of the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, N.C., a place so focused on lavishness and serenity that there is marble in every guest room and a Dead Sea Salt body treatment package offered in the hotel spa, the craziness surrounding Winston seemed almost out of place. But that’s the draw of college football’s most talked about player.
“He handles it pretty well,” FSU cornerback P.J. Williams said. “He’s a great leader to our team. He always stays calm. He never got cocky or anything like that. He works hard every day.”
Jameis Winston: "People need to respect the ACC more"
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston talks with the media at 2014 ACC Kickoff about the upcoming season.
With former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel off snapping selfies in the NFL, there’s no dilution between Jameis and the media. He’s the biggest story on the nation’s best team. He’s going to be the focal point no matter what.
“As the quarterback you’re always going to get scrutinized and you’re always going to get praised,” Winston said. “But that’s the position that we play. It’s the most scrutinized and praised position in sports.”
If the redshirt sophomore is bothered by the attention, he doesn’t show it, and he certainly won’t come anywhere close to admitting it. He fielded a string of questions about “the spotlight” and came just short of describing the wattage of said spotlight in his answers.
“I don’t have a real definition of the spotlight because I’m just being myself,” Winston said. “If cameras want to be on me or a kid wants to ask me for an autograph, I guess that just comes with me playing quarterback and me being on TV, but I don’t try to live in the spotlight. I don’t try to use the spotlight as an excuse.”
Winston was poised throughout, speaking loudly, cracking jokes and smiling. He asked people to give a round of applause for the ACC for finally taking the championship “away from the SEC,” and confidently said “a loss is definitely not in our vocabulary at this point” when asked about the possibility of a one-loss ACC team making the College Football Playoff.
At one point in time he put his hands behind his head and answered several questions from that position. Anxious ticks -- like playing with the table cloth or peeling the label off his water bottle -- showed through, but those looked to be more a product of Winston’s personality and the fact that he’s still a college kid (he said “my ADD was kicking in” as he finished answering questions), than any sort of nervousness.
That said, celebrity can be exhausting, and for a guy dubbed “Famous Jameis” before he had ever started a game, even being used to the added attention doesn’t mean it’s overall beneficial.
“He is the celebrity,” Tomahawk Nation editor-in-chief Bud Elliott said. “If you see Jameis Winston and you’re a student, the first time you see him, you’re probably going to ask to take a picture. That’s got to be tiring and stressful. I wonder how much that wears on him.”
Winston called the football field his “sanctuary” on Sunday afternoon, and he hasn’t seen the shelter of that sanctuary for what has to feel like a long time. If anything, getting back in game action will force people to discuss Winston’s play rather asking questions about his maturity. The crab legs incident is still recent memory, and the sexual assault accusations are likely to get brought up in almost everything written about him for the rest of the time he’s in Tallahassee.
While Winston’s father might think the quarterback is sticking around for two more years, if the Heisman winner has another season like last year, the draw of the NFL might be too much to pass up. Whether he’s planning on staying or going, he’s not tipping his hand one way or the other. Scouts have questioned his judgment, and the word “leadership” was one Winston repeated ad nauseam in his almost hour-long media availability.
“As a leader you have to accept the role and you have to live up to it,” Winston said. “That’s one thing I have learned this past season. I know I’m in the spotlight, and I know I’ve got these guys depending on me. I know I’ve got coach [Jimbo] Fisher depending on me. The most important thing, I’ve got my family depending on me.
“That comes from me maturing. That comes from me seeing the real world, seeing how things are going to go, seeing how people have different types of perspectives about me as a person and everything. As an individual who’s always trying to get better every single day, I know I have to live up to that hype everywhere I go.”
Time will tell if Winston has really learned from his mistakes or he means the words he’s said. In the meantime, that spotlight isn’t going away. It’s only going to get brighter.
SI Now: Jameis Winston's off-the-field issues raise red flags
On Wednesday's SI Now, The MMQB editor-in-chief Peter King discusses Heisman trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston
's shoplifting citation.