This story appears in the Aug. 18, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
You will never, ever see a college football phenomenon like Johnny Manziel again, as long as you stop watching the sport this month. Otherwise, get ready. Here’s Johnny, the 2014 version: Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. Like Johnny Football at Texas A&M last year, Winston is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, a divisive NFL prospect, a cultural lightning rod and -- this seems incidental, but we might as well point it out -- a person.
As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Winston led the nation in passer rating and took the Seminoles to the national title. This fall he will be part quarterback, part biology-lab frog. If he has one bad game (one more than he had last season), headline writers will ask, from jameis to jameisn’t? His every move will be dissected.
“That will be his life,” says Charlie Ward, who won the Heisman as Florida State’s quarterback 20 years before Winston did. “That is part of being a Heisman[-winning] returning quarterback. When that happens, he’ll live up to it. He’s ready.”
Ward, who coaches football at Booker T. Washington High in Pensacola, has been mentoring Winston, and he can tell you what’s right with Jameis: “He should be able to graduate [ahead of his class], which very few people talk about.” Also, Winston has handled hype before. Last summer Seminoles fans were buzzing about him before he took a snap; it is a sign of our times, perhaps, that his nickname was Famous Jameis before he was famous.
Winston’s play can withstand the scrutiny. But in the public’s view, if not the police’s, he is one transgression from being a permanent Character Question. Winston has been accused of crimes both serious and comic. In December 2012 a Florida State student accused him of sexual assault, and the investigation was mishandled by either the Tallahassee police or the Florida State boosters’ club. (I can never remember which.) No charges were pressed.
Then, this off-season, Winston was accused of stealing crab legs from a Publix supermarket; he got a shoplifting citation, but it was only a misdemeanor, which offended the crabs. The lobsters are still laughing. As collegiate idiocy goes, this was pretty minor, but it did make you wonder if Winston realizes what’s at stake for him.
There are fair concerns about Winston, as both a leader and a man, and I expect them to be discussed ad nauseam. The conversation about Winston will be twisted, stretched and spun around, the way it was with Manziel last year. At the Charlie Ward Mentor Leadership Football Camp this summer, Ward says Winston was “throwing water balloons with the kids, dumping water on kids, allowing them to dump water on him. That’s the kind of person he is.” Pundits will ask, Does this make Winston a sweetheart or immature? That debate can fill a half hour, easy, and longer if we find out some of the water balloons were in Florida Gators colors.
Somewhere in Tallahassee the actual Winston will wake up every morning and live his life. His mentor thinks he will do it well. Ward’s main advice to the kids at his camp was to be themselves. Winston lived that advice last spring, when he played baseball for Florida State primarily because he wanted to. Some prospects play minor league ball for thousands of dollars between football seasons. Winston pitched 33 1⁄3 innings for Florida State for fun and gave up just four runs.
Perhaps it was unwise to risk injury (and NFL millions) by throwing fastballs all spring, but Ward sees it differently. He, too, was a multisport star, and he went on to a long career in the NBA. He is proud of how he juggled hoops and football. “When Jameis looks back 10, 15 years from now, he’ll be grateful he played baseball and football,” Ward says. “You only get three or four years to do it. More than likely, that will be the only time you have to play multiple sports.”
By next year’s NFL draft, Winston will have to grow up. Some will say that is too late. Others will say, Take your time. What would Johnny Football say? Hang on, we’re trying to get him on the set.