NEW YORK -- Jameis Winston flashed a wide smile as he took the stage at the 2013 Heisman Trophy ceremony at the Best Buy Theater in New York. It was the same smile we’ve seen all season from the talented and gregarious quarterback, a player whose carefree demeanor often conjured up comparisons to Magic Johnson and other athletes well-known for affable personalities. Few players have been as comfortable in front of a camera this season as Florida State’s star. For now, this was Winston’s moment.
Yet with the sport’s most prestigious award in hand, Winston, for once, couldn’t find words. “I was speechless,” the Seminoles’ redshirt freshman quarterback said. “I had to shake everyone's hand twice. I didn't know what to do.”
That was unusual for a quarterback whose poise largely defined his remarkable campaign as a first-year starter, one who displayed the leadership of a senior rather than the mistakes of a freshman. But perhaps that’s becoming more common in college football these days. The redshirt freshman Winston became the second straight freshman to claim the Heisman Trophy, only one year after Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel won the award in 2012. Winston claimed a whopping 668 first-place votes, ninth all-time, and 2,205 total points. He bested runner-up AJ McCarron of Alabama by 1,501 points. That margin was the seventh-largest in Heisman history, leaving little doubt who the country considered the best player in college football.
The victory by the 19-year-old Winston, the Heisman’s youngest winner ever, is perhaps the latest example of a gradual change taking place across the sport’s landscape. One season ago, Manziel’s victory was considered a barrier-breaking moment in Heisman history. He was the first freshman to claim the award, but there was no telling how much of an impact that broken barrier would have on college football. Yet that effect feels palpable only one year later thanks to Winston.
“There's no age limit on being a great player,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We've broken down those barriers. If they're the best players, we're now accepting them into our society … Like we say, a play doesn’t care who makes it. There’s no age limit on being a great player.”
Much like Manziel before him, Winston ripped through his competition all season long as a first-year stater, but he did so as the headliner of the country’s eventual No. 1 team. He set national freshman records with 3,820 passing yards and 38 touchdowns, and he finished the year as the country’s leader in passing efficiency (190.1). In October he tossed for 444 passing yards and accounted for four scores in a 51-14 rout of Clemson in Death Valley, perhaps the biggest road win of the year in college football. Moreover, his Seminoles reached the BCS title game opposite Auburn. This all occurred with Winston replacing a first-round NFL draft pick at quarterback in E.J. Manuel. So much for a learning curve, right?
Winston didn’t face many challenges on the field, but his biggest challenge came off of it. The quarterback’s shot at the trophy – and, in reality, much more – was nearly derailed once his involvement in a sexual assault investigation became public last month. Serious allegations loomed over the last few weeks of Winston’s stellar season, putting his record-breaking numbers in perspective as the country awaited a decision on whether charges would be brought against the redshirt freshman.
Though the Florida state attorney’s office eventually decided not enough evidence existed to charge Winston, his implication seemingly had an effect on his candidacy: Of the 900 ballots tabulated, Winston was left off 115 of them entirely. The Heisman Trust’s mission calls to recognize a player who “exhibits a pursuit of excellence with integrity,” something that appeared to weigh heavily on some voters’ minds. The allegations surrounding Winston were much more serious than the well-publicized off-field troubles of Manziel during the offseason, but both situations fed right into the hands of traditional Heisman voters who shy away from underclassmen, many of whom are sometimes considered less mature.
On Saturday Winston reflected on his own personal growth during a tumultuous end to his first college football season. He knew he wouldn’t have reached New York were it not for his own maturation along the way. That’s why standing in front of past Heisman winners brought a sense of vindication to Winston.
“One thing Coach Fisher has always told me – especially through this process – is ‘For you to be a man, the kid in you must die,’” Winston said. “I believe that kid in me has died. I’m always going to have my personality. I’m always going to have my character. But I have to become a man, and that comes through a process.”
Winston’s growth, personally and athletically, is a microcosm of a trend taking place across college football in recent years. No longer are players being forced to wait behind more experienced veterans on the depth chart. High-profile players like Winston and Manziel along with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley and others have made significant impacts on the game directly out of high school. Some, like South Carolina’s mammoth defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, have even caused others to question the restrictions that keep players in college for three years.
Fisher said coaches are not blind to the youth movement across the sport. “The development of these kids shows how hard they work,” he said. “The systems that are going on in high school, they train these kids at young ages are getting them more ready for college quicker. We're recognizing that and putting them on the field.”
That impact has extended to the Heisman race, as well. No underclassmen had ever claimed the trophy prior to Tim Tebow’s win as a sophomore in 2007. Since then, five of the last seven Heisman winners have been freshmen or sophomores. That’s completely different from what Heisman history dictates. After all, all but 21 winners have been seniors, but a senior has not won the trophy since Ohio State’s Troy Smith in 2006.
“You shouldn’t have to sit back and watch an older fellow lead a team,” Winston said. “You shouldn’t have to wait your turn. You're your own person. Whatever you feel the need to do. If you're a selfless person, you’re going to do whatever you have to do and help your team out.”
That’s the message reverberating through college football in 2013. The last two Heisman winners were relative unknowns when they kicked off their eventual Heisman campaigns. In many ways college football is beginning to mirror the “one-and-done” atmosphere of college basketball, where highly touted high school prospects take the country by storm. That’s an exciting notion for fans of the sport. Which newcomer will be next season’s Jameis Winston or Johnny Manziel? Who will be next to display leadership beyond his years?
Of course, sometimes the country’s best player can’t even contain his inner child. Winning the Heisman will do that to you.