A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
Matt Scott saw it on a July morning in 2009. He had just been named coach at Hueytown (Ala.) High. Scott had only a few weeks to teach his pro-style offense to players who ran the wing T the previous year. So Scott met the quarterback he had inherited and one of his receivers at the field to go over some basic routes. Scott expected a loose, getting-to-know-you session. Then the receiver dropped the ball on an out route. The quarterback, a rising sophomore named Jameis Winston, grabbed the receiver by his shirt. "Catch the damn ball," Scott recalls Winston saying. "You're a senior."
Jimbo Fisher saw it on Oct. 6, 2012. Fisher's Florida State team had opened the third quarter leading 16--0 at N.C. State, but the Wolfpack fought back for a 17--16 win. On the sideline during that awful second half, Fisher saw Winston confront his teammates, demanding they wake up and stop the comeback. Winston wasn't playing—he redshirted in 2012—but he was leading. Although the loss ended the Seminoles' national title hopes, Fisher took away one positive: He knew how much his quarterback of the future hated to lose. "He was getting on guys," Fisher says. "It was natural for him to bark out and command, even though he was a pup."
October 21, 2013
Mike Martin saw it last March 22. The baseball coach watched Florida State go through the motions in the early innings of a 10--0 loss to Georgia Tech, the opener of a doubleheader. It was only the Seminoles' second loss in 22 games, so the performance could have been written off as an anomaly. One Florida State freshman didn't see it that way. Even though he wasn't in the lineup—he would pinch-hit in the eighth—pitcher-outfielder Winston gathered his teammates and ripped them for their lackluster effort. "He had seen enough," Martin says. "He felt like something needed to be said." Did the players respect the message from an unproven freshman? "Well," Martin says, "we won the next game."
Can this be the same guy who said in August that "the worst day is a rainy day with no laughs," minutes before doing an MC Hammer dance? Who routinely fires up Netflix so he can relive the epic, animated struggle between the evil Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz and Perry the Platypus on Disney Channel stalwart Phineas and Ferb? No way this is the same player about whom Martin says, "If he was anywhere near my locker and I was a player, I would never put my shoes on without first checking. Because there's no telling what he's put in them."
Offensive tackle Cam Erving learned about the two sides of Winston when he was assigned to mentor the freshman in the summer of 2012. "This is supposed to be the No. 1 quarterback in the country?" Erving remembers thinking. "This kid is so goofy." Then, after workouts and practices and that sideline outburst in Raleigh, N.C., Erving understood. "He has the it factor," Erving says. "You can't explain the it factor. It's just it."
It has made Winston one of college football's most exciting quarterbacks as a redshirt freshman. Through five games the 6'4" 228-pounder has completed 73.2% of his passes, averaged 288.2 yards and thrown 17 touchdowns and two interceptions. On Saturday, Winston will lead the No. 5 Seminoles against undefeated, third-ranked Clemson in a game that could determine which team wins the ACC Atlantic Division and remains in the national-title hunt.
It has also made Winston an intriguing baseball prospect. He's a switch-hitting rightfielder known for mowing down base runners, as well as a righthanded pitcher with a mid-90s fastball. On the off chance that Winston might play for their organization during his college summers, the Rangers picked him in the 15th round of the 2012 draft. He would have gone much higher if he didn't insist on playing football.
Winston has been so successful on both the gridiron and the diamond that he has shelved his childhood dream of becoming a podiatrist (yes, really) so he can follow in the footsteps of two of the ultimate it factor athletes: Deion Sanders, the Florida State alum who played simultaneously in the NFL and MLB, and Bo Jackson, who once dropped jaws while playing for the Royals and the Raiders—and who grew up in Bessemer, Ala., about 12 miles from Hueytown.
Scott wouldn't be surprised by anything Winston achieves. "People do not understand what makes him so good," the Hueytown High coach says. "There are a lot of Division I quarterbacks who can throw as well as he can. There's a bunch that can run as good. What makes him who he is right now are the third and fourth things. Number three is his football IQ. And number four is just his mentality. Every Friday night, he was the meanest son of a gun out there."
Winston called his first audible (33 dive, a handoff to the fullback) when he was seven, and by high school he had the freedom to change plays at the line. When he was in elementary school, his parents, Antonor—who goes by Ant—and Loretta, wondered why they rarely saw their oldest child with his nose in a book. The kid, called Jaboo since birth, told them he learned everything at school—a statement backed up by his report cards. In fact, Jaboo hardly needed sleep. When his son was four or five, Ant would rise to leave for his 3 a.m. shift doing maintenance and repair work for the city of Bessemer and find the boy watching cartoons. Ant would turn the TV off and chase Jaboo to bed, only to have the scene repeated the next morning. "Then he'd get up at a regular time and put on his clothes," Ant says.
"Like he'd been asleep all night," adds Loretta. The cartoon-induced insomnia lasted until 11th grade, but Jaboo's grades never slipped.
Winston's natural curiosity drove him to his first career choice. Ant and his mother had foot issues that required repeated treatments by Bessemer podiatrist Cynthia Hobdy. Before long Hobdy enlisted Ant's inquisitive son as her de facto assistant. "When I was treating his dad and his grandmother, he would stand over my left shoulder," Hobdy says. "He needed to know the name of every instrument and what we were going to do next.... The excitement never wore off. Every time I saw him, he had another question."
While football and/or baseball is likely to keep Winston from ever shaving bunions, he hasn't stopped honing his bedside manner. Winston made headlines last April 6 when he practiced with the football team in the morning before hopping on a plane for Miami, where he pitched three perfect innings of relief in a 6--0 loss to the Hurricanes, routinely hitting 95 on the radar gun. What didn't make it into any of those stories was Winston's care for his seatmate on the flight down. Turbulence left Ana Couture, the wife of a Florida State athletic trainer, "turning green," Couture says, but he kept her calm. "Just don't puke on Jameis," Couture remembers thinking as Winston cracked jokes and frequently inquired about her well-being. Winston made it through the flight clean. He also won a new fan. "He was going out of his way to see how I was doing," Couture said. "That's just the sign of a good person. He didn't have to do that."
THE CONVERSATIONS on the practice field back at Hueytown weren't so warm and fuzzy. Because Winston understood the offense as well as his coaches, he never shied away from voicing his opinion. "He and I would butt heads," Scott says. "But it was always a deal where nobody was mad at the end."
Cameras have caught Winston and Fisher locked in spirited discussion on the sideline. Fisher says he occasionally has to calm Winston, who returns from every series with a mental list of plays he's sure will work. The coach doesn't mind the suggestions because he routinely gets knocks on his office door around 8:30 on weeknights from Winston, who will have already watched practice film and made a list of questions for the next day's quarterback meeting. "You can have a conversation with him like you do a coach," Fisher says. "When you talk, he sees."
Winston also sees a looming choice between football and baseball. He would rather not have to make it. Martin, who coached Sanders, J.D. Drew and Buster Posey, has no doubt Winston could succeed in the majors. "If he had given baseball all the attention," Martin says, "he'd be a No. 1 draft pick and a one, two or three guy in the rotation." Yet Martin is glad that scenario never came to pass. "I would feel terrible if we'd have never gotten to see Jameis Winston under center or in the shotgun," he says.
For now Winston will try to duplicate the achievements of another Florida State two-sport star. In 1993, Charlie Ward, who also played point guard, won a Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to a national title. Last spring Winston met Ward for the first time. Guess what Winston noticed? "Me and Charlie Ward are complete opposites," Winston says. "He's quiet. But he has that it factor. Charlie Ward was looking me directly in the eye. I know how he led the Seminoles to a national championship."
He did it with it.
From now through the end of the college and pro football seasons, and leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sports Illustrated will regularly feature the most intriguing on-the-climb athletes across all its platforms. Look for a video profile of Saints defensive end Cam Jordan on your computer or mobile device starting on Oct. 23 at SI.com/risingstars
The five other freshmen who have had the greatest impact so far
QB, Penn State
1,672 yards, 11 TDs
CB, Virginia Tech
17 tackles, 4 interceptions
61 tackles, 3 sacks
32 tackles, 1 interception
11/11 FGs, 27/27 PAs