Prodigiousness manifests most often in athletics, mathematics, chess and music. A child may have a brain that processes chess moves or mathematical equations like some dream computer, which is its own mystery, but how can the mature emotional insight that is necessary … emerge from someone who is immature? -- Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree
Around the same time Jameis Winston began training with a man named Mark Freeman, he started filling a notebook with two things: Detailed schematic breakdowns of defenses (In Cover 4, the outside linebackers are the key), and musings on the ideal traits of a quarterback (1. Leadership, 2. Dedication, 3. Desire). Winston was a middle-schooler from the Birmingham suburb of Hueytown, not yet 12 years old, a lanky kid with innate athletic ability whose friends, like his mother, called him Jaboo (pronounced "Jayboo"). Freeman was a veteran football and baseball coach with enough of a reputation that Winston's father, Antonor, approached him about working individually with his son.
Winston and Freeman would practice baseball for 45 minutes, and then Winston would change clothes and they would work on his quarterbacking skills, his dropbacks and his rollouts and his technique, and then they would go inside and diagram coverages and draw up plays. Winston would come prepared, and very often, he would answer his own questions before Freeman could; he would pick up things as fast as Freeman could show them to him. It got to the point where Freeman looked forward to the sessions as much, if not more, than Winston did.
"I've done this 16 or 17 years," Freeman says, "but he's the only one I've ever seen who was that young, who just wanted to be the best. He's the only kid I've come across like that."
In the sixth grade, Winston played for a youth football team in the nearby town of Hoover, for a coach named Greg Blackman. Winston was the quarterback and the middle linebacker, and he had the freedom to blitz on his own and the freedom to read defenses on his own. That 2005 team went undefeated, which was not unusual, since Blackman's team won 50 consecutive games. But that team was so good that Blackman often goes back and watches the highlight video (below) he compiled, with Jameis Winston at the center of it.
"He'd call timeout and say, 'Coach, they're clearly lined up this way," Blackman says. "It's just a trait. It's part of his nature to lead. He's smart in the classroom, he's smart in the field. He just knows. He had it in him. We were playing a Thanksgiving game against a team that had never lost, and had a kid who's a Division I player now, and he came up to me at halftime and said, 'Coach, you know we're not gonna lose.'
"And we beat them pretty handily."
Nearly every conversation with the people who saw Jameis Winston before he became what he is now -- a redshirt freshman quarterback on the verge of mega-stardom at Florida State, a redshirt freshman quarterback who could stand at the forefront of the Heisman Trophy race with a solid 60 minutes against Clemson this Saturday -- reaches a moment of intangibility, a crescendo that words can not satisfy. You just know, they say. He was just different, they say.
"I ain't never seen nothing quite like it," says Otis Leverette, a former NFL defensive end who trained Winston while he was in high school. "The kid could pick up stuff in two or three days that it would take other kids four months to pick up on."
"When the good Lord made him, he said, 'You will be a winner,'" Blackman says.
At some level, any quarterback with the ability to play major college football is a prodigy. Given the sheer number of quarterback camps and quarterback gurus, I imagine there are hundreds of stories like Winston's, of kids who stand above the crowd at a precocious age. Most of them fall off at some juncture, as they fight through their teenage years; most of them, as one coach told me, reach a stage in their development when they can no longer dominate through sheer physical ability. But even though he has yet to reach that point -- even though, as a college quarterback, he remains the most elusive and slippery target this side of College Station -- Jameis Winston seemed to have been planning for that moment from the start.
"Sooner or later I'll reach a level where I can't win games with my legs," he told Birmingham News columnist Jeff Sentell, when he was a sophomore in high school. "I want to be a thinking quarterback first."
Johnny Manziel seems to succeed by purposefully rebelling against our ideals of what a quarterback should be; Jameis Winston seems destined to succeed because fits our perception of what a prodigy should be. (It is not a coincidence that the first bootleg Winston T-shirts depicted him as Jesus.) He is a product of a wide-reaching system that includes his parents and his coaches and his trainers and his teammates. He began playing football at the age of 4, wearing a helmet that was a couple of sizes too big. At 14, he started at quarterback for Hueytown High School, which was then playing in Alabama's largest division, 6A. (His first high-school coach, Jeff Smith, told Winston he could start if he made the "1,000-pound club" in the weight room. Winston bench-pressed 185, deadlifted 435 and squatted 405.) He is curious, and he is calm, and through a combination of study and instinct, he is able to foresee the trajectory of a play in the way few quarterbacks can.
"I think Jaboo has that knack," Freeman tells me. "He might deliver the ball a little different, and he might overstride sometimes, but he anticipates what that play's gonna turn into. To make yourself a great quarterback, you have to anticipate."
By his senior year, Winston was the top quarterback recruit in the country. He was good enough before he even played a college game that Clint Trickett, the other potential heir to last year's starting quarterback, E.J. Manuel, transferred to West Virginia. In his first start this season, on national television against Pittsburgh, Winston threw 25 complete passes and two incompletions. In his fourth game, on national television at Boston College, he broke open a lackluster first half by eluding multiple tacklers, pointing downfield, and throwing a 55-yard bomb to a streaking receiver while absorbing a hit to the chest. In his fifth game, a 63-0 blowout of a previously undefeated Maryland team, Winston ducked out of so much trouble that the ESPN play-by-play man was on the verge of saying that even Jameis Winston couldn't duck out of this much trouble, and then he spun to his right and threw a touchdown pass to his tight end. Those are probably two of the five best individual plays of the season to date, and in the locker room at Boston College, several of his teammates said they weren't surprised at all by Winston had done, because he does it in practice all the time. And the coaches who had worked with Winston in his formative years told me the same thing.
"I almost compare him to LeBron," Leverette says. "I see a continued work in progress, but he's that kind of level of talent to me. The kid can apply what he's learned immediately. The difference between Randy Moss and Jerry Rice is that Jerry took advantage of the things that God left us 100 percent in control of. That's kind of how I see Jameis."
It's possible, of course, that Winston will hit a wall, perhaps as soon as this weekend; it's possible that opponents will figure him out eventually. It's possible that he'll burn out, or he'll succumb to injuries, or that, for any number of reasons, he will eventually be forced to turn to his secondary goal of becoming a podiatrist. Prodigies come and go, and the LeBrons are still the exceptions, and Winston seems both self-aware and self-critical enough to recognize this on his own, which only makes him appear that much more emotionally mature. "I've got to get so much better," he said after the Boston College game, and then he complimented his receivers and his coach and his predecessor at quarterback, E.J. Manuel, and he said he needed to make quicker decisions, and that he needed to stop getting so frustrated.
But before he said all this, minutes after that game ended, Jameis Winston stood on a football field and prepared to speak to an ESPN reporter. His coach, Jimbo Fisher, took his arm and nodded at the camera and said, "Remember how to …" And then Fisher walked away without finishing the sentence, because he understood what everyone else did, which is that Jameis Winston knew what he was doing long ago.