By Matt Crossman
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston stood on the grass outside the Grandover Resort, and a dozen or more players from opposing ACC teams encircled him. They were all gathered for a photo opportunity at Sunday's annual ACC media day, and he was the star around which they orbited.
He wore his garnet and gold jersey with his name and No. 5 on the back. Not that he needed the identification. He is "Famous Jameis," the face of college football last year and the main attraction on Sunday, the man nobody could take their eyes off of and from whom everybody wanted to hear, media and fellow players alike. As the photo shoot neared its end, cameras snapped every time he smiled, which was often. He soaked up the attention, standing straight, eyes wide and teeth bright.
He spied UNC quarterback Marquise Williams standing a few feet to his right. Winston reached over and pulled him close. They faced each other like prizefighters before a bout, only they never mustered anything resembling a sneer. "Back to back?" one of them asked, and so they stood that way.
"Can you ham it up a little?" a photographer asked, which to Winston is like asking a fish to swim.
"Pap-a-razzi," Winston sing-songed in reply, and those who heard him laughed.
And so it went on this otherwise dreary summer day in North Carolina, with Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and quarterback of the defending national champions, trailing effervescent sunshine wherever he went, whether he was in the hallway joking with opposing players that he was jealous that they got new uniforms and he had to wear the same one from last year or he was outside mugging for the cameras or he was disarming dozens of reporters in an hour's worth of questioning.
It was a stark contrast to the dark clouds that have followed him off the field. He was investigated for rape but never charged in an incident that occurred on Dec. 7, 2012. After the allegations surfaced in November, his lawyer has said that Winston and the accuser had consensual sex. This spring, Winston was cited for shoplifting, which he says was an accident.
It was a bit of a surprise that Florida State officials selected Winston to appear at media day. They turned down requests for one-on-one interviews with him this spring. But they saw media day as a chance for Winston to present himself to the wider football world unfiltered.
If it's possible for an athlete's appearance at media day to be anticipated, Winston's was. An hour before he was scheduled to speak, a dozen reporters sat in front of the table that bore his nameplate. By the time Winston arrived, at least 50 reporters had showed up, far more than ever crowded around one ACC player in recent memory, if not ever. Then again, the ACC hasn't had a defending national champion since 1999.
Winston arrived with a big grin and made an announcement as he sat down. "Before I say anything, how does it feel to have a ACC team come in here with a national championship, y'all? Can we give the ACC a round of applause, please?"
Nobody clapped. But who cares? He was off and rolling. From there followed an hour of (sometimes random) thoughts straight from Winston's brain to reporters' notebooks, with little pause in between. Most players survive media day. Winston relished it. He came across as a charming and gregarious man, out of whose mouth just about anything might tumble at just about any time. He said former Florida State lineman Bryan Stork has "a sweaty bosom." He challenged all comers in tetherball, four-square and hopscotch. He dared opposing defenses to play man coverage against him.
Nobody asked him directly about the rape case or the New York Times report about the problems with how the police handled the investigation. He answered questions about the shoplifting case in generalities. He smiled through almost all of it.
He detailed improvements to his throwing mechanics and his desire to play both football and baseball professionally and how much he loves his teammates and coaches. They are warriors and brothers, he said, and he's their leader and thus needs to behave accordingly. He kept returning to his growing awareness of his place in the spotlight, and how that spotlight illuminates everything he does, good and bad. He said repeatedly he has learned from his mistakes.
But has he? One writer, sitting in front of him, pressed him on the question. She asked whether he understood people might not believe him. He leaned toward her and made eye contact with her as he answered. "I definitely understand that, because of the perspective," he said. "But I know the type of person I am. I know that I have support from my teammates. I know I was raised by a great family."
He was at times thoughtful and silly, direct and evasive, insightful and vague, a bravura performance that gave critics reason to doubt him and supporters reason to praise him. There was evidence he didn't take the allegations against him seriously; when someone asked him if he struggled to keep the smile on his face in the midst of his problems, he answered, "of course not."
But there was also evidence that he was changed by his struggles. "As an individual that's always trying to get better every single day, I know that I have to be able to live up to that hype, everywhere I go. I have a certain standard that I have to hold myself up to," he says.
He held his left hand up high, near his eyes, representing where he needs to be. He placed his right hand below it, near his nose, representing behavior he deemed not good enough. "If I go even an inch below that standard, it's going to be chaos," he said.
He wants to avoid further chaos for himself, his teammates and his family. "I understand what it is to be a leader, and I'm bettering myself every single day to hold myself to that standard that everyone views me at. Because I'm on a pedestal. Other players don't get the privilege of being on that pedestal."
It's up to him to stay on it.
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