TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For the past two weeks, all the rumors and accusations and lawyers and headlines disappeared as soon as Jameis Winston trotted through the tunnel and bursted onto the field at Doak Campbell Stadium, as 70,000 of his most ardent supporters roared their approval.
On the field, life is still normal, and that’s provided some solace as the Florida State quarterback deals with the ongoing legal drama of a sexual assault case in which he’s been named a suspect but has not been charged.
“The football field is our sanctuary,” Winston said.
But as the field in Tallahassee offered shelter on each of the past two Saturdays, it’s more likely to be the eye of the storm this week when Florida State travels to Gainesville to take on rival Florida.
The Gators (4-7) have little left to play for, but that doesn’t mean their fans are likely to be any more forgiving when Winston leads the Seminoles onto the field. Gone will be the rousing ovations Winston received against Syracuse and Idaho the past two weeks. For vocal Florida fans, he’ll be a lightning rod for taunts.
“Florida fans? Of course they’re going to be tough,” Winston said. “But when we get on the football field, clear the mechanism, we’re locked and loaded, and we’re ready to play football.”
Part of Winston’s legend this season was built on his resolve in the face of a vociferous opposition. In his debut at Pittsburgh, he was nearly flawless. Amid the overwhelming noise at Clemson, he told his teammates to soak in the atmosphere before they silenced the crowd with a dominant performance.
So far, at least, Winston has enjoyed the taunts as much as the cheers.
“We block all that out,” tailback Devonta Freeman said. “He’s heard some of the worst things before, and none of that matters when you’re on the battlefield. When we’re warming up, we just don’t pay attention to them.”
Still, this week is different. Against Pitt and Clemson, Winston’s sin was simply the color of his jersey. When he takes the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday, the dark cloud of this legal morass offers far more stinging ammunition.
Jimbo Fisher doesn't expect his quarterback to be rattled by the barbs, though. In fact, Fisher’s quite certain Winston will handle The Swamp with the same confidence he used to tame Death Valley. But staying quiet in the face of such potentially damaging criticism is far from ideal, and that’s been the continued stance of Fisher, Winston and the rest of the Florida State football program.
As the accusations were made and the news stories followed, and Florida State has made just one unremarkable statement of support for Winston before closing ranks around him.
“We’ll let the facts come out,” Fisher said. “I don’t want to comment on it too much. Let’s just wait and see how things turn out.”
And yet, while Winston and the Seminoles remain quiet about the investigation off the field, they’ve provided emphatic statements on it. Since the news of the case broke two weeks ago, Florida State has won its games over Syracuse and Idaho by a combined 139-17.
It might not be quite as easy this week, but all season Winston has shown that the field is his playground, regardless of the chaos that surrounds it.
“I think he understands the whole circumstances when you go on the road,” Fisher said. “When you become the guy, one of the faces of the organization, people are always going to get on you. That’s part of it.”