CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jameis Winston stood on a stage wearing a white T-shirt and black baseball cap proclaiming his team ACC champion, dancing and laughing and smiling as he waited to accept his MVP award.
This was not a man burdened, or a personality dimmed, by controversy. He had abruptly ended a postgame TV interview when he grew tired of the questions about the sexual-assault investigation that came to an end this week without charges being filed, but when he grabbed the microphone on that stage just a few moments later, he preached with the same gregarious enthusiasm that has endeared him to Florida State fans all season.
Winston struggled in the early going of Saturday's 45-7 win over Duke that assured his team a spot in the BCS National Championship, but he was quick to denounce any insinuations that he'd been distracted by three weeks of innuendo and speculation and, in the end, relief.
If there was any mark of the scandal that dogged Winston's final push toward a national championship, it came entirely from the veiled questions from reporters and never from the man himself.
"I don't feel it was a burden," Winston said. "When everything came up, we took the initiative as a team, like hey, let's focus, let's get this done, let's make it happen. We had one goal in mind, and we haven't reached that goal yet, but we're headed there."
Florida State appears set to play Auburn in the BCS championship game in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 6, and Winston's meteoric rise from hyped freshman to Heisman favorite has been the catalyst.
Against Duke, he wasn't at his best, but he still was exceptional. Winston completed 19 of 32 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns and two interceptions, added another 59 yards and a score on the ground, and Florida State rolled past Duke to yet another easy win. It was Winston's sixth game accounting for at least four touchdowns, his seventh throwing for at least 300 yards. He set a new FBS record for touchdowns and passing yards by a freshman in the process.
After the game, confetti rained down on Winston and coach Jimbo Fisher, and Florida State players romped around the field at Bank of America Stadium with roses jutting from their mouths. Florida State is 13-0, having won every game by at least two touchdowns, having dominated the four ranked opponents it faced by a combined score of 200-35. It was, linebacker Telvin Smith said, "a reckoning."
But Saturday's win was also a turning point, when the conversations finally could shift from the off-field drama to the on-field celebration.
"I think my teammates were more relieved than I was," Winston said. "It was a process, and we've got to keep moving forward."
That's what the process has been for Winston. The external distractions never filtered into the locker room, and the football field was a sanctuary from the chaos that surrounded him. That chaos came to an end Thursday, and Winston's march toward a berth in the BCS title game followed two days later.
"To already have so much pressure and stress on him, and then to add on to the negativity," cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "He embraced it and kept fighting for us. He could've easily went into a tank. To keep all the weight on his shoulders because of his [teammates], he's a special young man, and he deserves everything he gets."
Winston has asked for little attention or praise. He won game MVP honors Saturday, and he is expected to be awarded the Heisman Trophy next weekend, but as he has all season, he shifted the attention to his teammates.
And throughout the past month, as Winston's name was linked to ugly accusations and each of his public appearances became sideshows with hordes of reporters hoping he'd address the one topic Florida State staff assured wouldn't be discussed, it was his teammates who insulated Winston from the distractions.
On Saturday, they celebrated together, Winston again in the spotlight, looking as comfortable to be there as he has been all year. A national championship game awaits, and Winston isn't spending time worrying about what's already behind him.
"We done made it to where we are," Winston said, "and we're not done yet."