Jameis Winston was on a recruiting trip to Alabama during his junior year of high school. He watched practice alongside his Hueytown High coach, Matt Scott, and toured facilities. Eventually, they came across the Heisman Trophy, won a year earlier by Crimson Tide running back Mark Ingram.
Winston studied the trophy and considered his future. Without a hint of doubt, he turned to his coach and made a promise: “I’m going to be the next one at Alabama to win this,” Winston said.
Of course, that’s not exactly how things played out. Winston didn’t end up at Alabama, but he will be in New York this weekend, the heavy favorite to win this year’s Heisman Trophy for Florida State.
In the buildup to the trophy presentation, there will be ample discussion of “Heisman moments” — those images that define a player’s march toward the award. For Winston, this was his. Once he decided he wanted to win it, it was an inevitability.
“When he says things like that, people don’t understand -- he’s not kidding,” Scott said. “He believes it.”
Since Winston arrived in Tallahassee, he's been busy convincing everyone else, too.
From the outset, teammates noticed Winston's outgoing personality -- dancing and joking during practice -- but also his competitiveness.
“He has an edge that you don't see often,” left tackle Cameron Erving said. “He's one of the most competitive individuals I've ever met.
Erving served as a mentor to Winston during his redshirt season, and he worried that the quarterback’s goofball persona might undermine his leadership skills. He was quickly proven wrong.
During one summer practice, Erving pulled Winston aside. He needed to take the drills more seriously, Erving told him, and Winston understood. What shocked Erving wasn’t Winston’s response, but that once the freshman changed his demeanor, so did everyone else around him. He was a natural leader.
“I haven't seen that type of leadership ability in anybody I've been around,” Erving said.
Winston's skill with the football only solidified his stature. Winston ran scout team in 2012, and Lamarcus Joyner marveled at what the freshman could do surrounded by a group of walk-ons.
“EJ [Manuel] wasn’t making throws like that,” Joyner said. “And I said to myself, this guy’s going to be special.”
It should’ve come as no surprise then that, in this year’s spring game, Winston’s first career throw in front of Florida State fans was a long pass over Joyner’s head to the waiting hands of a walk-on receiver for a touchdown.
Winston’s impressive spring game didn’t immediately secure him the starting job, but it felt inevitable. What was less certain was how he’d handle his first career start — a road game against Pitt on a Monday night, a debut in front of a national TV audience in a hostile environment.
“We’d seen flashes of him in practice,” safety Terrence Brooks said. “But it’s in the game you can really tell when someone turns it on. Seeing that Pitt game, we knew.”
Winston was nearly flawless. He completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and accounted for five touchdowns. The first 11 passes of his career were completions. The bright smile that has become his trademark never left his face.
“I saw him making those tremendous plays and I was like, ‘He’s got it,’” running back Devonta Freeman said. “He’s got the look, making great plays, big smile on his face — that’s what a Heisman candidate is supposed to have.”
Pittsburgh was only the start, though.
Winston racked up a dizzying array of highlights in the next few weeks, dodging defenders to make big throws downfield. Against Bethune-Cookman, Winston shrugged off two sack attempts to find a baffled Kelvin Benjamin in the end zone.
“I thought it was a sack and I was jogging,” Benjamin said. “He got rid of the first one and rolled it, and I sped up. We made eye contact, and I knew he was going to throw it."
Of course, that was nothing compared with Winston’s long pass against Boston College in the final seconds of the half. The BC game was the only time this season when Florida State’s perfect record seemed in danger, but Winston’s 55-yard touchdown to Kenny Shaw as time expired on the first half alleviated any doubts.
"The stadium was turned up, every play was loud, and they really thought they had a shot,” Shaw said. “Then you get the touchdown, and you could hear a pin drop.”
A replay of that touchdown was shown on the big screen during the ACC championship game. A handful of Florida State players stopped to watch. It still amazes them.
“He wiggled out of the sack and throws it, a 50-yard strike to Kenny down the field. I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a freshman make a play like that,’” Christian Jones said. “We’d seen him make throws like that last year on scout team. We had no doubt what he could do, but the records and all that, it’s crazy.”
The early season was for highlights. The Clemson game was what solidified Winston as a winner.
Before the game, Winston rallied his team with a speech caught on camera and broadcast during the game. “Put a smile on your faces,” Winston said. He then led the Seminoles to a blowout victory over a team that was ranked No. 3 in the country.
“You don't expect a guy, especially that young, to be that confident,” Erving said. “Especially going into an environment that was so hostile. When he's confident, it's a trickle-down effect. Everybody else feeds off of him.”
Winston’s Heisman Trophy campaign only grew from there. He set the school record for touchdowns, then the ACC mark, then the record for all FBS freshmen. For nearly a month straight, he spent the latter halves of games on the bench thanks to blowout margins. He wrapped up the regular season by torching Florida’s No. 2-ranked passing defense, then headed to Charlotte, N.C., to secure Florida State an ACC title and a berth in the national championship game. Even with the dark cloud of a sexual-assault investigation hanging over his head, Winston played superbly, and he said the adversity actually made him — and his team — better.
“I learn from my mistakes,” Winston said. “I’ve got to keep getting better.”
Winston has been exceptional all season, and now he’s poised to accept that trophy he promised to win four years ago. He has learned from mistakes, Joyner said, and he has gotten better. But he hasn’t changed, and that’s what his teammates will remember most.
“It's very rare in this culture to have someone that's genuine at heart like that, so we respect it,” Joyner said. “Guys walk around all serious, and you see Jameis all goofy before a big-time game. It's like, 'OK, let's do this.’ ”