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Jameis Winston authors championship drive in complicated tale

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

PASADENA, Calif. – One is just sports. The other is life, life in its realest form. One is about a football game. The other was, when taken to the brink, about freedom. It's an uncomfortable mix, potentially too trite or maybe too serious – something better to avoid, something better to not broach.

Except Jameis Winston isn't shy about broaching it, whether you want to hear it or not, whether you wish he just compartmentalize the entire thing and leave it alone and let you enjoy the game.

This fall has been about dueling storylines for Winston. There's the breakout star of college football, a sublimely talented freshman Heisman winner and the quarterback who delivered a thrilling, final-minute drive to lift Florida State over Auburn 34-31 on Monday for the BCS title.

And then there were the three weeks in November and December when Winston's way of life hung in the balance, as the local State Attorney back in Tallahassee, Fla., slowly weighed whether to file criminal sexual battery charges against him over a 2012 incident with a fellow student after a night at a local bar.

That was a pressure cooker, Winston said. That was a moment of truth. Even if you think he should've been charged, even if your thoughts immediately turn to what the complainant went through and the pressure that must have been, there is no denying that waiting on whether you might stand trial – a trial that could result in 15 years in prison – will change a person.

Jameis Winston hugs his brother Jonah after Florida State's victory over Auburn. (AP)

No one, no matter how confident they were in their innocence, breezes through that purgatory without needing someone to offer support and friendship and distractions and normalcy. And those that provide it, the ones who stick with you in the most desperate of moments, are forever trusted.

Winston was never charged, of course. On Dec. 5 prosecutor William Meggs announced Winston would not be arrested, and declared the case closed. Plenty of people wished the story ended there and everyone would move on.

Jameis Winston has moved on, but it's clear he hasn't forgotten.

"I think us doing that, us handling that the way we handled it," Winston said. "I think that it meant a lot."

No, it isn't the most uplifting of tales – star QB points to how the backing of his coaches and teammates while he dealt with rape allegations helped build confidence to shake off some mediocre play for the final drive in a football game.

Jameis Winston said it was a true one, though, like it or not.

Winston was talking in front of his locker here at the Rose Bowl, tugging off his shoulder pads. It was long after he shook off a fitful performance to complete six of seven passes while leading FSU 80 yards in just over a minute with the winning 2-yard touchdown pass going to his friend Kelvin Benjamin.

He was describing how confidence was maintained – in himself and from his coaches and teammates – after a night of mistakes.

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Winston drove Florida State 80 yards for the winning touchdown. (USA Today)

Winston's accuracy had been off. His timing was slow. He kept staring down receivers before working through a slow, elongated passing motion that allowed Tiger defensive backs to jump back into coverage. He'd taken four sacks and been stripped of a fumble.

At one point, Winston's team trailed 21-3. If not for a rise-up effort of his defense and an electrifying 100-yard kickoff return by a 5-foot-7 freshman, this might have been already over, and Winston would've been seen as the goat – ripped to shreds as an overrated product of substandard ACC competition, pampered by a season full of low-stress blowouts.

Instead, he huddled up his team at its own 20-yard line, down four, with 1:11 left. Despite having completed just half his passes for a pedestrian 160 yards, he looked around and felt nothing but trust and love and confidence. He saw his brothers.

And he knew he said, in that very moment that FSU was about to win.

"No doubt," he said. "We had no reason to panic. People said Florida State faced no adversity. We faced so much adversity the past two months, with me, with Coach [Jimbo] Fisher."

Yes, unprompted, he was discussing the allegations, discussing the most trying moments of the season and of his life and what he took from them. No reporter brought it up. This was the direction he wanted to go.

Winston wasn't being flippant about what had gone down. He was serious. He was just trying to explain what happened out there. Back when things got rough, Fisher's support had been unwavering. His teammates' trust had been complete. Everyone backed him and believed him.

You go through that together, you can go through a lot, Winston said. It's obviously a heck of a lot more stressful than trailing in some football game.

"We had a bond," Winston said, explaining how it translated onto the field. "We came together, we loved each other. A bond. When you go through something and you've got brothers around you, supporting you the whole time, it becomes a bond. It's hard to break that bond."

Winston spoke of two bits of advice he received Monday, in the run-up to the game. One came in a conversation with Charlie Ward, the Florida State great, when Winston asked for some perspective.

"Don't get bigger than the game," Ward told him.

This wasn't just about him, even if he was in line to receive the bulk of the blame had the Seminoles fallen short.

The second was during a team session conducted by motivational speaker Dr. Kevin Elko.

"He said, 'Ask your brother [teammate], are you strong?' " Winston said. "So I asked my brothers, 'Are you strong?' And they said, 'I'm strong if you are strong.' And I said, 'Well, we're strong then.' "

It was as simple as that, Winston said. Doubts were never an issue. Not with this team. Finger-pointing was never considered. Failure, even in the face of a final-minute deficit, wasn't an option.

"As long as we have each other," Winston said, "that's all we need."

The Seminoles had each other. They had each other when the focus on their quarterback came for the most dreadful of reasons, when rumors and scorn descended on the program.

And so they certainly had it when a game got tight.

That's what Winston said. That's what was real. That was his explanation for how this great victory occurred. A Disney story it's not, but sometimes life complicates the fairy tale.

 

 

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