TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Jameis Winston didn't flash his trademark smile as he walked slowly to his press conference in a fastened tie and untucked shirt. He took his seat and a Florida State official announced only questions about "football and the football game" would be allowed.
"Anything that's not related to football or this game," the official said, "will be ended."
Then came a football question, and Winston smiled.
There were no pressing questions about "football and this game" here Saturday. Winston and his teammates have answered them. The Seminoles crushed Syracuse 59-3 here, and it wasn't even that close. Winston threw for two touchdowns and 277 yards in the first half, and then watched the rest of the blowout with his helmet off. No, all the pressing questions about Winston have to do with something that happened nearly a year ago, before he ever took a snap for his team.
This week brought news of Winston's involvement in a sexual assault investigation that has gone to the state's attorney's office 11 months after a police report was filed last December. Even as Winston led his team down the field during this game, the AP reported that prosecutors have set up an interview with the alleged victim in the case. Winston's season and, more importantly, his freedom could depend on what prosecutors learn and then decide to pursue.
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So while Winston chatted at length after his last home game here two weeks ago against Miami, the quarterback was flanked by two school officials after this win. (There was even a police officer in the room.) The interview was cut relatively short. Winston said his emotions haven't changed. "Never," he quickly insisted. "Same every week."
It was most certainly not the same this week. There was a subtle tension in the room and in the stadium all afternoon. Head coach Jimbo Fisher's lengthy pregame radio interview included a question about the gloomy weather, but not a question about the cloud hanging over the season. Winston's teammates, prodded gently on the investigation by reporters after the game, hurried to say, "I have no comment." The closest anyone came to speaking about the situation was defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who said of Winston, "He's got a lot going on from the beginning of the season. Nothing's gonna bother him."
Not everyone in the stadium seemed bothered, either. Dan Campbell, an offensive lineman on the '93 team who stayed in town after graduating and started a business, didn't express any worry about Winston's immediate future.
"We've had some rotten apples," Campbell said of past Florida State teams. "He's not one of 'em. I've never seen such support. Everybody's got his back."
Campbell even discussed the worry that the Tallahassee Police Department may have had reason to slow or stop the investigation of Winston.
"Those guys," he said of the police, "if they want to put something on a Florida State guy, they will."
So while Winston and his teammates were lightning fast on Saturday – he threw a downfield block on a touchdown that will surely go on his Heisman Trophy reel – everything else seems suspended in motion. The Seminoles are already done with their ACC schedule at 10-0 and have games remaining against Idaho and injury-riddled Florida. Unless there's a major hiccup in Gainesville or in the ACC title game, Florida State will go to Pasadena for the BCS title game.
But if Winston is charged, he could be suspended and that may alter everything. Fisher told the team to "control what we can control," but what happens next is out of every Florida State player's control. Whatever may have taken place last December, to an anonymous young woman who's surely dealing with heavy emotions and does not have a stadium full of people cheering her name, is what may determine the outcome of Florida State's season.
Winston's attorney, Timothy Jansen, said Saturday he has two affidavits from eyewitnesses that will "completely exonerate [his] client." Everyone who follows college football is waiting to see if that proves true.
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By the end of the fourth quarter, Winston was standing side-by-side with Charlie Ward, quarterback of the 1993 national title team that was celebrated at homecoming on Saturday. Ward did most of the talking, even putting his hand on the shoulder of the redshirt freshman quarterback who might follow him to the Heisman Trophy podium next month. Asked afterward what the two discussed, Ward paused for a long moment and said, "Games, enjoying life, school."
It was another careful, measured answer in a week that has brought many of those.