GREENSBORO, N.C. – Anyone who expected a more introverted, introspective, interview-averse Jameis Winston this football season had that notion dismissed within seconds Sunday at Atlantic Coast Conference media days.
Immediately upon entering a claustrophobic circle of reporters clustered around his table – at least 50, probably more – Winston started talking. He hadn't even taken a seat before his mouth began moving.
"Before I say anything, how does it feel to have an ACC team come in here with a national championship?" the Florida State quarterback asked the media. "Can we get a round of applause? We finally took it away from the SEC, y'all."
And with that he was off, animated and engaging and looking every interviewer in the eye, very much resembling the incredibly confident – you could say cocky – player who took over college football in 2013. The Heisman Trophy winner said he's learned from the embarrassments and scrutiny of the past year – the rape investigation that yielded no charges, the citation for stealing crab legs from Publix – and matured. But matured does not equal muted.
Despite some self-inflicted, third-degree burns associated with life in the spotlight, Winston clearly still thrives on attention. Jameis loves being famous, despite the accompanying infamy he's experienced. He has yet to meet a situation that intimidates him, which might be both his greatest strength and greatest flaw.
I asked Winston if he remembered the last time he got nervous. His answer: "I get butterflies before every game. But nervous? That's cowardly. My definition of nervousness is being scared. …I've never been scared. I don't fear anything but God."
The lack of fear of pressure situations helped Winston have the greatest season by a freshman quarterback in college history. But a healthy fear of being caught might have helped Winston avoid the April crab leg caper that launched a million Internet jokes at his expense.
A functioning nervous system can stop stupidity before it starts. But so can legitimate maturity. And that's the buzzword from Florida State staffers about their savior quarterback
They believe he's grown up after enduring the negative publicity that accompanied the football-related hosannas. Winston's own words Sunday hint that he believes he is terribly misunderstood. (Which, truth be told, is a common mindset for frequently bashed public figures.)
"I've had so much criticism the past year, but I use it to fuel my fury," he said. "…When I see people criticize me and having these opinions, I think of my family. I know I was raised by a great mother. I have an outstanding father. …I understand the spotlight. …I'm held to a high standard. If I go even one inch below that standard, it's going to be chaos."
Grocery store theft, coming off a series of other situations that ranged from major (the district attorney's rape investigation) to picayune (the BB gun battle, the excessive fountain drinking at Burger King), is more than an inch below a high standard. It raised questions about serial lapses in judgment, which is startling disconnected from the poised young man seen on the field. When asked about that, Winston said, "I fixed that. I've matured and learned enough to understand what it takes to be a leader. I'm doing a better job of that. I understand the perspective, but I know the kind of person I am. …I told the guys [on the team] I'd rather be in a bad situation than them, because I can handle it."
Winston handled a barrage of questions Sunday, looking every reporter in the eye when responding. His focus waned late in the session; he zoned out and did not hear three questions, apologizing for "my ADD." Among his most interesting answers:
On trying to repeat as national champions: "We're starting over. Clean slate. We're not worried about defending the national championship. We're worried about winning another one. …We're not being complacent. …If we sit out there and get complacent, that's how you get your tail kicked."
On the talent level at Florida State: "We look at it as we're playing the best team in the country [in practice]. The best competition is at practice."
On earlier declarations by his father, Antonor, that he will play four years of football at Florida State before going pro: "Four years, I really can't focus on that right now. …I can't predict the future."
On the team's enjoyment of big games: "Big games, that's what we do. We love the big-game atmosphere. …Every team we play against this year is going to play their best game. No doubt about it. Every team is coming to beat the Florida State Seminoles."
On whether the controversies made campus visibility more difficult: "Of course not. I got support from everyone – the fans, my teammates, Coach [Jimbo] Fisher, of course my family, everyone. …You can go into class with a smile on your face. On Saturday I'm going to be in my sanctuary, we're going to have a game, we're likely going to win that game, and then we'll celebrate."
On Clemson's five-star freshman quarterback, Deshaun Watson: "In college football we don't worry about stars. We worry about wins and championships."
On the new college football playoff trophy, which is on display at ACC media days: "We got the opportunity to touch that bad boy."
On the media attention: "I'm definitely enjoying this. It gives people a chance to see how I really am."
On his early struggles against Auburn in the last BCS championship game: "I wasn't finding my backs in the first quarter. It was a big game and I wanted to make the big play. Coach Fisher said, 'You can't be bigger than the game.' "
On why he wasn't wearing the necklace he prominently displayed all last year, which he said was a gift from his girlfriend: "I left it in my room. I didn't want to be too flashy, show you too much gold today."
On compensation for student-athletes: "We're blessed to get a free education. My job as a Florida State Seminole is to be a good student first and a good athlete second."
On whether he wants to go pro in both football and baseball: "I do. That's something I put my mind to. If someday comes and I have to make a decision [between the two sports], I'm confident I'll make the right decision."
On observers who criticized his elongated throwing motion: "I'll take constructive criticism. Coach Fisher gets on me about that all the time. …This year I'll be holding the ball up higher. It probably comes from baseball."
On the whereabouts of his Heisman Trophy: "I don't know where my Heisman Trophy is. I think my dad takes it to restaurants and things. …He has my trophy somewhere new every day."
On 2013 center Bryan Stork, an All-American anchor of last year's line: "Stork has a sweaty bosom. He sweats a lot. But I love him."