Winston's huge personality, platform could call for new approach

Ira Schoffel, Managing Editor
Warchant

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Ira Schoffel/Warchant

During a brief break on a hot-and-sticky Saturday afternoon, Jameis Winston ducked into a shady area on the Florida State Marching Chiefs practice field.

Just moments before, Winston had been in the middle of all the action. Throwing passes. Designing trick plays in the huddle. Even dropping back to play safety on defense.

Winston wasn’t the official host of this youth football camp on the FSU campus, but as usual, all eyes were on him.

As he paused to get a drink, the former Florida State Seminole and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback was approached by a young camper seeking an autograph. The boy couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12. Winston, who already was planning to sign autographs and take pictures with every camper at the end of the event, quickly obliged and asked if the boy had a pen.

No sooner than the words came out of his mouth, the camper already had pulled out a Sharpie -- the first indication that this wasn’t an impromptu request. The boy then opened the flap on a manila envelope to reveal several pristine items he wanted signed.

Now, it's possible this was just a young fan who wanted to be extra careful with his prized possessions. It's perhaps more likely that he was sent on a mission by an adult looking to make a little extra cash on eBay. Either way, it was another reminder that when it comes to Jameis Winston, just about everybody wants a piece.

That is nothing new, of course. When Winston was still at FSU, he was constantly hawked for photos and autographs, and he seldom refused. During the spring of 2014, when he was fresh off winning the Heisman Trophy and serving as the closer on the baseball team, Winston would often sign autographs for 45 minutes before and after FSU baseball games. The team literally would keep buses waiting on road trips for Winston to accommodate all the requests.

Few athletes have been more gracious with their time.

But now that he is entering his third season as Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback, Winston and his family are grappling with the challenges that come with a new level of celebrity: He is now the face of a surging NFL franchise. And with that comes the need for more control of his time and protection of his image.

If they didn’t know that before, they might have learned it when Winston found himself in the center of a firestorm regarding comments he made at an elementary school earlier this year. While trying to settle down some unruly boys, Winston made an off-the-cuff remark that was criticized for being sexist and reinforcing gender stereotypes. He immediately apologized for his “poor word choice,” and while that particular incident hasn’t scared him off from making additional appearances, the family is thinking about being more proactive when it comes to his public relations.

That was not their first preference. Even when Winston was coming out of Florida State, already having dealt with a slew of negative publicity, the family shunned suggestions that they bring in a heavy-handed PR firm to reshape his image.

“We didn’t go that way,” Winston’s father, Antonor, told me on Saturday. “We wanted Jameis to be Jameis, and then y’all are gonna think what y’all are gonna think.”

Two years later, they’re thinking about altering that approach.

Not because of any one incident, but more because of the sheer volume of appearances Winston makes throughout the year. The family knew Winston would do a lot of community outreach -- “Jameis has been like that since he was growing up,” Antonor said -- but they didn’t necessarily know to what extent.

Even though he’s learning how to say no to the countless requests he receives, Winston still is attending at least one function each week, and many of those are outside of the team-related activities that are managed by the Bucs’ public relations staff. So, as Antonor explained, they might look at bringing in a staffer of their own to help handle those responsibilities -- to share information about his many good deeds while also potentially limiting his exposure.

That will be a tricky mix when it comes to dealing with someone like Jameis Winston –- an athlete who mixes incredible fame with a 100,000-watt personality. It’s simply in Winston’s nature to reach out to people, especially children. Forcing him to limit his time with the public would be no easier than making an introvert go on a public speaking tour.

On Saturday, while other NFL stars were likely relaxing in luxurious vacation destinations, Winston was helping his childhood friend Richard Rabb put together a free football camp for 200 kids in Tallahassee. The idea was to reunite former players from FSU’s 2013 and 2014 football teams, which posted a combined record of 27-1 and claimed the school’s third national championship, and have them spend time with young athletes in the community.

As with all youth sports camps, there was some instruction and player development involved. But it was mostly about providing a positive experience and sharing messages about character, perseverance and leadership.

“The reason we came back -- the reason I asked my teammates to come back -- was because we care about this city of Tallahassee and we care about improving our youth,” Winston told the campers at the end of the session.

“That’s Jameis,” former FSU and current Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Rashad Greene said. “The same person I met in college is the same person now as a professional. He’s just blessing everyone with his appearance and his attitude about life -- not just about the game of football, just his spirit. When you get a guy like that, on a platform that he’s on, it’s gonna do great things for a lot of kids, a lot of people and a lot of communities.”

But even that weekend was challenging to manage.

In the weeks leading up to the event, Winston, Rabb and the event sponsors had talked about also doing some outreach with homeless veterans in Tallahassee. They didn’t have a firm plan, though, until they arrived in town and Winston decided they needed to make it happen.

In less than 24 hours, they had arranged with the Big Bend Homeless Coalition to hold a barbecue dinner for 50 veterans on Friday night. It was a spontaneous event with no media coverage, and it probably wouldn’t have become public knowledge without a social media post from one of the sponsors.

“We just wanted to fellowship with them and tell them thank you for all the things they did for us,” Rabb said.

“The people that know Jameis know that was him from the beginning,” Antonor said. “If you’re looking for a change in him because maybe God blessed him with a little bit more money, we can’t help it. I mean, we got humbled, too. From being falsely accused and other stuff.”

They've certainly seen both sides of fame.

After wrapping things up in Tallahassee, next on the agenda for Winston was a return to his hometown near Birmingham, Ala., where he was planning visits to a library, a children’s day care and another youth football camp. After that, the plan is to close things down for awhile and begin preparations for preseason practice.

A new season for Jameis Winston is approaching -- perhaps in more ways than one.

Contact managing editor Ira Schoffel at ira@warchant.com and follow @IraSchoffel on Twitter.

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