Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston spent the past week on college football’s postseason awards circuit, cycling through banquets and red carpets and trophy presentations. That culminated Saturday in Manhattan, where Winston won the Heisman Trophy, his sport’s pre-eminent honor.
Winston wrapped his arms around the Heisman Trophy late Saturday, after an hourlong television special in which the only suspense centered on how much he would win by. The assembled cheered loudly, and Winston hugged his parents and thanked God. At his news conference, Winston said that he had expected to win but that doubt had remained until he heard his name called.
Last December, a college student accused Winston of rape after a party. The accuser’s lawyer came forward a year later to say that the Tallahassee Police Department had pushed her not to press charges, and the lawyer held a news conference Friday to skewer the investigation. Winston’s lawyer has said that Winston and the accuser engaged in consensual sex.
Winston was not charged after a rape accusation that had clouded his season. Wherever Winston traveled, an accusation of rape clouded the celebration. Florida officials said this month that Winston would not be charged in the year-old case. But as the Seminoles wrapped up an undefeated season and their spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game, scrutiny of the investigation only intensified.
Someone asked about the vindication he had spoken of earlier in the week. “I really don’t want to talk about that right now,” Winston said, “because this is a moment I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”
All the off-field scrutiny appeared to have had a minimal impact on the actual vote, although 13 percent of the 928 voters left Winston off their ballots. He received 668 first-place votes and secured 2,205 points, 1,501 more than A J McCarron, the Alabama quarterback who came in second. It was the seventh-largest victory margin in Heisman history.
The accusation played a minor role in Saturday’s proceedings and a larger one in the lead-up to them. On Friday, Winston settled in front of a bank of television cameras at a pre-Heisman news conference. His lawyer stood behind him, as did university officials. While Winston smiled and answered questions, they watched, with arms folded. While Winston sidestepped questions about the investigation like wayward defenders, the officials scolded reporters for broaching the subject.
It made for an awkward dance. At one point, after three questions related to the accusations, Kerwin Lonzo, a Florida State sports information official, told reporters that Winston would answer only questions about football and the Heisman. A reporter asked whether character should be considered in the selection of the winner, and Lonzo snapped: “Next question. Only football.”
While the five other finalists switched tables during the interview session, Florida State officials whisked Winston down the nearest hallway. He eventually returned. They chalked up the missed time to confusion.
At the second table, someone asked Winston if he wanted to tell his side of the story. It was among the first direct questions he had taken since the accusation surfaced.
“I knew I did nothing wrong,” he said. “That’s why I knew that I could respect the process and I’d eventually be vindicated. It was more about me being silent for my family, because I didn’t want to put my family in those situations.”
So it went for Winston, who set freshman records this season in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of college football, for touchdown passes (38) and passing yards (3,820). Florida State won each of its 13 games by double-digit margins. The Seminoles will play Auburn on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif., for the national championship.
That was no longer the sole focus this season. Winston and Florida State tried to move on after Dec. 5, when a Florida state attorney, William N. Meggs, held a news conference to say Winston would not be charged. Meggs said the accuser had given inconsistent statements. He said he did not have enough evidence to go to trial.
Local news organizations have since obtained the police report through public record requests, and The Tallahassee Democrat reported that it contained the tape of the 911 call made by a friend of the accuser and interviews with Winston’s teammates. Several of those interviewed maintained that it was difficult to remember the details of what had happened on Dec. 7, 2012.
One statement in particular seemed to resonate. Patricia Carroll, the accuser’s lawyer, said a Tallahassee police detective had told her, “Tallahassee is a big football town, and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against him because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable.” That led a Florida resident, Maureen Hamrock, to start a petition on Change.org calling for a state law enforcement investigation into the police investigation. As of Saturday, the petition had about 29,000 signatures.
On Friday, hours before Winston stood behind the Heisman Trophy in a Florida State sweatshirt and posed for pictures with the other finalists in Manhattan, Carroll conducted a news conference in Florida. She described the investigation as sloppy and filled with contradictions and said it had focused on the accuser instead of on Winston.
“Do I believe this failure of an investigation was related to the fact he was on the football team? I do,” Carroll said.
Although questions about the investigation swirled, the debate over Winston’s Heisman chances seemed to end with the announcement that he would not be charged. Voters no longer had to face a moral quandary over voting for a player under police investigation.
Bob Hammel, the Midwest regional representative for Heisman voting, said he did not recall another morality issue like the Winston case. “Today is not exactly a plus,” he said on the day of Meggs’s announcement. “But it’s not a minus to the degree it would have been.”
Among the other Heisman contenders was Johnny Manziel, last year’s winner and the only finalist this season who had a vote. Manziel was the first freshman to win the award, and his off-season adventures — all the first pitches thrown at baseball games and time spent with celebrities like the rapper Drake — were well-chronicled.
Manziel answered questions at three tables for more than 30 minutes. He spoke with the relaxed nature of someone who had spent a few months under the harsh glare of the spotlight and made it through. He said that he had eaten dinner with Winston — just two quarterbacks with catchy nicknames, just Johnny Football and Famous Jameis — earlier in the week and that he had told Winston the scrutiny would only increase. It was so much more than Manziel had expected. (On Saturday, he finished fifth, behind Winston, McCarron, Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch and Boston College running back Andre Williams.)
“Life’s going to change,” Manziel said. “This is a big deal. There are a lot of flashes and a lot of fame coming from this.”
When asked Friday if she planned to file a civil suit against the Tallahassee Police Department, Winston or Florida State, Carroll said it was too early to make that determination. Winston will play in the national championship. He will return to Florida State for his sophomore season. He will attempt to become the rare back-to-back Heisman winner. He will continue to play baseball for the Seminoles.
All that could wait late Saturday, as Winston kissed the trophy and held it over his head and cameras flashed.
article by Greg Bishop via nytimes.com