NEWPORT BEACH — It hovered over Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston like a dark cloud in the near horizon.
Winston was under investigation for alleged sexual assault of a female student from Florida State. But while most athletes his age might have crumbled, the redshirt freshman simply used football and his teammates as his sanctuary.
Their support allowed him to carry on in what became one of the more remarkable seasons by a quarterback in college football history, earning him All-America and winner of the prestigious Heisman Trophy en route to leading the Seminoles to Monday's Bowl Championship Series national title game vs. Auburn at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
“It goes back to the teammates,” said Winston during a press conference earlier this week at the Newport Beach Marriott. “My teammates aren't looking at me anything differently because they know I did nothing wrong through the whole process. But at the end of the day, that kind of brought us closer together as a team, because (they were saying), 'Our quarterback is going through this situation, and people still are not leaving us alone after we're having a successful season.'
“But that brought us closer together as a team. That was a changing point in our whole team, because that was a time we needed to get over the hump. It got us back refocused to where we needed to be at.”
The alleged incident occurred in December, 2012, at an off-campus apartment, and reports of an investigation by the Florida State Attorney's office first surfaced in November. Willie Meggs, the state attorney for the Second Judicial Circuit, announced on Dec. 5 that Winston would not be charged for lack of evidence.
“Looking at the situation from the outside in, you would think it would hurt the team,” senior receiver Kenny Shaw said, “But we used it as a time to get stronger. “We stayed close to Jameis because we knew the allegations (weren't) true. But we just got stronger.”
Winston, before the investigation became known, had already demonstrated a high-level of leadership to his team, He showed that ability in his collegiate opener at Pittsburgh, passing for 356 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-13 victory over the Panthers. It was a preview of great things to come.
“That game was really just out of anger and out of happiness of me just being on the football field again,” said Winston, who sat out last season. “When you love this game so much and you've got to sit a whole year off, I mean, it kind of hits you into the heart, and it's like a reality check, like, 'Hey, bro, you were sitting on the bench last year.'
“When I came out to that game, I was like, 'I'm ready, and I have the weapons around me to help me do that.' That's when, I mean, I realized as a player –- back in the spring I realized we've got a great team — but I realized as a player, hey, we're out here gelling, we've got this little thing about us, and that's when I knew right then, FSU is going to bring that swag back because we went out there and just showed the world,”
Winston showed the world his talent as well. But those within the program had already seen it throughout spring practice and into the summer. But they also knew that his ability wasn't just raw talent, but also a mentality that few see from a freshman.
“The thing about Jameis is he's mature beyond his years,” said Florida State co-offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, who past quarterback prodigies include Peyton Manning and Tee Martin. “But whether Jameis is 19, whether he's 22, whether he's playing at Florida State or whether he's playing in the NFL, I would expect him to play at a high level. That's what he does. That's what he expects of himself. He's done it 13 times this year.
“I was a little bit in awe (after the first game), I think, like a lot of people, just because the poise and composure that he had. You saw it every day in spring practice, through the summer, through the fall. But for it to show up on game day that way, that was nice to see.”
Winston continued to shine each week. He passed for 393 against Maryland (63-0) on Oct. 5 and 444 in a 51-14 route of then No. 3 Clemson on Oct. 19. He finished the regular season with seven 300-yard games and comes into Monday's championship game with 3,820 yards and a nation's best 38 touchdowns.
He did it while facing a variety of defensive looks, including blitzes, where he completed just over 60 percent of his passes.
“He can make any throw on the field,” Auburn defensive coordinator said. “I think he's a great leader and a tremendous leader for a young player. He's obviously been, I think, handled things extremely well. The pressure of going undefeated if you've never done it before, it's different, and each game it mounts, and some people can't handle it. But he's been their leader,”
There still is controversy around Winston, mostly centering around the Florida State attorney's decision, which they disagree with. But Winston understands that not everyone is a fan. He also said he can't worry about what others may think.
“I can't control people's motives, but what I can control is what I do on the football field every single day and how I react around my teammates,” Winston said. “That's what we really my focus is on, because it's not over yet.
“What people think outside of this and what people are trying to do, I can't control none of that. I just go out there and play football because I enjoy it and I love it and it's my passion, and I've got these boys around me, and that's what we love to do,”
Winston, while in New York during the Heisman Trophy presentation, got some advice from 2012 winner Johnny Manziel, who has his own off-the-field troubles.
“I did have an opportunity to talk to Johnny,” Winston said. “He just told me to stay myself. When you think about the things that Johnny went through and then you see the things that he does on the field, it makes you forget about the things that's happening, and that's what I'm trying to do.
“I'm trying to make football be my getaway, and that's what he's done a great job of, and that's why I'm glad I've got a team like this because they allow me to let football be the get away because when I look in their eyes, they're like, 'We're ready to fight.' That's what we've got to do as individuals. We've got to fight for the rest of our lives because life ain't fair. So we can't just sit there in all the circumstances and all the things that we go to. We've got to live our lives on a day to day basis. What's wrong with dreaming? I dream about this my whole life and I'm going to keep dreaming until the day I die.”