NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Jameis Winston wore a party hat and held a giant cookie as he posed for photographs two days before the big event.
For a moment, anyway, the Bowl Championship Series national title game was the second-most exciting thing about Monday to Winston. After a particularly interesting and occasionally turbulent year, the Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner turns 20 on the same day he’ll play for a national title.
“I’m more anxious for it to be my birthday than the game,” said Winston, whose unbeaten Seminoles will play Auburn at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif., for college football’s greatest prize. “Because I know we’re going to go out there and play good on Monday.”
Winston is nothing if not confident, and his maturity and poise helped push Florida State to 13 wins, most of them blowouts. He was resolute during an investigation into an alleged sexual assault, for which charges were not filed and for which Winston maintains his innocence. “I know I did nothing wrong,” Winston said Saturday.
So as remarkable as Winston’s 20th year was, Monday’s game — despite the stakes and pressure — represents perhaps the last simple time of Winston’s year. Whatever happens in Pasadena, he is almost certain to begin an offseason of speculation and attention, perhaps rivaling that of his Heisman predecessor, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.
Eyes and cameras will be on Winston, watching closely to see whether he finds trouble or remains focused, whether his place on the baseball team becomes a matter of concern for the football coaches and fueling nonstop discussion of whether he can reprise his redshirt freshman season by winning another Heisman and pushing his team back to the championship game.
“He has an amazing ability to compartmentalize things and process things that I haven’t been around for a guy that age,” Seminoles Coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Winston’s year, a chapter of newfound fame and weekly excitement, will end at the final whistle Monday night, thus beginning the feeding frenzy to see what happens next. The discussions and coverage don't stop when the games end, and so offseason choices, words and activities must pass the time.
His coaches and teammates have seen Winston tested, particularly during the assault investigation, and so far he has excelled.
“To have all that spotlight on him,” Seminoles senior linebacker Telvin Smith said, “and still be able to stand tall when people criticized or people said you’re this and that, you shouldn’t have this — he persevered through everything.
“And when you have a strong-minded guy like that with a heart to match it, that’s an incredible young man.”
But inside the powerful maw of stardom in American sports, Smith’s opinion will satisfy no one. Sports networks followed Manziel’s every move last year, in part because he was a willing character, and by the end of last summer, he seemed on the verge of being consumed by this monster. In the seven months after winning the 2012 Heisman, Manziel erupted on Twitter after receiving a parking ticket in College Station, Tex., left a passing academy and denied it was because he had been hungover, and was investigated for a potential NCAA rules violation for allegedly receiving payment for signing memorabilia. His face appeared often on YouTube, and his words were no stranger to Twitter.
Somehow, Manziel not only survived the offseason storm but found his way back to the Heisman ceremony, where he finished four spots behind Winston.
Throughout Winston’s freshman season, he has come across as mature and thoughtful, and during Saturday’s marathon of appearances and interviews, he was usually smiling and offering charming answers even as the questions grew personal and repetitive.
“I’m laid-back,” he said during media day before the BCS title game, “and from today to Monday night I’m going to be just envisioning everything that’s happening. That’s how I prepare. Music or all the other stuff like that, that doesn’t really prepare me, but I get prepared by just seeing things coming, imagining stuff happening, situations.”
The first scheduled offseason situation for Winston comes when Florida State’s baseball team begins practice.
A significant reason he chose the Seminoles instead of a team closer to his native Alabama was because Fisher promised Winston he could play baseball in addition to football.
Since then, the stakes have changed. Winston is no longer just a promising recruit; he’s a Heisman winner and the face of the Seminoles’ 2014 football season. A baseball injury — he’s a pitcher and outfielder — would change the football team’s future, adding pressure to Fisher because he didn’t step in.
For now, though, a promise is a promise, and Winston said he’s planning to play when the baseball season begins Feb. 8.
“I don’t see myself playing one without the other,” he said. “It may come to that day that I have to make a decision, but right now I’m definitely not making a decision.”
Winston, who has tweeted only once since early August, isn’t on the same social-media level as Manziel. But other traps — likely revolving around his social life — are sure to be set.
For now, though, this is a time of hope and dazzling statistics. His strong right arm, uncanny knack for finding big chunks of yards and way of blowing past defenses will be shown nationally, the latest reminder why Winston is successful and popular. The monster will not go hungry Monday evening. But when the game ends, the complex reality of fame and its potential for ugliness set in.
Winston has one more day to enjoy it.