NEW YORK – The accolades began arriving for Jameis Winston long before Saturday night, when the 19-year-old became the youngest player to win the Heisman Trophy in the 79 seasons that it has been awarded.
Winston began his career at Florida State last year as the highest-rated quarterback recruit in the country. That honor isn't necessarily a nonstop ticket to stardom. For every Matt Barkley (2009), there's a Phillip Sims (2010). But the recruiting gurus got this one right. This year, Winston led the nation in passing efficiency and quarterback rating, the metrics du jour. He threw for 3,820 yards and 38 touchdowns and completed more than two of every three passes (.679).
Winston became the first freshman to be named Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. He won the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award and the Walter Camp Award. On Saturday night, he won the most prestigious trophy in American sport by the fifth-largest margin in modern history over quarterbacks AJ McCarron of Alabama and Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois.
"I am so overwhelmed right now," Winston said. "It feels great. ... I cannot explain the feeling that I have inside right now."
Winston won the Heisman and everything else despite the elephant in his room for the last month of the season. A Florida State student accused Winston of sexual assault after the two had sex last December. The state attorney, saying he didn't have the evidence to convict Winston, declined to charge him earlier this month.
Only two people know what happened that night. Winston said he did nothing wrong. That left the 900 voters (including one cumulative vote by fans) to make up their minds. Winston won 668 first-place votes, 84 second-place votes and 33 third-place votes. The 2,205 points more than tripled those of McCarron.
A total of 115 voters decided not to put Winston on their ballot in first, second or third, which indicates either their protest of his behavior or their utter lack of ability to judge a football player.
Winston, who described himself as "goofy," said the turmoil and emotion of the past month hit him from the podium when he looked out and saw his parents, Antonor and Loretta. You could hear his voice catch.
"I seen my mom's and my dad's eyes, and they felt so proud," Winston said. "And I ain't seen that look in their eyes for a long time."
Before the ceremony, Winston said he had emerged from the accusation as a better person.
"My dad always told me, 'Jameis, good ain't never going to be good enough,'" Winston said. "It's never going to be good for all the people that probably look down on me and the people that's probably saying bad things. But, I mean, my innocence was proven. So this last month has made me, it's probably that humbling moment that you have in your life. I was talking to (Florida State wide receiver) Rashad Greene. He said, 'God is always going to challenge you, no matter what it is.'"
The state attorney did not say the investigation proved Winston's innocence. Proven or not, it's pretty clear that Winston has lost it – his innocence.
"One thing that Coach (Jimbo) Fisher has always told me, especially through this process," Winston said, "(is) 'For you to be a man, the kid in you must die.' I believe that kid in me has died. I'm always going to have my personality. I'm always going to have my character. But I have to become a man."
Fisher believes that Winston is on his way. The coach also got emotional as he watched Winston accept the award.
""The true mark of a man," Fisher said, "is when you have your own individual issues, but you have a team to lead like a family, and he never let those get in the way of the rest of our players reaching their goals as a team.
"Just to know what he went through to get up there on that stage, sometimes as a coach it just hits you," Fisher said. "To me, that's why you're in coaching, to watch them grow and achieve the things you know they're capable of when there are odds against them."
Winston played far beyond his teenage years. He made his collegiate debut on national television on Labor Day night against Pittsburgh. No matter how high the expectations, Winston exceeded them. He completed the first 11 passes he threw, and set a school record by finishing 25-of-27 (.926) for 356 yards and four touchdowns. In the Seminoles' biggest game, at No. 3 Clemson, Winston threw for a season-high 444 yards and three touchdowns.
"No matter how much success he has," Fisher said, "he wants to get better."
And now Winston has become a member of a most exclusive club of players. The Heisman carries a cachet that never ages. There's something about it that even kids understand. Sheila Lynch, the mother of the third-place finisher, described how, in sixth grade, Jordan had his photo taken with 1953 winner Johnny Lattner. Lynch said had no idea that Lattner had played at Notre Dame and won the Heisman a half-century before.
"All I knew," Lynch said, "was he had a Heisman Trophy and I wanted to be around it."
That is the legacy that Winston picked up when he hoisted the 25-pound trophy above his head Saturday night. The Bessemer, Ala., native is the third player from the Birmingham area to win the Heisman. The other two, quarterback Pat Sullivan (1971) and tailback Bo Jackson (1985), both played at Auburn. The odds on that trifecta – three Heisman winners from the biggest city in the state, and none of them played at Alabama – would have paid buckets of money.
The odds on a redshirt freshman winning the Heisman are considerably lower, if only because Winston follows Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel as the second in as many seasons (Manziel finished fifth this season).
"There's no age limit on being a great player," Fisher said.
Winston, the youngest ever, turns 20 on Jan. 6, the day that Florida State plays Auburn for the BCS championship.