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It was an unseasonably cool July Fourth weekend in Hueytown, Alabama, and the town that hated Jameis Winston long before it was fashionable to do so had decided to throw him a party.
Jameis Winston Day festivities had been announced on Hueytown's Facebook pages and elicited nearly 200 comments ranging from overt racism to impassioned defenses, bitter name-calling and conspiratorial rebuttals that, hey, if Winston had just gone to Alabama or Auburn, he wouldn't be so reviled in his hometown. And, of course, there were jokes about crab legs.
But when Mayor Delor Baumann took the stage at midfield of Hueytown High's decrepit former stadium, the tone was far different. Everyone wanted to be Winston's friend.
The mayor offered a rambling story about buying pizzas for Winston's old high school team and mispronounced Winston's father's name. That gave way to a string of local politicians offering proclamations of Winston's greatness that sounded more like small-town stump speeches. One city councilman, a cousin of Winston's mother, talked about how his son bragged in school that he was related to the Heisman winner. He asked Winston to give his boy a shoutout, and the quarterback happily agreed, then whispered under his breath that he didn't know the kid's name.
After all the gushing concluded, Winston took the microphone and addressed a crowd of a few hundred people -- friends, relatives, neighbors and a handful of Florida State fans. He had a speech he wanted to give about confidence, work ethic and determination in the face of criticism, but he opened by acknowledging the obvious.
"Y'all probably think you know me," Winston said. "But you don't."
Winston understands this is a losing battle. People don't want to know him. When Florida State tried to connect Winston and his fans on Twitter last week using the hashtag #AskJameis, the results were ugly. The hashtag trended nationally as hundreds of taunts, allegations and, yes, crab-leg jokes, overwhelmed the few earnest inquiries.
He was perhaps the most polarizing person in his hometown at age 15, and the rabble has only grown louder since. In the past year, Winston has skyrocketed to national fame. He led Florida State to an undefeated season and a national championship, was at the center of a high-profile rape investigation, emerged without charges filed, won a Heisman Trophy and endured countless jokes after he was caught stealing from a Tallahassee grocery store. And somewhere along that winding road, most everyone made up his or her mind about him.
"They just want me to be a person I'm not, so they tell themselves something else," Winston said. "I'm a people person. I like to make someone laugh when they're having a bad day. I can always put a smile on somebody's face. I feel like I'm just a good guy. ... Sometimes that gets sucked under the radar with all the drama in the media."
But as Winston prepares for the second act of this ongoing drama, that media spotlight will only get brighter and the scrutiny more intense.