Winston the same, despite opinion

After Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel set the precedent for post-Heisman celebrity, it's not unreasonable to say that no college football player in history will be more exposed, dissected, criticized and debated than Winston will be in 2014.

Winston wants the world to know who he really is, but, as his sophomore season begins, what might matter more is who he's going to be.

"I have a certain standard I have to hold myself to," Winston said. "If I go even an inch below that standard, it's going to be chaos."

The gaggle of reporters had been expanding for more than an hour by the time Winston bounded into a ballroom at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, North Carolina, this past month. It was ACC media days, but this was less a showcase for the conference and more a circus crowd awaiting its main attraction.

"How does it feel to have an ACC team come in here with the national championship," Winston shouted. "Can I get a round of applause?"

The stoic crowd barely responded. They had a more serious agenda, but, of course, Winston had already broken the ice and, in turn, taken command of the proceedings. What followed was a typical Winston news conference, hitting on everything from mechanics in the pocket to the level of sweat that accumulated in former FSU center Bryan Stork's bosom.

Even Winston's harshest critics admit that the guy knows how to work a room. There's something about his personality, his energy; it's infectious. There's the beaming smile and the preacher's cadence, the enthusiasm that makes it easy to believe there's nowhere in the world Winston would rather be than right there, talking to you.

A month after winning the national championship, Winston was in Fort Worth, Texas, to pick up the Davey O'Brien Award. Bill Brady, the executive director of the O'Brien board of trustees, introduced Winston to the dignitaries on hand, but, to his surprise, Winston already knew most of them. Brady said Winston had memorized their pictures and biographies from paperwork the trust had sent along to Florida State in advance of the ceremony. Winston chatted up locals, slumped to his knees to pose for photos with children and delivered a speech that earned a standing ovation from the crowd.

"He didn't throw a pass or pitch a baseball," Brady said, "but he connected with 680 people in a room, every single one of them."

This, as much as the arm strength or the football IQ, is what makes Winston so successful. He's always upbeat, always eager. For the people who know him, it's contagious. For those who don't, however, it's often viewed as arrogance.

In high school, Winston had a reputation for barking at coaches or officials or the opposition. He was obsessively competitive, and too often it got the better of him. Fans would approach his coach, Matt Scott, after games furious that he'd tolerated such behavior from a kid. Scott eventually stopped trying to explain.

"When he's right there on the edge of boiling over a little bit, when he's running over people, breaking tackles, making big plays, they love all that," Scott said. "But what makes him able to do that, his mentality, it's what causes him to do that other little bit, too. You want the dirt without the mess."

That mess has fueled plenty of criticism for Winston, and that's been a tough lesson to learn.

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