CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Jameis Winston quickly emerged as one of college football's biggest stars because of his brilliant play, while also charming Florida State fans with his smile and natural charisma.
The 19-year-old redshirt freshman seemed poised and mature beyond his years, whether he was throwing touchdown passes after shedding a defensive lineman or answering questions from reporters about what it took to be the leader of one of the best teams in the country.
Three weeks ago the story changed. A year-old sexual assault complaint against him was given by Tallahassee police to the state's attorney office to be investigated. For three weeks, Winston faced the possibility of serious criminal charges. He was accused of rape by a female Florida State student. His lawyer said the sex was consensual.
Winston continued to play spectacularly. While he was shielded from answering direct questions about the investigation, he gave his routine interviews leading up to and after games. If the investigation was stressing him out, he wasn't showing it publicly.
And according to coach Jimbo Fisher, he wasn't showing it privately either.
"He's been the same guy, and like I said, he believed in the process, and he believed in himself, and he's been the same guy," Fisher said Friday at a news conference at Bank of America Stadium for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game against Duke, about 24 hours after prosecutors in Florida announced Winston would not be charged.
"It's been a remarkable maturity level presented by him to be able to compartmentalize and handle things he can control and not that anything was (taken) lightly or he didn't take it seriously, but like I say, in our life everybody has issues or something going on in your life, and the ones that can compartmentalize and function and handle them when they have to handle them are the ones that are very successful, and he's very mature like that," Fisher said.
No. 1 Florida State played three games from the time news broke about the complaint until the time the case was closed. There were certainly no signs of distraction from the Seminoles, though this team is so talented that rolling Syracuse, Idaho and Florida by a combined 176-24 could have been accomplished with less-than-full attention.
Winston completed 67 percent of his passes in those three games for 829 yards, with nine touchdown passes and one interception. He appeared to be the same jovial guy on the sideline, joking with teammates and interacting with fans after games.
When it was time to answer the at-times awkwardly worded questions about dealing with "distractions," he deftly managed to swing it back toward talking about the team and the game.
"He took everything extremely seriously, but he also understood he had a responsibility as a student, as a teammate to handle himself the way he did, and it's been remarkable the way he's done it," Fisher said. "I have seen no signs (of stress), and he and I talk quite often."
Fisher said he has seen no change in his team's mood or demeanor since the decision not to charge Winston was announced.
"It's the same football team we were then," Fisher said.
Winston and Florida State are a victory away from playing in the BCS national championship game, and are overwhelming favorites against Duke. The Heisman Trophy is also in Winston's grasp. Only some sort monumental meltdown against the Blue Devils is likely to keep Winston from collecting the bronze statue next week in New York.
"Because when it's time to play football, when it's time to go to school, he compartmentalizes and handles his responsibilities," Fisher said.
"I think he understands that he had a responsibility to his team, that they worked very hard, and that was his responsibility to be their quarterback and be their leader, and he handled his individual situation on his own time, his own merits, and I think he did a great job of understanding and compartmentalizing."
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