LOS ANGELES — From afar, the scene around Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota at Rose Bowl media day isn’t all that different. The quarterbacks of college football playoff teams and Heisman winners both merit throngs of attention.
In fact, they occupied the same podium in the same corner an hour apart in an LA hotel ballroom.
As the 2014 Heisman winner, Mariota has spent the weeks since the end of the regular season in the postseason award parade. The spotlight hasn’t really left Mariota.
And while Winston may be the most visible player in the sport today, it hasn’t been because he’s sought media attention in recent months.
He’s the most visible because he’s the quarterback of an undefeated team (again) and the most dramatic team in the country. He’s the most visible player due to the off-field legal and student conduct saga that has clouded his career since midway through the 2013 season.
But Winston has been insulated. His meetings with the media have been few and short. His statements have been prepared. His first meeting with Mariota wasn’t at the Heisman ceremony, where he could have attended as a previous winner; it was as both teams arrived in Los Angeles for the Rose Bowl.
Winston wrapped up his third day of extended interviews with the media Monday at the Rose Bowl, but it won’t be the end of the interviews, especially if Winston elects to leave school early to enter the NFL draft after the season.
Days before arriving in Los Angeles for Rose Bowl preparation, Winston was cleared of violating the student code of conduct following allegations of a sexual assault of an FSU student in December 2012. Prior to that, criminal charges were not filed against Winston, although Florida State’s and the Tallahassee Police Department’s handling of the case has been called into question.
In his longest interview sessions since the ACC preseason media day, Winston isn’t necessarily relieved, animated or apologetic.
He’s more or less resigned that the perception from outside of Florida State will remain in limbo.
“I can't get people to like me,” Winston said. “What they read or what they may see, it's them. I can't control anyone's opinion. Like I say, my family, this football family, everyone associated with us, they know me and people that have met me and actually talked to me, they know who I am.”
If Winston didn’t understand that being a Heisman winner and facing the allegations he faced put him into a spotlight earlier this season, he does now.
During the offseason, Winston was caught on camera stealing crab legs from a grocery store. In September, Winston was suspended when students on social media documented his use of “offensive and vulgar” language about women in the student union, a suspension extended from a half to the duration of the Clemson game when he failed to give an accurate account of the incident to school officials.
Since then, Winston has tried to lay low. While his teammates may be able to celebrate a win on the town in Tallahassee, Winston says he tries to stay away.
“Obviously I know that I'm under a microscope,” Winston said. “That's why I stay in Tallahassee. I've just got to sit in because people will tweet about you for walking down the street backwards. You've just got to chill. ... I love being around my teammates, and the only time I can be around them is in the locker room. I can't celebrate with them, can't do nothing with them, but it comes with the territory.”
Even though Winston has been absent from the team, the support hasn’t wavered, both players and coaches said.
“There were definitely times that it took some of his time away from football,” quarterback coach Randy Sanders said. “But at the same time it made him become more efficient. In a lot of ways coming to practice, playing the games, being in meetings, being around the guys, a lot of ways it made him appreciate the team and appreciate football even more.”
Of course, the reason Winston is in demand isn’t just because he hasn’t spoken publicly much this season or that he’s a lightning rod in the sport.
It’s because his team is still playing on the biggest stage.
“Why would I be down on myself when I'm a blessed man?” Winston said. “I have a great team. We haven't lost in two years. So (the media) always look(s) at the negative things in life but I look at the positive things in life. I'm so blessed. I have a young brother, I have both my parents, my grandma is still living, I have a little sister and I gotta do right for them. It's more than football sometimes. People can criticize me and say whatever they want to say about me, but I'm a blessed guy.”