BESSEMER/HUEYTOWN, Ala. — Here off Interstate 20/59, among rolling hills, winding roads, fast food marquees and used car dealers, Jameis Winston is still on his superstar pedestal.
Many of the hometown folks view him as quite different from the persona seen inside the 24/7 media stream that announces him as a nuisance, and possibly worse.
Just ask them about "Jaboo."
"He's my hero," said Arron Smith, 11.
Smith was with other kids at the McNeil Park basketball court in the Pipe Shop neighborhood of Bessemer, not far from Winston’s home. The children do not have a complete grasp of Winston’s misbehavior at Florida State, because one asked, "Is Jaboo still in jail?"
Winston never went to jail. But while he did lead FSU to a national championship in 2013 and claimed the Heisman Trophy, Winston and other FSU players were questioned by police in November 2012 after 13 windows were broken at an apartment complex near Doak Campbell Stadium after an apparent BB gun battle. Earlier, in July of that same year, a Burger King employee called police to complain that Winston was stealing soda. He was not charged in either incident.
Then there was the more serious charge of rape. A female student filed a report with Tallahassee police, and by most accounts, the investigation was bungled. The state's attorney declined to press charges on the rape allegation.
Federal authorities are investigating whether Florida State mishandled the sexual assault complaint and committed Title IX violations.
None of his friends believe the rape allegation, which could still include a civil proceeding.
And none of those details mattered to those kids on the playground. "Jaboo" was still their guy.
That is the way it is around a hero’s hometown. It is not easy to knock Winston off his pedestal in this hardscrabble section of Jefferson County. His people have seen 19 years of sun. The year of gloom is not going to blot all that out, not when there are stories like this:
"Jameis' daddy gave my sister a football signed by Jaboo," Arron Smith said. "She's in a wheelchair."
"Dads would bring their kids by football practice and Jameis would show the quarterbacks a few things," said Ricky Rabb, a high school teammate who graduated with Winston in 2012.
"Jameis would sit next to me on the (baseball) bus and always tell me, 'Keep good grades,'" said Michael Edmonson, who was a sophomore in 2012 when Winston graduated from Hueytown High School. Edmonson and Winston share the same birthday, Jan. 6. "He was always giving me tips on how to work on my arm."
Winston’s friends, teachers and football coach want people to be not so quick to condemn the Florida State quarterback, who won the 2013 Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman. The debate about his character seems so one-sided to them.
Sure, there are former classmates in his hometown who think Winston is a bully and egotistical. There are many others here who insist he is not a bad guy at all.
"People say, 'Well, Jameis Winston must not have had much discipline as a kid if he is getting into this much trouble,'" said Chris Rabb, a defensive end at University of Alabama-Birmingham, and Ricky's brother. "You wouldn't say that if you knew his parents. People have no clue."
"He never missed a practice," Ricky Rabb said. "He worked out with the football team summer mornings, then went to work out with a trainer right after that, then he went to baseball in the afternoon. Jameis had a lot of discipline. His parents stayed on him."
Winston can innocently contribute to the contradictions. Immediately after Florida State defeated Auburn in the national championship game, Winston was live on national television being interviewed. He was still amped up, and his responses came rapid-fire and not in his best diction. Critics fell over themselves chortling about his speech and painting him as an illiterate football player.
Winston took Advanced Placement classes at Hueytown High School. He sailed through them, said Marrianne Hayward, the instructional assistant principal at Hueytown High School. It was English, math, science, the core courses. Hayward said Winston did a television interview in the 10th grade and said on air, "If I make below a B in a class, my mother will spank me."
That might surprise McCarron’s mother and other detractors.
"He not only did well in school, he had colleges here all the time recruiting him, and he withstood the pressure," Hayward said. "His grades were so good he talked about going to college to study to be a podiatrist."
Hayward shook her head from side to side dismayed by the public perception of Winston. "I think it is very unfair. He is a charming, polite kid; I never saw the bully in him."
Hayward said the school could not divulge Winston’s grade-point average because of privacy laws. Ricky Rabb, who is now a part-time assistant coach at Hueytown, said Winston's GPA was 4.0. The quarterback received the Butch Wilson Award for the highest grade-point average for a football player.
That is the picture of the player Hueytown head coach Mark Stephens remembers. Stephens was a defensive assistant coach when Winston was at Hueytown, and Stephens just shakes his head too at the trail of issues at FSU. It does not seem like the high school All-American he witnessed on the practice field.
"I know there has to be more to that story than Jameis trying to jam something inside his shirt and walking out," Stephens said. "He's better than that."
Alan Boshell, a career tech teacher at Hueytown High School, said Winston took his computer class his senior year. It was a class of mostly freshmen and a required course, but Winston had let it slip by until his final year.
"We had these ninth-grade boys walking past him gawking, but he handled it well," Boshell said. "He didn't act like a lot of seniors when they are around freshmen. If they needed help, I saw him help them. He never treated those kids like peons.
"He is a very bright kid. He picked up things in that class right away. He ate my class up."
The class was to master the various Microsoft programs,and if there was ever a lull in discussion, Boshell said, Winston was always jumping in to keep the discussion alive and avoid lulls.
"I went to Auburn and he knew I wanted him to go to Auburn, but he was always friendly in joking back and forth about it," Boshell said. "He wanted to go to a school with some pre-engineering and calculus, and he told me once, 'I want to go to a school where I'm comfortable and I fit the most,' and I said, 'Yes, that's where you need to go.'"
Hayward said Winston had fun with the circus around which school he would attend. He had offers, of course, from Alabama and Auburn. There were days he would show up wearing a T-shirt of a particular school just to incite the rivalry and have some fun with the fandom.
"It was his way of deflecting some of the pressure of where he was going to go," Hayward said.
Boshell said he looked for signs in the classroom that Winston would take advantage of his fame. He never saw any. Boshell said he once saw Winston standing in the front of a bus with the football team leading Christmas carols. On stealing crab legs, Boshell said, "I can't see him doing that. I saw the news and went 'C'mon man, no way.'
"I still like Jameis. I'm hoping for the best for him and that he still has awesome character."
It is still painful for the "Bammers" here, the Alabama fans who are upset Winston did not sign with the Crimson Tide. Boshell remembers an Alabama fan saying loudly in the Publix about Winston, "I hope he gets his knee blown out." Winston once told Boshell, "You won’t believe the hate mail from Alabama fans."
Some men were sitting on the porch of a wooden frame house in Bessemer late one afternoon, sipping beer, sharing opinions. They saw Winston run around here as a seven-year old and then watched him grow into a superstar. They are still in Jaboo's corner but a little dismayed at what he has done to get himself in trouble.
"I was surprised, I never saw any dark side about him," said Odell Bester. "Why get your name scarred up like that?"
Bester shrugged and said, "He’s just a kid."
Winston’s name is still solid in Bessemer, through several generations of Winstons. His father's mother, Jameis' grandmother, would host college coaches visiting on recruiting trips. She was known for her cakes, particularly red velvet cake. She was so adored by Jameis' friends they also called her "Grandmama."
In high school, however, having Winston around was a thrill for some, a nuisance to others. Winston was boisterous; some days his effervescence was OK, and some days he took it too far. He would nag players on the baseball field or football field, belittle a little too much, and then the teammate being heckled by the star quarterback would have enough and snarl back.
In the midst of one such argument, Winston reminded a teammate that Winston had the Division I scholarship and the teammate did not.
The issue for many of his classmates was the overbearing nature of "Jameis Winston, Superstar." Winston has a vibrant personality, and it was not easy for him to turn it off for the benefit of others when they wanted some peace.
When Jameis was in the lunch room, you knew it. When he was in the hallway, you knew it. He acquired that effervescence from his father, Antonor, who has a similarly big personality.
Antonor Winston declined to be interviewed.
"It was just that he was always loud, always the center of attention," said a classmate, who did not want to be named. "Some people liked him, some people didn't. He got wrapped up in the celebrity too much and he got away with some things."
The classmate said there was an incident where Winston got irritated and overturned a table in a science class and it was ignored. Winston would scream at offensive linemen on the sidelines of games, "so loud you could hear in the stands," said the classmate. "He dogged them out." Coaches let it pass.
The downside of the antics at FSU, said the classmate, is that "everybody loves Ant, his father. ... I imagine Ant is furious at some of these things.
"Jameis, I think, under it all is a good guy. He just has some growing up to do."
Hueytown kids only took so much of Winston's posturing. Once, at least, he tried to cut in line at lunch—like a lot of kids—and was met with resistance. There was an argument and a teacher had to tell Winston to back down and go to the end of the line.
Is that the worst there is?
"I'm sure I threw my weight around, too, sometimes," said Robert Winslett, a center on the 2012 football team.
"He's not the first guy to go away to college and have some trouble," Winslett said. "You hear the younger kids around here, the ones that don't know him, say Jameis Winston is a thug. They don't know him. They hear that stuff from their parents and they don't know Jameis. I'd say most people that graduated with Jameis liked him. He wasn't a jerk.
"He was always good to me. I think it depended on how you treated him."
Winston would not be outworked in athletics. He was devoted to football and baseball, but he was also devoted to his work in the classroom, according to teachers, classmates and coaches.
Winston had the big numbers next to his name on the statistic line, but he also coveted the big letter "A" next to his name on the report card. Hayward and Boshell said Winston's good grades drew admirers from younger students and younger athletes.
Josh Jordan, who is "Juice" to Winston, said Winston could come off as arrogant. It was not malicious, just confidence, an attitude. They graduated in the same class in 2012 and have known each other since the sixth grade.
"I know a lot of people thought he was cocky, but it wasn't that; he was just confident, he didn't bother anybody," said Jordan, who plays cornerback at Duquesne in Pittsburgh. "We all did our school work, we didn't bother people with stuff. We knew our mommas and daddies would kill us if we messed with people."
Chris Rabb said Winston was part of the usual hijinks teenagers get involved in. The seniors one year "rolled" the houses of juniors with toilet paper and vice versa. During one pep rally, Winston threw a cream pie in the face of a cheerleader to incite the students.
The Rabbs have known Winston since he was in the sixth grade and stand by him now. It was on the youth football field when they were 12 years old that Winston proclaimed to Ricky, "I am going to be The Man one day, Ricky. I just got to keep my head on straight."
There is some question how well he has done that at FSU.
The Rabbs will not intrude on Winston by asking him questions about the crab legs or the alleged rape, which has been dismissed by the state's attorney. Many people here feel a clerk simply told Winston to help himself to some crab legs and Winston did not want to prolong the incident by explaining his side in detail.
"He's my best friend," Ricky Rabb said. "He has told me as long as the kids are behind me, I'm good.
"Our favorite rapper is Lil Boosie, and he has this line that goes, 'So many people love me, somebody gotta hate me.'"
For the many who criticize Winston for his antics, the friends of "Jaboo" are simply offering alibis for a friend's poor behavior. To them, the "Winston circle," which includes the Florida State athletic administration, are seen as enablers, and Winston will not reform until he receives more severe punishment.
The friends see it another way.
"He's made some mistakes. He knows that, but he is staying positive," Ricky Rabb said. "You can't expect a 20-year-old to do everything perfect."