NEW YORK — Even facing questions about the investigation into a sexual assault complaint that generated so much attention for the last month, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston looked comfortable and poised Friday, roughly 24 hours before he presumably takes his place in college football history.
The people around Winston, however? Not so much.
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Awarding the 79th Heisman Trophy quickly turned awkward Friday at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square when Florida State's sports information staff — flanked by Winston's attorney, Tim Jansen — pulled him away halfway through his scheduled media availability after warning reporters to keep the questions focused on football.
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Several minutes later, they brought Winston back, where he calmly and reasonably answered a question about whether he wanted to give his side of the story of what happened between the time the accusation surfaced and last Thursday, when the State Attorney decided not to file charges.
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"The thing about the investigation, I always respected the process," Winston said. "So by me being a football player, knowing my team needed me and them supporting me, I knew I had to focus on the future. But I also had to focus on my family with everything going on with the investigation, and I knew I did nothing wrong.
"That's why I knew I could respect the process and I'd eventually be vindicated. It was more about me being silent for my family because I didn't want to put my family in that situation…I knew I did nothing wrong and everything would be OK."
Like it or not, it was going to be impossible for Winston to ascend into the pantheon of Heisman winners — which seems like a formality at this point — without facing questions related to the investigation. As Florida's 2nd Judicial Circuit weighed whether to prosecute the 19-year old Winston, his status as Florida State quarterback and Heisman favorite very much hung in the balance.
Even for this award, which has seen controversial winners in recent years (most notably Auburn's Cam Newton, whose recruitment drew NCAA scrutiny), this was an unusual situation. Only when State Attorney William Meggs announced a few days before ballots were due that there wasn't enough evidence to charge Winston with a crime was the Heisman Trust able to steer clear of an incredibly chaotic situation.
The awkwardness of it, though, turned out to be unavoidable.
Asked about dealing with off-field concerns, Winston said it was "stressful, but you have to look forward and focus on the goals we have as a team. He then sidestepped a question about what he learned from the incident, saying only that, "I love my college football experience and the way that I'm processing things right now and the way I'm getting better every single day."
After the third question related to the incident, associate sports information director Kerwin Lonzo intervened, saying Winston would only entertain questions about football and admonishing reporters to "move on."
Moments later, when Winston was asked if there should be a code of conduct associated with the award, Lonzo quickly responded "Next question!" before ending the interview a short time later.
At that point, Winston was supposed to get up and go to a second table of reporters, as the four other Heisman finalists present had done (Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron hadn't yet arrived in town). Instead, Lonzo huddled with senior associate athletics director Monk Bonasorte, sports information director Elliott Finebloom, Jansen and Heisman Trust coordinator Tim Henning before whisking Winston away to a separate room.
Asked why he made the trip to New York with Winston, Jansen said, "I'm here just to enjoy him winning or possibly winning the Heisman. I'm not here officially. I'm on my own dime."
When Winston returned later, Lonzo apologized and said Florida State officials were "confused" about the two-table interview setup.
That incident will likely be more dramatic than Saturday's announcement.
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Long considered the frontrunner, Winston's case to become the second consecutive redshirt freshman to win the award became overwhelming in the season's closing weeks as other contenders fell by the wayside and Florida State ascended to No. 1.
Reigning winner Johnny Manziel struggled in his final two games. McCarron's candidacy surged until Alabama lost to Auburn on Nov. 30. Momentum for Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch stalled with a loss to Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference championship game. Boston College running back Andre Williams got hurt just as voters began to notice his eye-popping numbers.
The only alternative who finished strong was Auburn running back Tre Mason, but he was barely on the radar before a breakout performance in the SEC championship game.
In other words, most of the intrigue Saturday night surrounds who will finish second.
"I had to go through some controversy, and to see him at such a young age to be able to put his head down and focus on his teammates and where they're headed, I give him a lot of credit for that," Manziel said. "With all the scrutiny and everything he's under, I feel like he's done a tremendous job of focusing on his team and family and what really matters most."
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