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Hirsh: FSU's Winston grows up before mentor's eyes

POSTED: January 7, 2014 3:33 p.m.
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Heisman Trophy winner and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston led the Seminoles to the BCS National Championship with a dramatic 34-31 victory over Auburn on Monday.

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After Jameis Winston learned the matchup of this year’s BCS title game, there was one man he couldn’t get off his mind. This particular man has not only served as a father figure to Winston, but is also responsible for turning him into the star quarterback he is today.

Winston wanted to call him. He wanted to talk about football, about life—anything really, just to hear that voice on the other end.  

Instead, to avoid temptation, he deleted this man’s number from his phone.

Around the same time, this man thought about driving to visit Winston. But he changed his mind at the last minute; it wouldn’t have been right.

Besides, he had work to do. He had to help author a game plan to stop Winston from winning the final BCS Championship.

This man is Dameyune Craig: the recruiter who brought Winston to Florida State, but, ironically enough, is now an assistant coach at Auburn. He would surrender his post at FSU last January to join Gus Malzahn’s staff, leaving Winston, his pupil, "Shocked."

The two remain close, though, and Craig would continue to look after Winston even after returning to the Tigers, where he was a star QB himself in the mid-90s.

Several months ago, before 2013 evolved into a miraculous, iconic campaign for Auburn, Craig had one of his many visions. He called Winston and said, "We’re going to play y’all for the National Championship."

Winston laughed. But he also knew how often Craig’s visions come true.

Last year Craig had a bad feeling Winston would get involved with firearms, so he called the QB in the middle of the night to communicate a warning. Winston assured him there was no reason for concern, but would soon get in trouble with police for shooting BB guns at his apartment complex.

When Winston was still in high school, Craig told him he could win a Heisman Trophy and a BCS Championship if he joined the Seminoles. Winston believed him. Through this faith the two-sport athlete was given the motivation he needed to choose FSU over the likes of Alabama, LSU and Stanford.

Of course all of these prophecies came true, though Craig surely wishes he was wrong about the most significant one of all.

Winston was indeed crowned a National Champion on Monday night, his 20th birthday, after passing for a game-winning touchdown with just 13 seconds left to give Florida State a 34-31 victory—leaving Craig and the Tigers heartbroken.

Winston’s heroics became necessary due to his struggles earlier in the contest. He completed just 12 of 24 passes in the first three quarters, overwhelmed by a fierce Auburn attack that was influenced by Craig’s knowledge of the Seminole QB.

But Winston managed to put those struggles behind him when it mattered most, overcoming a stout defense and the mind of his mentor, and composed a masterful 72-yard yard drive in the final 1:19 of regulation to become the youngest starting QB to ever win a National Championship.

That Tom Brady-esque leadership is hard to find in college athletes, much less guys like Winston who had yet to face any genuine on-field adversity at the NCAA level. And in the end, it’s hard to imagine he would have developed that kind of mental resolve had it not been for Craig’s tutelage.

Yes, Winston has been shaped by many people, but it was Craig who, more than anyone else, put him on the path toward becoming the best quarterback in the country.

When E.J. Manuel started under center for the ‘Noles in 2012, Winston wasn’t shaping up to be the heir apparent the way Jimbo Fisher and Co. had expected. Instead the 18-year-old was picking fights, showing up late to meetings and getting caught up in the Tallahassee nightlife. But with Craig’s guidance, that soon changed—and had it not, there’s no way Florida State hoists the BCS Trophy on Monday.

"I just wanted him to grow up," Craig recalls. "I told him, ‘Everybody’s watching you. You’re going to be the starting quarterback at Florida State at some point. You can’t start next year. You have to start now. You have to be a leader on the field. You have to be a leader off the field. You have to carry yourself in a certain way.’

"I talked about the responsibility he had as being the starting quarterback and how that was going to be a lot different than everybody else."

"[Craig] kept me on the right path," said Winston. "When I first got here, I was hard-headed, especially at practice. He told me, Jameis, focus up."

As Florida State’s comeback over Auburn was deem official and the two sidelines began to converge at midfield, Winston put his celebration on hold and started running toward the Tigers.

"Where’s Coach Craig?" he asked.

And there he was. The two embraced, and then went in opposite directions: Winston to the confetti and cameras and massive celebration; Craig to a devastated locker room.

For the past few weeks, this relationship had fizzled from something special to simply two men embedded in competition. Where they go from here is uncertain, but surely Winston will put Craig’s number back in his phone, and they’ll call each other all the time to talk about football and girls and music just like old times.

At least Craig can take solace in the fact that even though his team came up short of its ultimate goal, he turned a boy into a National Champion.

And, as a coach, isn’t that the dream?

Andrew Hirsh covers sports for the Forsyth County News. He can be reached at ahirsh@forsythnews.com. On Twitter? Follow him
@andrewhirsh.

 

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