THERE'S LITTLE DOUBT THAT FLORIDA STATE'S JAMEIS WINSTON WAS THE MOST OUTSTANDING PLAYER IN THE FBS THIS YEAR. WHETHER HE DESERVES THE HEISMAN IS A MORE DIFFICULT QUESTION
THE FIRST LINE of the Heisman Trust's mission statement says the award "recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity." The Heisman ballot says the trophy "is presented each year to the Outstanding College Football Player in the United States." So which is it, the pursuit of excellence with integrity or the most outstanding player? Because those two are rarely the same person, and this year, for the third time in four years, Heisman voters have had to spend time poring over police reports before casting their ballots.
Of the two, "most outstanding" is easier to determine. The games, after all, are televised; the moments that reveal a player's true character are not. So, for 2013, SI will stick to the ballot's instructions and choose the most outstanding player: Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.
Winston, a redshirt freshman from Bessemer, Ala., led the Seminoles to a 13--0 record, an ACC title and a berth in the BCS championship. He completed 67.9% of his passes for 3,820 yards (eighth best nationally) and 38 touchdowns (second), ranking first in passing efficiency (190.1). He commanded the respect of his teammates and the admiration of his coaches. "It's something that can't be explained," says junior offensive tackle Cam Erving. "He's just a true leader."
That's the type of quote the Heisman Trust loves to see attached to the winner of the most mythologized award in American sports. This is not: "Casher stated he went into the room to see if the female would engage in sexual activity with him as well (as has happened with other females he and Winston have brought back to their apartment)...." The statement comes from a report filed by Tallahassee police detective Scott Angulo on Dec. 5. "Casher" is defensive end Chris Casher, Winston's roommate.
Angulo's interview of Casher took place as part of an investigation into a sexual battery accusation against Winston by a former Florida State student. The woman called police early on the morning of Dec. 7, 2012, to say she had been raped. She identified Winston as the suspect on Jan. 10. The investigation stalled in March. The police say the woman stopped communicating with them; in a statement the woman's family denied that she cut off contact. Winston's attorney, Tim Jansen, has argued that the sex was consensual.
Last week Willie Meggs, the state attorney for Florida's second judicial circuit, announced that Winston would face no criminal charges. Meggs says the gaps in the woman's memory of the night were problematic, especially after a toxicology report from a sample taken about three hours after the incident showed her blood-alcohol level to be a .048—.08 is the driving limit in Florida—and showed that she had no drugs in her system. Meggs also says investigators found no physical evidence of head trauma, which also might have explained memory lapses. Meanwhile, Casher and cornerback Ronald Darby each offered sworn affidavits saying they witnessed the sex and that it was consensual. Later, Casher told investigators that he had taken a brief video of the encounter with his phone, although he had since deleted the video and discarded the phone.
Winston did not speak in his own defense. Not publicly, and not to investigators. "He didn't need to speak," Jansen says. Saturday, after the Seminoles beat Duke for the ACC title, Winston—who said last Thursday in a statement that it was "difficult to stay silent"—offered his only comments thus far, tellling ESPN, "I've got to get more mature. I've got to get better in everything I do." When ESPN reporter Heather Cox asked Winston why he hadn't spoken on the topic, Winston walked away.
EVEN THOUGH he wasn't charged, the allegation hangs there. "It undermines everything you are," Jansen says. "When someone makes an allegation that you raped somebody.... Other than murdering somebody, I don't know if anything's worse." The aftermath also could make for an awkward Heisman ceremony, but the Trust should be accustomed to those by now, although not to this degree.
Last year voters had to weigh Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel's preseason arrest for a fight outside a bar against a brilliant regular season in which he generated an SEC-record 4,600 combined passing and rushing yards. In 2010, when Auburn quarterback Cam Newton won the Heisman, voters first had to read the case file from the 2008 incident in which he was arrested by police at Florida—his first school—and accused of stealing another student's laptop. (Chargers were dropped after Newton completed a diversion program.) And that was before Newton's father, Cecil, was accused by the NCAA in 2010 of trying to sell Cam's services—he was then a star junior college transfer—to Mississippi State for $180,000. Although the NCAA cleared Newton of violating any existing rules, Cecil Newton did not attend the Heisman ceremony.
As far back as 1972, Nebraska receiver Johnny Rodgers won the award even though he had been involved in a gas-station holdup that netted $90 on his final day of classes as a freshman. (Rodgers received a pardon for that crime last month.) Meanwhile, some players who have won the Heisman without any red flags haven't gone on to lead the purest lives. Does the name Orenthal James Simpson ring any bells?
Integrity is nearly impossible to judge because we usually lack the necessary information. There is now a publicly available 200-plus-page window into Winston's private life. Nothing similar can be said for most of the other candidates this year—except Manziel, whose every move this summer was dissected. For the most part, voters see what the schools want them to see in carefully controlled interviews. Last year the hard-partying Manziel was cast as the rebel, while Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o was the dedicated student-athlete playing for the memory of his recently deceased girlfriend. Te'o finished second to Manziel, and the girlfriend turned out to be a hoax. Because there's no way to know these players, the fairest way to judge them is by what they do on the field.
THIS YEAR Winston leaped to the top because he took an offense that brought back two of its three best backs, three of its four best receivers and four of five offensive line starters and raised it to another echelon. With essentially the same players around him in 2012, future first-round draft pick E.J. Manuel, now with the Bills, threw for fewer yards and fewer touchdowns. He also threw more interceptions and went 12--2 with losses to N.C. State and Florida. Winston hasn't come close to losing; the Seminoles' narrowest margin was a 14-point win at Boston College, and their average margin of victory was 42.3 points.
Winston's challengers include Manziel, who put up better passing numbers than in his Heisman season (3,732 yards, 33 touchdowns, 69.1% completion rate) but whose team went 4--4 in SEC play. The front-runner for much of the season was Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who threw for 3,412 yards and 30 touchdowns with only four interceptions. But a knee injury late in the year limited Mariota on the ground, and Oregon's offense faltered.
Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch threw for 2,676 yards while leading all signal-callers in rushing (1,881 yards) and leading his team to a 12--1 record. Voters will hold the level of regular-season competition against him. Boston College tailback Andre Williams made a late charge, rushing for at least 263 yards in three of his final four games and becoming the 16th player to crack the 2,000-yard mark. But the Eagles went 7--5, and Heisman voters are hesitant to select players from mediocre teams. Auburn tailback Tre Mason will play for a national title, but his end-stage surge (164 rushing yards against Alabama, an SEC title game-record 304 rushing yards against Missouri) may have come too late.
Even Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald, a 6-foot, 285-pound senior defensive tackle who amassed 54 tackles, 26½ tackles for loss (130 yards), 10 sacks, four forced fumbles, one blocked kick deserves votes but won't get them because he plays a position that many voters don't appreciate and his team wasn't part of the national conversation.
Winston will likely win by a landslide. Does that make him the player who best pursues excellence with integrity? While the investigation report certainly showed the flaws in the accusation against Winston, it didn't cast him in the best light. But the Heisman Trust offers little guidance on this front. In fact, the ballot contains only one rule regarding eligibility: "In order that there will be no misunderstanding regarding the eligibility of a candidate, the recipient of the award must be a bona fide student of an accredited college or university including the United States Academies. The recipient must be in compliance with the bylaws defining an NCAA Student-Athlete."
Winston fits that description, and he has been the most outstanding. That's why he'll hoist the trophy at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square on Saturday night, an imperfect winner for an imperfect system.
"I'VE GOT TO GET MORE MATURE," WINSTON SAID. "I'VE GOT TO GET BETTER."
For predictions and analysis of this year's Heisman Trophy winner, go to SI.com/mag
Photograph by CHRIS KEANE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
ROOKIE RUN After 77 years without a first-year player winning, Winston would become the second straight redshirt freshman to receive the Heisman.
Photograph by CHRIS KEANE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
PILLAR OF SUPPORT Winston credited Fisher (left) with standing behind him and pulling the Seminoles together as Meggs (below) decided whether to press a sexual- assault charge against the star QB.
DON JUAN MOORE/GETTY IMAGES (MEGGS)
[See caption above]