He was praising God with a rose tucked behind his ear, mentioning something about “all the haters.” I don’t judge whether a god loves me or you or Jameis Winston, but a higher being must love football, in that the game we just watched left us exhausted and satiated. The final edition of an imperfect championship system trembled from a mad rush of late back-and-forth thrills, climaxed not by one last Auburn miracle but a cool little lob in the end zone.
That’s all it was, something you’d do with a nerf ball in the backyard, or something Joe Montana once did with Dwight Clark. Loft the ball just high enough that a tall, physical receiver can lift above the defenders and reach high with both hands to make the catch. The play that won the national title for Florida State was all about the Benjamin, as in Kelvin Benjamin, the 6-5, 235-pound target who positioned himself above Chris Davis to complete a comeback from a graveyard with 13 seconds left.
That would be the same Chris Davis who returned the missed field goal against Alabama, now known forever as the Kick Six, and gave us one of sport’s best memories of 2013 and a college football climax for the ages. What it told us, along with a pass interference call against Davis on the previous play that set up the Seminoles on the Auburn 2, is that Gus Malzahn would not be celebrating another supernatural ending at a Waffle House, though his team played a wonderful football game and had much of America rooting for the Tigers.
Of course, the headlines will be about the quarterback, as always. And after a bleak start in which Winston looked like the antithesis of a Heisman Trophy winner — unprepared for the moment, confused by an aggressive defense, throwing reckless passes, fumbling the ball away –he regained his composure on his 20th birthday and reminded us why he’ll likely be a force in American sports for the next 15 years or so. His touchdown toss to Benjamin tied the bow on an epic game-winning drive, in which Winston completed six of seven passes to account for 77 yards of a 80-yard march that began with 1:11 left.
He is not a beloved figure in this nation, not after a sexual assault investigation that ended without a charge being filed but didn’t stop doubters — “haters,” as he put it — from voicing lingering suspicions. And there’s a sense in watching Winston that he’s still a raw project as a passer. But as a leader, he is remarkable for someone so young. His teammates latch onto him and go wherever he leads them, which, in this case, happens to be the rarefied air of a unique perfecta in college football: a national title and a Heisman, something only Cam Newton, Mark Ingram and Matt Leinart have achieved in the BCS era. To think he’s only a redshirt freshman and could repeat the double-dip next season, followed by a No. 1 selection in the 2015 NFL draft.
Get used to Famous Jameis, legal cloud and all. He will be with us for a long time. This was his first of many defining moments, starting when the Seminoles trailed 21-3 in the first half and were fading in the glow of a Malzahn offense dominating with deception and bullish running and an Auburn defense that, shockingly, was baffling Winston and the nation’s top offense with aggressive schemes. What did he tell his teammates when so many were sulking?
“I said, `Y’all, we didn’t come here for no reason.’ I said, `Y’all, this is ours, man,’ ” Winston said after the 34-31 victory. “All the adversity we went though? They said, `We got this, Jameis.’ Are you strong? They said, `We strong.’
“We are champions together.”
Yes, they are, starting with a P.J. Williams interception when Nick Marshall was driving Auburn for what looked like a clinching score … and continuing with Winston’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Chad Abram, cutting the lead to 21-20 … and continuing with Kermit Whitfield’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which gave Florida State a 27-24 lead with 4:31 left. Even with all those comeback heroics, Auburn and wreckingball Tre Mason continued to move the ball on the supposedly dominant FSU defense and had a four-point lead with barely a minute left in the Rose Bowl. With all 95,000 fans standing in the legendary stadium, Winston went to work. We were mesmerized by his savvy, his precision, his purpose.
“I was ready. I wanted to be in that situation,” he said. “Because that’s what great quarterbacks do. Any QB can go out there and perform when you’re up 50-0 in the second quarter. I think I got more respect from people and my teammates around me on that final drive than I got all year.”
Uh, you think? “Jameis grew up unbelievably tonight,” said his coach, Jimbo Fisher. “He struggled, but tonight’s probably the best football game he’s ever played, because he struggled early. That’s what big-time players do when the money’s on the line. They can suck it up in the fourth quarter and do what they have to do. For three quarters, he was up and down and kept fighting. And to pull it out in this atmosphere and environment and what was on the line, to me, if that’s not a great player, I don’t know who is.”
True to form, while wearing a NATIONAL CHAMPIONS cap, Winston almost dropped the crystal football when Fisher handed it to him. He laughed. “We are champions,” he said. “We can say we are champions. It’s the biggest. I’m proud. I’m proud to be a Florida State Seminole.”
The early deficit was shocking, in that FSU hadn’t trailed in a game since Sept. 28 at Boston College, a span covering 583 minutes and 42 seconds. If it was trying to prove its place among the most dominant and unchallenged teams in college football history, Florida State was failing. The best-ever claim of the 1995 Nebraska team wasn’t being threatened, countering Winston’s pre-game brashness when he said, “The NCAA has all these rules, but it doesn’t say you cannot blow out everybody you play.” The Seminoles looked like they’d be blown out by Auburn, as Brent Musburger kept saying with repeated references to the betting line, which isn’t very collegiate of him and can’t be appreciated much by his politically correct ESPN bosses. At least this time, Brent didn’t rave about the looks of a quarterback’s girlfriend — as he did last year about AJ McCarron’s girl, Katherine Webb — though he did start the broadcast by referring to himself as “Kirk Herbstreit” while referring to Herbstreit as “Brent Musburger,” which drew a wry smile from Herbie.
The game funneled its way to a memorable crescendo, the BCS leaving us with its second-best game of a 16-year run, just short of the unforgettable Texas victory over USC eight years earlier on the same field. Davis insisted he didn’t commit pass interference on the third-and-8 play at the 10, which gave Winston a first-down gift at the 2. “Thought it waa great defense. That’s all I can say,” said Davis, per the Associated Press. “They should have just let us play.”
This time, there was no divine intervention, no Prayer at Jordan-Hare, no Kick Six from Davis. Auburn found a way into a country’s collective heart after an 0-8 season in the Southeastern Conference in 2012, and very nearly extended the SEC’s national-title streak to eight Monday night. Malzahn and his players should be very proud. “I told them in the locker room, we put together the biggest turnaround in the history of college football,” he said. “We were on the brink of making it one of those magical seasons.”
A Hollywood season, it seemed.
But Winston wrote a more realistic narrative for 2014. Instead of getting the girl, he was accused by the girl, still winning the big game regardless. “I guarantee you we’re bringing that swag back,” he said. “You’d better believe it.”
I’m having a hard time believing what I just saw. But it happened, a movie scene in the land of la-la dreams.