BEREA — Jameis Winston knows there are always eyes on him — watching, dissecting and waiting for him to make a mistake.
The spotlight doesn’t leave, and Winston wants to shine in it.
“It’s about my actions,” the Tampa Buccaneers rookie said while attending a youth football clinic. “I got to be a quarterback. When I’m off the field, I got to be a quarterback. When I’m on the field, I’ve got to be a quarterback. I know people are going to look at me in each and every way.
“I just smile, man.”
He did a lot of that on Friday.
Winston is trying to move on from a celebrated and checkered college career at Florida State, where he won a Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to a national championship but also brought himself and the school shame for multiple off-field incidents, including a rape accusation that was dismissed after prosecutors cited problems with a police investigation.
As he embarks on his NFL career, the 21-year-old is staying positive. And while he’s not hiding from his past, Winston is focused on what’s ahead, not behind him.
“I have nothing to prove,” he said. “I believe that people make mistakes, but I also believe that you bounce back from those and I’m just moving forward.”
Winston and the NFC’s other drafted rookies got a break from their four-day symposium — a league-run orientation program designed to help players transition to the pros — by playing with school-aged children on the Cleveland Browns training fields. While the youngsters ran pass routes, bumped into blocking pads and tossed footballs into garbage cans, Winston seemed to be the biggest kid on the field.
He led the boys and girls in cheers, handed out high-fives and advice and taught the kids how to put some touch on a pass or fire a rocket.
“Set your feet and let it rip,” he told one boy. “Don’t be afraid.”
Winston was clearly in his element inside the field’s white-chalked borders. It was when he has ventured off the field, out of bounds, that Winston has gotten into trouble.
There was the shoplifting charge for stealing crab legs from a grocery store; the suspension for jumping on a table on Florida State’s campus and screaming an explicit phrase; and the sexual-assault allegation in 2012. Those actions overshadowed Winston’s achievements on the field, earned him a troublemaker’s image and made him a target of criticism on social media.
While the 2015 rookie class is being lectured on professional life by former players offering their experiences, Winston can already speak to how a bad decision can be irrevocable.
Several of Winston’s fellow rookies said he has been one of the most engaged players this week. And despite his higher profile, he has been just one of the guys.
“He is the most high-spirited guy I’ve been around,” said Buccaneers offensive tackle Donovan Smith, a second-round pick from Penn State. “He’s a great leader. And he likes to have fun. You’re looking at us — we’re 21, 22 years old. You have to think about it. We’re adults, but we’re still kids sometimes and we want to have fun.”
And although he recognizes Winston may endure more scrutiny than other players, Smith said every pro athlete is under a microscope and should be accountable for their behavior.
“All of us are in spotlights,” he said. “We’re the one percent of athletes who make it to the pros. We’re going to be scrutinized in our worst times, praised in our best times. It comes with the territory. We just got to live with it.”
Winston will stay active on social media, while others are more wary of potential dangers. Earlier this week, No. 2 pick Marcus Mariota said he won’t bother with Twitter or any other online platform.
Winston isn’t going to hide.
“You can only be yourself. What people put out there on social media is just whatever. But I am just trying to be a better person and live life, and that’s all,” he said. “I mean social media can help you in so many ways, from a positive standpoint. I can’t control what people put on social media about me, but I can control my actions and what I do.”
And he plans to smile while doing it.