. A tired man in a well-driven Mitsubishi Montero pulled into the front yard of his Alabama home on Thursday at exactly the same time that his son’s attorney was stepping in front of microphones hundreds of miles away in Tallahassee.
Inside the house, the family pit bull recognized the sound of the engine and Ice’s bark turned from defensive to excited. Antonor Winston put the vehicle in park, looked up at his front porch and shook his head in disbelief. He waved to a neighbor, ended a conversation on his cell phone and walked up the three steps leading to his front door.
“If I hadn’t talked to you yesterday, and you just came over here without me knowing you, this would have been a bad day for you,” he said to a reporter, half laughing and half serious and completely exhausted. “I’m offended that you’re here. Come on in and make yourself at home.”
About 90 minutes beforehand, Antonor’s eldest son, Jameis Winston, was cleared of a rape accusation in Tallahassee. It was a potentially generation-altering decision for the Winston family.
Who is Jameis Winston? He is the quarterback for Florida State, which with a victory on Saturday against Duke University in the ACC championship game will be invited to play for the BCS national championship at the Rose Bowl. Jameis’ nickname is Jaboo and his favorite meal is cabbage and fried pork chops. He is 19 years old and he is the best college football player in the country. He is hardworking and he is not perfect.
But, above all, Jameis — cocky, fiery, intelligent, competitive Jameis — is his father’s son.
At 2:30 p.m. CT on Thursday, Antonor walked into his cozy and cluttered home in Hueytown, Ala. The living room, decorated with shrines to Jameis in every corner, is conjoined to the kitchen where Ice is in a kennel. Dishes and trash are piled high in the sink and on the counters — evidence of lives put on hold and priorities at a standstill.
Antonor lets Ice out of its kennel and into the backyard. He then sits down on the couch, picks up the remote control and presses the power button. The television is tuned to ESPN and Tim Jansen, the attorney representing Jameis, is giving his live news conference outside the Leon County Courthouse.
“He costs a lot,” Antonor said of the lawyer. “You want to help pay for him?”
“Unfortunately, sometimes one-night stands happen,” Jansen says on the television.
Antonor watches in between replying to text messages and colorfully questioning aloud the role of the media throughout “this scandalizing of my family.”
“How did I know my son was innocent? Because I raised him,” Antonor said. “It’s simple. The same way y’all should have known he was innocent when he never got picked up or never got charged.
“That’s kind of a crazy question.”
Of course, very few people knew Florida State’s star quarterback “never got charged” for an incident on Dec. 7, 2012, until TMZ broke the story on Nov. 6, 2013. Over the past month, Jameis’ football team has ascended to the No.1 ranking in college football and Jameis has emerged as the overwhelming favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. At the same time, he was the subject of national scrutiny as details of a police complaint and investigation leaked out of Tallahassee.
On the Internet, and especially social media, the controversy is a divisive thing and will remain that way despite the case being closed on Thursday by Willie Meggs, the state attorney for Florida’s second judicial circuit, who announced no charges would be filed. Culturally, a combustible mix of factors — FSU’s undefeated season, Jameis’ celebrity in Tallahassee, his importance to the team and, finally, accusations of sexual assault — have elicited powerful emotions not only from those concerned with gender issues but also those disturbed by the potentially corruptible power of collegiate-athletics fiefdoms in places like Tallahassee, Gainesville, Columbus, Ohio; Durham, N.C., and Tuscaloosa and Auburn, Ala.
The timing of Meggs’ news conference also will be scrutinized. FSU plays Duke on Saturday in the ACC championship game and at 5 p.m. on Monday the Heisman Trophy Trust will close the voting for its annual award.
After Duke, and after an emotional month, Antonor and the Winston family are very much looking forward to the trip to New York next weekend for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. (The top finalists are all invited.) The same values that helped shape Jameis’ innate talent as a youngster — the Winstons’ tight family bond — have helped Antonor and his wife Loretta stay strong through their son’s ordeal.
“The grace of God, that’s how we kept it together,” Antonor said. “And we trusted in our own selves.”
That circle of trust includes the Allen family. Fred Allen is the finance director of Landers McLarty Dodge, a car dealership in Bessemer. His daughter, Breion Allen, plays basketball at Rice University and is Jameis’ longtime girlfriend.
“I already knew,” Fred Allen said on Thursday a few minutes after Meggs announced Jameis would not be charged. “I know him, so. Just with him doing that, it was like, you know, I got a daughter, too, so you never want to say…hey, but I knew he didn’t do it based on the conversations I had with my daughter.
“He said, ‘Nah, I didn’t do nothing wrong.’ As far as the boyfriend-girlfriend thing go, maybe, but they’re straight now. There ain’t no problems.”
Jameis and Breion started dating after their junior years in high school. Breion attended Hoover High, which is a prominent school not far away from Bessemer. When it was time for Breion to move to Texas, Jameis drove Breion’s truck 12 hours straight and then helped Fred move his daughter into her new dorm.
“I know they care about each other and it’s obvious, so I wish them well,” Allen said. “Right now he’s suffering from success a little bit, just with his name and how to handle it, but when you get older you are insulated from incidents like this. So, he’ll learn, and it will work out for the best.”
Fred Allen’s cousin, Sean Jackson, was a tailback for the Seminoles in the 1990s. He played when Warrick Dunn was the star running back. Fred is planning to take his 12-year-old son, Cole, to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., for the BCS National Championship if FSU defeats Duke on Saturday. He said Breion is planning to attend the Heisman Trophy ceremony with Jameis.
“He’s a great kid,” Allen said. “Humorous. Humble. Goofy. He’s a good kid…He’s my daughter’s boyfriend and they ain’t married, so even though he’s popular, it don’t mean nothing. He treats my daughter nice and right, other than this.”
Antonor said he never spoke with Jameis about the night of Dec. 7, 2012, and said he didn’t see the point.
“I’ve been with my son all his life, so I knew he was innocent,” Antonor said.
But not infallible. Stealing soda at Burger King, an incident that was reported to police and publicized recently, was an act of immaturity by Jameis, Antonor said. His role in a BB gun incident — some windows were shot out near Doak Campbell Stadium and Jameis and other team members were questioned — simply involved an act of loyalty.
“He did it in Burger King,” Antonor said. “He drunk those drinks out of Burger King. He got them little cups and stole some drinks just like you and me did before.
“I’m just letting you know what he did, so I can tell you. I’m not going to say, ‘No, he didn’t do that.’ I know he didn’t tell on his teammates when the BB gun incident came up because he ain’t no snitch. He won’t tell.
“So, that was right — the BB gun incident and the Coca Cola — but ask me a question: How did I know my son didn’t rape nobody? Come on. I’m going to ask you that question. You got three kids. Wouldn’t you know if your son didn’t rape somebody? OK, then. You would know if your son didn’t rape nobody or not.”
The Winstons live in Hueytown, Ala., in a middle-class neighborhood off a winding road not far from an expansive quarry owned by Vulcan Materials Company. It’s Blue-Collar Suburbia, U.S.A. — the type of town where high-school kids hang out in the parking lot of Winn Dixie for fun and the offensive line coach of the Hueytown Golden Gophers football team treats his boys to D’s Tamales every week of the season.
Jameis ate at D’s with linemen like Blake Jones, who was Hueytown’s senior center Jameis’ junior year. Jameis and Jones played little-league baseball together and Jones still remembers the time Jameis was taking batting practice as a 9-year-old and shattered a brand new aluminum bat with the force of his swing.
In high school, Jones said Jameis “was the team’s leader from Day One.” Just like in college, Jameis was the varsity football team’s starting quarterback as a freshman.
Hueytown’s welcome sign sums up the place this way: Pride, Progress, Patriotism.
Antonor works traffic maintenance for the city of Bessemer, which is the next municipality over and an old steel-manufacturing town. To get to Bo Jackson’s Bessemer from Bobby Bowden’s Birmingham, you drive southwest through Willie Mays’ Fairfield and, now, Jameis Winston’s Hueytown.
From 4 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, Antonor drives the streets of Bessemer and fixes stop signs and traffic lights. It’s the kind of job that gives a man time to think.