The 7-year-old boy was dying of cancer. A hospital administrator, Sarah Hill, with ties to Florida State, blindly reached out to Jameis Winston on Twitter one Friday afternoon in November. Seminoles tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Tim Brewster helped alert Winston to the message as the Bucs rookie quarterback sat at his Tampa home. Time was running out. "@Jaboowins we have a 7 year old boy at our hospital dying from cancer and his dream is to FaceTime w/u. If u can help reply or PM please." Hill tweeted. Within three hours of the plea, Winston had responded and was attempting to FaceTime with the young cancer patient and FSU fan. "So I'm waiting," Winston said. "Next thing you know I hear a knock at the door and Kwon Alexander is coming in my house, and I was like, 'This is great. This is going to make this kid's day.' I got me, Kwon, and we had Rannell Hall as well. It was like he was about to meet basically the Bucs' team. He's about to feel like one of us. "He's a huge Florida State fan. It's just some motivation. A kid is lying on his deathbed and all he wants to do is just talk to me, just say hey. He didn't say much, but I could just feel the room just light up and I know he was happy, and that's all that mattered to me, that he was happy and he got what he wanted." Hill, a system manager of Palliative Care Initiatives for Ascension Health, declined to identify the child or even the hospital, citing privacy rules. But she left no mystery as to how she felt about Winston. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart @Jaboowins for your help with our terminal cancer child. You are a wonderful man," she tweeted.
Seven months ago, Winston was the most scrutinized No. 1 overall pick in the history of the NFL draft. Detractors warned of enormous character flaws that would dwarf his considerable talent.
Though investigations by the State Attorney's Office in Tallahassee and Florida State found there was not enough credible evidence to pursue charges of sexual assault levied against him by fellow student Erica Kinsman, who had an encounter with Winston when he was a freshman in 2012, the rancor continued. He still faces a civil suit filed by Kinsman and set to be heard in 2017.
At the very minimum, questions persisted about several other incidents involving Winston at FSU — shooting BB guns, stealing soda at a Burger King, standing on a table inside the school's student union and repeating an obscene phrase, and walking out of a Publix in without paying for crab legs.
But with five regular-season games remaining in his rookie season, Winston has done a credible job of beginning to erase perceptions that might have existed outside of One Buc Place about his potential on and off the field.
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Winston is arguably the favorite for the NFL's rookie of the year award after leading his team to a 5-6 record and passing for 2,650 yards with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. But he has been an impact player for the Tampa Bay community, as well.
Receiver Vincent Jackson, who was named the team's "man of the year" for the third straight time and is eligible for the Walter Payton Award, took a wait-and-see approach with Winston.
"Obviously, I didn't know the guy when he got here," Jackson said. "All I knew was that he was a great football player, this and that.
"First of all, he impressed me the way he carries himself as a professional who works at his craft. But you can tell with the off-the-field stuff, in the community, anything the organization asks him to do, he's happy to do it. He's always saying yes. He understands his role as the face of the franchise, being in that position, he embraces it and obviously he's grown each and every week as a leader. He's done it the right way. Obviously, that's the only way you're going to gain respect in the locker room. You do it. You work."
And so Winston has. Before reporting to training camp, and without prompting from the Bucs, he traveled to Miami's Jackson South Hospital to visit Dwayne Mitchell, a high school senior who had been in care there since being found unresponsive by his grandmother in late May.
For a rookie quarterback, there isn't much free time. Tuesday is typically the only day off for players, but Winston meets with quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to begin reviewing the game plan.
Despite an exhaustive schedule, the 21-year-old has found time to be available to help others. In June, he had his head shaved as part of the team's Cut for a Cure to benefit Pediatric Cancer.
In July, he taped a video message to Peyton Ponder, a teenage fan who sustained a severe neck injury in an ATV accident. They connected the next month at training camp.
In August, Winston joined a group of athletes from Special Olympics Florida and remained throwing footballs long after the practice fields had cleared.
In October, upon learning a 13-year-old named T.J. was having open heart surgery at Shands at the University of Florida, Winston taped a message of encouragement hours before the surgery. He later presented him and his family tickets and field passes to a game against the Giants.
None of those efforts includes his participation with the Bucs' Rookie Club, which has visited the James A. Haley VA Hospital, gone bowling for Tampa Fire Rescue, served lunch to the homeless at Trinity Cafe, spent time with children at a fall festival for Metropolitan Ministries and hosted a Play 60 celebration for Pinellas Park Middle School. On Tuesday, the group will visit All Children's Hospital to greet kids battling illness during the holidays.
Winston approaches his charitable appearances with the same energy and enthusiasm as he does first-and-goal situations.
"Just talking about the NFL and what the NFL stands for, just being able to interact with the people outside just your team," Winston said. "I mean, you can change lives. You think about how the fans are so important to this game of football. Getting those guys involved, it can basically set the perception of you.
"With these kids, man, my dream was to be able to talk to a pro football player when I was growing up. So I'm just doing them a favor, it's important because I have a little brother and anybody I can help, I try."
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Away from One Buc Place, Winston's biggest influence has been Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks. The two try to have dinner one night each week and remain in close contact.
Winston is quick to recall the best advice he has received from the former Bucs and FSU great.
"Being a better man will make you a better football player," Winston said. "But being a better football player won't make you a better man."
Winston spent one Tuesday afternoon last month interacting with students at Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School. He exchanges weekly messages with co-founder Eddie DeBartolo, the five-time Super Bowl champion former owner of the 49ers.
"I shared with him my ending with the Bucs in February of 2009," Brooks, 42, said. "The healing process began with people being more complimentary of Derrick Brooks than the No. 55. People are going to build you up and look at the football stuff. But Jameis Winston the young man is first and foremost. That's you. When your career is over, you can't divorce that guy. That's the hard thing. You've got to keep them separate."
Winston said he eventually will have a foundation to help those with childhood diabetes, but per Brooks' advice, he's not rushing it. Brooks' impact began with giving two tickets to underprivileged kids and 14 years later that developed into a high school and Derrick Brooks' Charities.
But Winston says he cares about the perception fans have of him and is doing everything he can to change it.
"Time. That just comes with time," Winston said. "That's all."
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected]tampabay.com and listen from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620. View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs.