When the phone rang at my kitchen table, I had to follow the rumor wherever it led. I could never have imagined what would unfold next: That the star quarterback at Florida State University would wind up under investigation for rape. That Jameis Winston's accuser would be driven out of school. That a stream of national headlines and inescapable venom would still be following everyone involved more than a year later. "She is just not the same person she was," said the accuser's father at a campus hearing. "During this process," testified Winston, "I have learned how vicious this world can be." In my own way, so have I.
For my role in reopening a dormant investigation, Florida State fans wanted me to die of brain-eating cancer and in a car crash on my way home. They told me to jump off a bridge and get hit by a truck. They suggested I get intimate with a monkey infected with AIDS.
Read the hundreds of pages of documents about the case and you'll find enough evidence to back up whatever conclusion you want. Winston was never charged after three separate investigations. But two of them didn't fully vindicate him, either, at least not in the eyes of some.
A potential outcry will be in the minds of the Tampa Bay Bucs' front office in the coming weeks as the team weighs whether the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner is worthy of its No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, a $20 million contract and the responsibility that comes with being the face of the franchise.
Maybe after a federal investigation and a lawsuit run their course, we'll find out what really happened at that off-campus apartment on Dec. 7, 2012. Maybe we never will.
But the frenzy surrounding one of the biggest college football stories of the decade has finally eased, giving me time to process a question I've been trying to answer for 15 months:
Will any good come from all the pain?
• • •
The story moved slowly in the first few days.
Calls to police about an old rape allegation led to a case number, which led to a heavily redacted report, which celebrity news website TMZ paired with an unidentified source to break the story before I could nail it down.
The State Attorney's Office heard about it for the first time and started to investigate.
The case exploded.
A target landed on me when the accuser's family gave me an exclusive statement questioning the police's tactics and the football program's role in the case.
"Why do you have to go around digging for s--- (you) have no business in?" one student wrote. "The FSU nation is coming for u."
And it did.
Internet message boards tried to explain why the 11-month-old allegation surfaced in November 2013 as the Seminoles were finishing their decade-long climb back atop college football.
If Alabama coach Nick Saban didn't tip me off, perhaps former University of Florida coach Urban Meyer did. Or I wanted to sideline Winston so Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel could win another Heisman.
Or maybe I was sleeping with the accuser.
But the reaction went far beyond Internet conspiracy theories.
Fans bombarded my phone with more than 100 calls over a couple of weeks. I answered almost every one, never knowing if it was a legitimate tip or a prank some troll would illegally record to laugh at online.
You don't understand how persistent car dealers are until someone tells them to contact you about a new Corvette.
The University of Phoenix — or at least someone claiming to work there — heard I wanted a degree in criminal justice.
My phone number showed up in a gay personal ad on Craigslist next to a picture of a chiseled man wearing only boxer shorts and a Santa hat. One late-night response included a photo of a stranger's penis.
And it got worse.
I was covering a high school football game one night when a Twitter post popped up on my phone:
You're a marked man … Say goodbye.
My wife started worrying about me at home, so she reported it to the police and the FBI.
She spent that night combing through message boards, looking for other threats. Buried in the hundreds of vicious comments, she found a photo someone posted of the two of us. One of the trolls said our future children would be ugly.
When I called her on the drive home, she was in tears.
I didn't know what to say.
• • •
This kind of reaction can be common when covering college sports.
Reporter Sara Ganim, who chronicled the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State, told of lying tipsters in a speech she gave after winning the Pulitzer Prize for her coverage. People invited her into their homes, served her tea and spent hours telling her stories that were fabrications, just to throw her offtrack.
She described covering a campus event late one night when a drunk, marching crowd of hundreds began to chant, "F--- the media." She'd interviewed murderers and rapists but had never been so scared for her life.
Reporters cover topics much more important than whether a 20-year-old can throw a fade pass or make a free throw, so why is the backlash so personal in sports?
"For many people, being a fan becomes a part of their identity," said Susan Krauss Whitbourne, who has studied fandom as a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
And college comes at a time young adults are still forming those identities on their own. Some find part of theirs at football games, where they share common experiences with 82,000 other roaring fans. A perceived attack on their college team becomes an attack on them.
Get enough fiery fans together, with alcohol at tailgating scenes or protected by the anonymity of message boards, and the mob mentality takes over.
"It is just something about being around other people who are acting that way that gets your emotions going," Whitbourne said. "People just lose their sense of right and wrong, and their perspective just disappears."
When that perspective disappears, so does productive conversation.
After the New York Times published a piece questioning whether an FSU football player was given preferential treatment in a hit-and-run accident, the story was blocked on Twitter. The social media website said an outside organization inadvertently flagged it as spam. But one editor questioned whether enough Seminoles fans marked the link as such to shut it down.
The venom is an unavoidable side effect of the job.
But unlike what happened at Penn State, the Winston case hasn't ended in a black-or-white truth. There's no conviction or clear finding of innocence to silence some of the hate.
The only obvious result of my story is the pain.
• • •
On New Year's Day 2015, after the Seminoles' attempt to win back-to-back national championships had just ended in a Rose Bowl playoff loss to Oregon, FSU fans were still roaring. Winston heard them on his way off the field. He removed his helmet and raised it to the stands, punctuating the end of one of the most storied careers in school history.
But even here, Winston couldn't escape the allegations.
Opponents began what sounded like the Seminoles' war chant. Their words to it: "No means no."
It has been more than a year since Winston's accuser had to leave the school she loved. Erica Kinsman, a Pasco County resident, has identified herself publicly and relived her story in the documentary The Hunting Ground, about sexual assaults on college campuses, that will be released in Florida this month. She has been called a cleat-chaser, a money-grabber and a whore. Fans threatened to burn down her sorority house.
"I have had my most horrible life experience played out and debated in local and national media that couldn't care less about me," she testified at a campus hearing last year into whether Winston violated the university conduct code. "More than anything, I wish I was still here with my professors and friends and my former life."
But some good things have happened because of the case.
The story made the FSU community more aware of the nuances of on-campus sexual violence. In September the university launched a kNOw MORE campaign pledging more training for its students and staff.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating FSU over its handling of the case. Its guidelines aren't clear about rape cases, which is why 90 other schools are under similar investigations. The findings that emerge will help universities across the country figure out how to protect victims without punishing the innocent.
So has the good outweighed the bad?
After 15 months of searching, I don't know yet. Maybe I never will.
But I'm still looking.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.