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Even at home, Jameis Winston creates friction

At Hueytown High, Winston was known as a bright, athletic kid who had what some called a cocky streak.
At Hueytown High, Winston was known as a bright, athletic kid who had what some called a cocky streak.
Published May 15, 2015

HUEYTOWN, Ala.

Ellis McFerrin arrives well before the first pitch and unfolds his red lawn chair along the home team's side at Hueytown High School. • McFerrin has spent all of his 70 years in Hueytown, a place so sports-crazed that a football and baseball adorn its city seal. He has been coming to games for decades, long enough to marvel when Bo Jackson tracked down balls in centerfield. • So take a seat on the hot metal bleachers and ask the man with the Hueytown H on his purple cap about the other once-in-a-lifetime player who came through here, the two-sport star who brought ESPN and Nick Saban to this dot on the map 20 miles southwest of Birmingham. • Ask him about Jameis Winston but be prepared for an answer you won't expect. • "Let me put it this way," McFerrin said. "I'm an Alabama fan, and I'm glad he went somewhere else."

McFerrin's opinion isn't unanimous in this mining town of almost 16,000. But it's not unique, either.

One neighbor said he wouldn't talk about Winston because he has nothing good to say about the likely No. 1 overall pick by the Bucs in next week's NFL draft. But Winston's high school principal adores the former Florida State quarterback so much that she rooted for him to do well against her Auburn Tigers in the 2013 national title game.

To some here, feelings toward the 21-year-old Winston get tangled in subtle tension about race and class. Others get caught up in college football loyalties and small-town rivalries or the blurry lines between confidence and arrogance, talent and trouble.

Spend a few days in Hueytown and you'll see snapshots of a complicated relationship between a quiet community tucked into Alabama's rolling hills and its would-be hometown hero, the presumptive future face of the Buccaneers.

"You have to jump in his Nikes," said his high school trainer Otis Leverette, "to know why he had a chip on his shoulder."

And you have to stick those cleats in the rich red dirt, on the 5-mile road between the town where Winston was born and where the most polarizing man in football became a star.

The changes happen slowly between Bessemer and Hueytown.

The homes get bigger. The lawns look greener. Instead of broken plastic furniture on the front porch, you see a child's car — and it's a BMW.

More than 70 percent of Bessemer's 27,000 residents are black. Almost a third fall below the poverty line. Before Winston was born here, it was known as the birthplace of Bo Jackson, the Bucs' No. 1 overall pick in 1986 who refused to sign with the team.

Hueytown is smaller, richer and whiter. Its median household income is $42,000 — 45 percent more than neighboring Bessemer. Before Winston grew up here, it was known as the hometown of NASCAR's Allison brothers.

Winston wasn't even in elementary school when his family moved to Hueytown. They settled into a modest home, where a dog barks at the cracked doorbell. Cul-de-sacs rest on both ends of a quiet street that wants to stay that way.

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"Some people like (Hueytown) to be a small town nobody knows about," said Ricky Rabb, a high school teammate and one of Winston's closest friends. "They don't want it to get big."

And nothing about Winston has ever been small.

He was breaking down defenses in middle school and grabbed the high school's starting quarterback job as a freshman. He ran as well as he threw and was so electric that Jaden Steele's face still lights up when he thinks about the high five they exchanged years ago.

"He could do anything," said Steele, a freshman quarterback at Hueytown High. "I used to want to be like him when I was a kid."

Winston spent some of his rare downtime traveling 30 miles each way to train with Leverette at Sports Blast, an indoor athletic complex southeast of downtown Birmingham.

He had the physical tools but impressed Leverette most with his mind. Winston was the rare teenager who would not only notice if Leverette ever mixed up his instructions — he'd call the former NFL veteran on it.

"(If) you have all the physical gifts, you don't learn the chess of the game," said Leverette, who spent four years as a defensive end in Washington, San Diego and San Francisco. "He knew the chess early on."

He was bright away from the field, too. Winston carried a 4.0 GPA, made up the assignments he missed during recruiting trips and was named one of the country's top African-American scholar-athletes.

He joked in the hallways and once put a dead roach in a teammate's compression shirt for a laugh. If teachers had bad things to say about him, his principal never heard them. The faculty named him one of their senior standouts.

By his senior year, Winston filled the stands at the 1,000-student school and led Hueytown's Golden Gophers to the state semifinals. He won MVP honors at the star-studded Under Armour All-America Game at Tropicana Field.

But for some, it wasn't enough.

"He has some people who don't like him in Hueytown," Rabb said, "and he has some people that love him."

Some of them have never gotten over that 5-mile move from one world to another. Rabb said Winston is beloved in Bessemer, but some in Hueytown still consider him an outsider in a community where roots run generations deep. FSU listed Winston's hometown as Bessemer — not Hueytown.

Rabb and his teammates heard the cheers from the sidelines, but they heard the jeers, too. It's hard to say how much of the tension came because Winston was one of the first black quarterbacks in school history, but it's naive to assume it didn't matter to some in a town that's 70 percent white.

"There are some people that may not be as progressive in their thinking as you and I, that made things uncomfortable," Leverette said. "That kid went through a lot that a lot of kids his age didn't have to endure. I have a problem with people who poke a tiger, man, and wonder why the hell their arm is missing."

Rabb guesses that 99 percent of the town likes Winston, but "it's a real vocal 1 percent" that doesn't, for whatever reason.

Consider McFerrin part of the 1 percent.

He said he doesn't have a problem with Bessemer or African-Americans; he raves about Jackson, even though he won the Heisman Trophy for rival Auburn. But McFerrin objected to Winston's attitude — the way he carried himself in the huddle and erupted on the sideline when games soured.

"I'm not saying that he was a bad kid," McFerrin said. "I'm just saying the bringing up and him in the limelight sort of made him think he could do whatever he wanted to do and get by with it."

Where McFerrin remembers arrogance, high school principal Dr. Gayle Gober recalls a confidence that's often missing in teenagers. Yes, Winston was fiery, with the passion as an underclassman to jump on a senior for a mistake. But he didn't speak out for himself — he did it because he wanted to help his team win.

"He handled himself well under the scrutiny he was under," Gober said. "Quite frankly, if I were a 16-year-old and I had every school in the nation looking at me, I may be perceived as a little cocky myself."

The feelings have only deepened here since Winston left.

He won a national title and a Heisman, not for his home-state Tigers or Crimson Tide but at FSU, 300 miles southeast. Then came the five police calls in a year and a half for incidents ranging from BB gun horseplay to a rape accusation. When the negative spotlight turned to Winston, some believe he dragged his hometown into it, too.

"That's a term people use — he's making Hueytown look bad," said Rabb, who volunteers as an assistant coach at the high school. "But before he came to Hueytown, who were we?"

When Hueytown and Bessemer honored him over the summer with Jameis Winston Day, some residents publicly questioned the move. One wrote on the Police Department's Facebook page that "he needs to be honored with handcuffs and a jail cell," even though he was never arrested after multiple investigations.

"Send him back to Bessemer," another wrote. "That's who he claims as his hometown."

But a few hundred people still showed up to the ceremony at his old stadium. Winston hugged his former principal and hung around long enough to meet everyone who lingered.

The school retired his No. 8 jersey and displays it in the trophy case, next to a plaque detailing dozens of his accolades. Gober even keeps two signed pictures of Winston in her office, around the corner from a photo of Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium.

"With my 21 years of experience, I've seen great kids make mistakes as they're maturing and growing up," Gober said. "I kind of look beyond that. If we can learn from those mistakes and move forward and grow from them, I think we can be successful. I think Jameis definitely has the potential to do that."

The Bucs will be counting on it, if they make him the No. 1 overall pick with a $25 million contract. Regardless of what they decide, residents here can't avoid the link between their community and the most polarizing man in football.

His name popped up last month in Bessemer, at a downtown diner covered in 'Bama and Auburn gear. The lunch crowd filed in for okra and sweet tea as ESPN pundits focused on one of the most famous athletes the area has ever produced.

Should Winston be at the draft April 30 in Chicago so he can embrace his new fans and the city he will soon call home? Or should he stay back in Hueytown to be with the people who helped get him this far and made him the man he is?

The diner's manager made up his mind. He approached the counter, muted the screen, and walked away.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.