During a quiet moment, Lamar Jackson finds a secluded spot in the College Football Hall of Fame and drapes himself across a set of small stairs. He starts to flip through his phone, looking just like any other teenager passing the time. Is he nervous about the week ahead?
"Nah, why would I be nervous?" Louisville's breakout star QB asks. "I'll just be happy if my name is called."
Jackson certainly looks calm and relaxed the day before the Home Depot College Football Awards in Atlanta. Those around him? Not so much. Before the show begins Thursday night, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino resorts to asking media members, "So is he going to win the Heisman?'
It is three days until the Heisman Trophy ceremony, and nobody around Jackson -- his family, Petrino, athletic director Tom Jurich and some support staff -- has any idea whether he will hold on to the lead he built over the course of the season.
The only one not sweating is Jackson. That does not change the next day, when he wakes up at 6 a.m. to fly to New York. Neither does it change during his Heisman media interviews nor on a trip with the finalists to Times Square and especially not on a bus ride through the city that evening.
When the bus pulls up to Rockefeller Center for a photo opportunity with the famous Christmas tree, the wind is gusting and the temperature hovers near 30 degrees. Jackson wears a big red jacket and starts to slip on a thin pair of black gloves.
"Look at you with those gloves!" jokes fellow Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers, who grew up in New Jersey and plays in Michigan. Peppers wears only a hooded sweatshirt, no jacket.
The cold has players scrambling to get back on the bus as quickly as possible. But Jackson has one more request.
"Group picture," Jackson says
After some grumbles from the other finalists, all the families eventually gather for one shot. Once again, even the best college football players in the country are chasing Jackson. And the sophomore's remarkable ride has only just begun.
The day starts at 9 a.m. Jackson wears khakis and a blue sweater vest over a plaid shirt. Asked how he slept before the biggest night of his life, Jackson says, "I slept great!"
At breakfast, he orders a plate full of eggs and bacon, a two-stack of pancakes and multiple cups of his favorite drink, orange juice. Never coffee. He's not a fan.
"I usually eat cereal every morning," Jackson says. His favorite is Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Jackson only gets a chance to take a few bites of his food. A swarm of fans begins a breakfast-long parade to meet the man they think will win the Heisman. Jackson signs hats and talks about having the braces on his top teeth removed to help him speak more clearly and smile more. The bottom braces remain on.
"I'm going to get them put back on eventually," Jackson says. "But I was mumbling too much with them on, so we took them off."
It's time for a walk-through at the PlayStation Theatre, where the Heisman ceremony will be held. Jackson stands alone in between rows of chairs, looking intently at all the pictures of the Heisman winners hanging around the room. The others walk around, but Jackson stays firmly planted, clearly in awe. He finds the painting of Cam Newton, which hasn't yet made its way onto the wall.
"Can you take my picture?" he asks a videographer from Louisville, handing over his phone. Jackson smiles big, then looks at the picture, unsatisfied. Not good enough. He asks for another.
The finalists gather on stage and are given detailed instructions about how the ceremony will go, from where they should sit to where the winner will give his acceptance speech. The show's producer offers the opportunity to practice at the podium but Jackson passes.
Back at the hotel later, Jackson takes a final in a course on serial murderers from Louisville's department of justice administration. Jackson learned about the likes of Ted Bundy and others.
Jackson shrugs, saying he's interested in why the killers did what they did. It's his last final of the semester, and by far the most morbid.
Jackson arrives at the hospitality suite on the 45th floor of the Marriott Marquis wearing what will become a headline-grabbing ensemble: a red blazer with black lapels and a belt and shoes combo that features cartoon eyes.
"What's the only thing you see when you look at me with my helmet on?" Jackson asks in response to a question about the shoes. "My cousin got them for me at the mall."
The jacket comes courtesy of Jessica Cushing, an assistant in the Louisville football office who helped Jackson with all his clothes for the week.
"There was a black one," Jackson says. "And then they brought this one, and I said, 'I'm getting that one.'"
He also catches eyes, specifically Charles Woodson's, for going sock-less.
"I don't wear socks with loafers!" he says.
As the ceremony quickly approaches, Jackson waits in the green room with the other finalists while guests file into the PlayStation Theatre. The audible buzz in the building is overtaken, though, when the classical hip-hop duo Black Violin begins to play Rae Sremmurd's "Black Beatles" and other hits. Jackson comments several times about how much he loves the band.
As the show begins, Jackson's mother, Felicia Jones, sits stoically -- she says she feels no nerves, even now. Van Warren, who began training Jackson at age 8, isn't as calm. When it's time for the announcement, he grips Jurich's leg as tightly as he can.
The gravity of it all begins to show on Jackson, too. As cool as he'd been all week, he admits that just before the winner is announced, his heart is racing.
And the winner is ... Lamar Jackson.
As he goes up to accept the trophy, all the emotions he has held in come flowing out in a spontaneous show of joy that betrays nearly every line written on the speech notes he's holding.
He repeatedly says, "This is crazy, man," as the former Heisman winners behind him nod and give him words of encouragement. The speech is a little more than 5 minutes long, with Jackson's genuine surprise and disbelief front and center.
When he leaves the stage, the Louisville section can finally exhale. Petrino accepts an assembly line of congratulatory handshakes, while Jones is told by one man what a great job she'd done raising her son. And Warren? "Anybody have any oxygen?" he jokes.
The clock is nearing 10 p.m. by the time Jackson gets back to the hotel, where an upgrade to a suite on the 45th floor is waiting for him.
His mom and Warren join him, as do his uncle and cousins, who made the trip up from South Florida. They order chicken wings and mozzarella sticks while Jackson poses for pictures with his snazzy outfit in the suite. He stands in the doorway to the bedroom, puts his hands in his pockets and pulls out his speech -- he'd forgotten that it was in there. But he's hung up on the quality of the pictures.
"Hold on," he says, and goes to the bathroom to fix his hair.
When he comes back, he realizes the lighting is too dim, so he goes near the windows in the front room. Not good there, either. Jackson settles on a spot closer to the door. His phone keeps ringing, and he keeps saying, "Nobody needs to be calling me right now!"
But the calls keep coming. Jackson ignores them and continues to take pictures. Jones sits at a table on the other side of the room, talking with her relatives.
"Y'all are acting like you don't want to eat these chicken wings," Warren says.
Finally, people start to dig into the food. Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield stop by to offer their congratulations. So does Johnny Manziel, who posts a picture to Instagram of the two hanging out. As usual, Johnny Football's social media presence provokes an outpouring of concern about the former A&M star. Jackson is annoyed so many people assumed the worst from that one photo.
"All he did was wish me nothing but the best, told me to enjoy college," Jackson says. "It was nothing big."
The night of celebration is contained to just the suite, exactly the way Jackson wanted it. Family and friends linger until 3 a.m. before Jackson turns in for the night.
In the morning, Jackson doesn't even make it to the buffet before a mother with a baby girl stops him.
"She's your youngest fan!" she says. The mom gives Jackson the baby to hold. The girl just stares at him. Jackson waves at her, prompting a smile. They smile together for a photo. Jackson is relieved because he says the last baby he held cried.
Jackson spends breakfast fending off people who can't believe the Heisman winner is at the same buffet they are. One woman blurts out she just has to call her father-in-law, a Louisville grad ... before wondering aloud, 'How do I call him?' She had forgotten how to dial the phone in her hand.
Jackson finally sits down to his stack of pancakes and orange juice and bows his head to pray before eating. The events of the past 24 hours have yet to sink in.
"It's still crazy, man," he says.
He talks about a key moment in his speech, when he disclosed for the first time that he also lost his great-grandmother to cancer -- on the same day his father passed away.
"That day right there was so hard," Jackson says. "But my mom, she wouldn't let me cry. I had to be strong."
Jackson manages a few bites of pancakes, leaving the fruit cup untouched. After checking his phone again (too many text messages to count), Jackson walks up to Heisman headquarters.
This morning's task: autograph 250 footballs that are waiting for him. He's surrounded by other Heisman royalty, all signing footballs too. Pete Dawkins, who won the Heisman in 1958 at Army, gives Jackson a hug and says, "Keep smiling!" Charlie Ward (Florida State, '93) and Johnny Rodgers (Nebraska, '72) quietly sign in one corner of the room.
A voice booms from the room entrance. "Good morning, my brother! You'll be signing the rest of your life!" It's 1978 Heisman winner Billy Sims (Oklahoma).
Danny Wuerffel (Florida, '96) stops signing and introduces himself. Eric Crouch (Nebraska, 2001) comes in. So do Eddie George (Ohio State, '95) and Tim Brown (Notre Dame, '87). "You sleep last night young man?" Brown asks.
"He didn't realize he had balls to sign!" George says with a laugh.
Jackson gets about three-quarters done before heading over to CBS studios, where he appears on multiple shows through the early afternoon. When Bill Cowher gets done offering him words of encouragement, Tony Gonzalez teases him and asks, "So you're going to win the Heisman twice?"
Just before the cars pull up to take him back to the hotel, Jackson sits in a green room and his phone rings. It's teammate Alphonso Carter offering some encouragement ... in the form of goat noises. Jackson laughs hysterically as Carter yells "Baaa!" into the phone. Carter's point: Jackson is the GOAT -- the greatest of all time.
Back at the hotel, Jackson goes through the freight entrance and up to the 45th floor for a tuxedo fitting for the Heisman dinner on Monday night. A row of shirts and jackets hangs from a rack near the window, with shoes of all different sizes scattered nearby. A tailor measures up Jackson and asks him to change in the bathroom. When he comes out, Jackson says he feels good in the tux, then goes to the floor-length mirror to look at the complete ensemble. Warren, wearing Jackson's No. 8 Louisville jersey, waits in the room with him. He's next.
As soon as Jackson changes back into his clothes, he walks down the hall to find some food. The surreal trip continues, as Jackson almost runs over Doug Flutie, the 1984 Heisman winner. They embrace and shake hands, and Flutie offers some familiar words: "Keep smiling!"
After a private dinner at Battery Park, Jackson is ready for bed. One more day in the greatest weekend of his life.
The morning starts with a surprise. As Jackson gets out of the car for an appearance on "The Dan Patrick Show," a reporter from TMZ with a handheld video camera stops him to ask a few questions. He asks about Manziel. Jackson brushes away the question, saying Manziel was a cool guy and that he wishes him the best.
He's asked again about Manziel by Patrick and shrugs it off like an off-balance backup linebacker. After his spot, Jackson heads to the green room, where he randomly runs into Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari. They pose for a picture. "That was exciting the other night," Calipari says.
"Yes, sir," Jackson says.
"We gotta come there next Wednesday," Calipari says about his upcoming game against Rick Pitino and the Cards. "My team is so bad right now, oh my God. I usually have Christmas before we play each other."
"I wish you well," Calipari says. "Enjoy watching you."
They shake hands and Jackson is off for a visit to the Kravis Children's Hospital at Mount Sinai on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He meets a few patients in a small studio, then heads upstairs to do a Google Hangout with other hospitals in the region. The kids may have the best questions Jackson answered all weekend.
"How much does the trophy weigh?" one asks.
"A lot more than 25 pounds," he says with a laugh.
"I wonder if you could jump over a Syracuse defender holding that trophy instead of a football," a father says. "That was an amazing play."
"Hey Lamar," another father says. "My daughter is 20 months old, but my wife says she's too young to do drills. How old were you when you first started?"
Jackson chuckles. "I was 8, so she's probably too young."
After the visit, Jackson heads back to the hotel for a quick burger and fries, then does a photo shoot wearing his red No. 8 jersey. These photos will be used to paint his Heisman portrait, ready in time for the 2017 ceremony. Jackson poses straight on, then to the left, then to the right and he's done. The iconic picture will be on the wall forever, and the shoot takes roughly five minutes.
Only a few hours remain until he is officially welcomed to the Heisman fraternity at a gala dinner inside the Marriott Marquis, Jackson's home since Friday. Jackson emerges from his suite at 5 p.m. wearing his tuxedo, phone in hand.
For an hour straight, Jackson poses for photos with event sponsors, Louisville supporters and a few fellow Heisman winners, then he's whisked away for a cocktail hour with former Heisman winners. Mike Garrett grabs him first. Jackson spends a few minutes helping the 1965 Heisman winner from USC figure out how to find the camera and take pictures on his phone.
"My wife said I have to take pictures," Garrett says. "I've got twin 12-year-old boys and they will love you."
The parade of college football royalty has only just begun, though. Desmond Howard (Michigan, '91) comes by to say hello. Gary Beban (UCLA, '67) carries over some more footballs for Jackson to sign. Rodgers strikes the Heisman pose with him. Warrick Dunn, who won the Heisman Humanitarian Award a few years ago, shakes his hand and says, "You're tall. And skinny!"
Archie Griffin (Ohio State, '74 and '75) is next, and he sits down on a chair next to Jackson and leans forward so no one can hear. They sit that way for a while before Griffin leaves. Perhaps he offered words of advice about trying to repeat as a Heisman winner? "Nah," Jackson says, without going into any detail.
Troy Smith (Ohio State, '06) appears. "Welcome to the family!" he says. They embrace. Smith is being honored for the 10th anniversary of his Heisman season, and he has the line of the night later on.
Before that happens, though, the 15 former Heisman winners in attendance pose for a group picture with Jackson and the trophy.
"Say Lamar!" the photographer says.
Dinner is about to begin. Nearly 1,000 people sit in a giant ballroom, and the Syracuse marching band is there to provide the music. The former Heisman winners file in to take their seats on the dais. Jackson joins Petrino, Jurich and several others at a long table on stage.
When it's time for Smith to talk, he discusses making the right choices and hard lessons learned when mistakes are made. Then he turns his attention to Jackson.
"You deserve this award." Smith says, sharing a story about watching the Florida State game with a chicken wing in one hand and his daughter on his other knee. "He made a play, and I popped my daughter off my knee and dropped my chicken wing," Smith says.
Everyone in the ballroom laughs.
Jurich gets a turn, and so does Petrino. Jackson goes up to the podium to talk one final time. He credits his mother, his coaches, his teammates and the Heisman winners around him. He finishes, then shakes the hand of every Heisman winner.
In a few moments, he's offstage with Petrino. They've got a midnight flight home to catch. Bowl practice begins Wednesday, and the actual Heisman Trophy will arrive soon after.
Jackson said in his speech that he was going to keep it at his mom's house, but Felicia has other plans. She doesn't want to take any chances with it at the house, so she proposes putting it in a vault.
Jackson doesn't object. He still can't wipe that "This is crazy, man" look off his face.