By Chris Emma—

(CBS) Overcome with emotion, Devin Hester broke down to tears. The only NFL head coach he had known, Lovie Smith, had just been fired by the Bears.

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Expressing his great disappointment to the assembled media on New Year’s Eve in 2012, Hester even suggested he would consider retirement. Smith was the man who believed in him. Hester flourished into an NFL superstar returner under Smith’s watchful eye.

“That situation goes so deep because he was the first coach who took a chance on me coming out of college in Miami,” Hester told reporters that day. “From that point, I just had so much respect for him. I’m a loyal guy, man. He’ll always be one of my favorite coaches.”

There are countless stories of Lovie loyalty from his former players. Few coaches at the professional level are able to have that profound impact of Smith.

Smith serves as a father figure, devoted to his players. Disappoint, and he’ll react as a devastated parent. His influence is real – something his players stand by.

When Jameis Winston entered the NFL as the extraordinarily talented top pick with character questions coming out of Florida State, many teams had decided to not even give him a look leading up to the draft. Smith did diligent research by consulting various connections close to Winston and made the decision he would welcome in the jovial quarterback.

“I just love everything about Jameis Winston,” Smith said Wednesday.

Concerns of Winston’s character entering the NFL Draft would form a long list. He was accused of sexual assault during his Heisman Trophy season of 2013, with that investigation later being dropped in February 2014. Needing to show himself in a better light, he was later cited for shoplifting crab legs from a local Tallahassee supermarket. Then, in his final season with Florida State, he was suspended for a game after yelling an obscene phrase at a public setting on campus.

As a rookie with the Buccaneers, Winston has become a team leader. His enthusiastic approach resonates with veteran teammates because he’s brought character with that, too.

Winston is open in crediting Smith for his maturation.

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“Without question, I probably wouldn’t be where I am as far as the mental capacity and what it takes to be a true professional in this league,” Winston said. “The way he treats us as players and the way he holds us accountable for everything, it really teaches you how to be a great man.”

Smith knew what he was getting into in drafting Smith. Now in his second season with Tampa Bay – what he referred to as a dream job – Smith needed some talent on his team. While Winston was a surefire first-round pick and realized by many to be the No. 1 prospect of the draft, those character questions stood in the way of his natural talent.

After accepting Winston as his choice for that No. 1 pick, Smith became a mentor for Winston.

“Everything that he says is a teaching moment,” Winston said of Smith. “It’s like a walking teaching tape.”

Winston has thrown for 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this season, recording 3,422 yards in 14 games. He’s done an admirable job in bringing the Bucs production on offense, taking them from drafting the top pick to competing for a playoff spot up until last week. This Sunday, Winston will lead the Bucs against Smith’s former team, the Bears.

In order to become a more complete player, Winston must limit his turnovers and become a better decision maker, something he has improved in recent weeks. The arrow appears to be pointing up for Winston’s future in Tampa Bay.

But Winston has answered his greatest questions as a rookie, proving himself worthy as the face of a franchise. He can thank the guidance of Smith – like so many others before him.

“We wanted a certain type of guy to be the leader of our team,” Smith said of Winston. “He’s been everything we could’ve asked for and more.”

Chris Emma covers the Chicago sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.  

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