Joe Burrow’s gridiron journey has taken him from playing high school football in the local stadium that now bears his name to ultimately calling signals in one of the most-watched sporting events on the global stage — the Super Bowl.
From coming off a record-breaking collegiate season with the LSU Tigers to now playing in a virtual jungle, the Athens High School legend has unquestionably ‘earned his stripes’ as he continues his meteoric rise to the upper echelon of elite quarterbacks in the National Football League.
It’s the ‘Who Dey Jungle’ of Cincinnati’s recently renamed Paycor Stadium that the Bengals star quarterback now calls home, but it was in his adopted hometown of Athens where Burrow first became a household name in Ohio, grabbing the attention of college recruiters and media alike.
In between his record-setting stint at AHS and Cincinnati came an impressive and history-making stop in Death Valley — home of the LSU Tigers deep in the heart of Cajun Country.
Burrow’s collegiate stint came complete with both national acclaim and two dates with destiny. One saw him earn the Heisman Trophy, awarded annually to the most outstanding player in college football, and the other nabbed him a National Championship ring three years ago when LSU trounced Clemson, 42-25, to earn the SEC school only its fourth national title in history.
So while Burrow may only be 25, he’s accomplished feats most athletes can only dream of achieving.
It was in Baton Rouge that the quarterback honed the skills he learned as a starter for AHS to become a sought-after property in the NFL.
Despite the fame and irregardless of the glory that are attached to such honors, Burrow has remained what he has always been.
Cool, calm and collected both on the field and off.
Grounded and confident in both who he is and his abilities.
That hasn’t changed in all his years says someone who probably knows him better than anyone else in the world.
In fact, Joe’s mother, Robin Burrow, said about the only thing that did change for her son was the position he wanted to play.
“When he first started youth football, he wanted to be a wide receiver or running back. He wanted to be the person scoring touchdowns more than anything,” she said. Instead, “He did what the coach wanted him to do.”
The rest is history.
It, perhaps, makes one wonder how the trajectory of Burrow’s career might have been different had he suited up in another position, though either way, Robin thinks he would have been successful.
“I always thought Joe could accomplish anything he set his mind to....Always,” Robin said.
And the numbers don’t lie.
Burrow led Athens High School to three consecutive playoff appearances from 2011-14 and passed for 11,416 yards with 157 passing touchdowns during his years in The Plains.
Additionally, he rushed for 2,067 yards with 27 TDs on the ground while in high school en route to being named Ohio’s Mr. Football in 2014.
His college stats were equally as impressive.
In a collegiate career that saw Burrow first play a total of 10 games in two seasons at The Ohio State University and two full seasons at LSU, he passed for 8,852 yards and 78 touchdowns.
The signal caller’s final year at LSU saw him post an astronomical passer rating of 202.0 and earned him the Heisman Trophy in the largest margin of victory in the history of the award. He left Death Valley with a boatload of other awards, including the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, given annually to the nation’s top upperclassman quarterback.
Flash forward to the pros, where the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft immediately picked up where he left off in the collegiate ranks.
Burrow has already thrown for 47 regular-season touchdowns and 7,299 yards. He already holds the Bengals franchise records for passer rating, completion percentage and single-game passing yards.
Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Burrow hasn’t even played two full seasons in the NFL.
His rookie season was cut unceremoniously short after tearing both his ACL and MCL in his left knee in a Week 11 tilt against the-then named Washington Football Team.
Burrow didn’t let that injury curtail him for long, though, as his 2021 season with the Bengals was not only one for the record books, but one for the ages, too.
Last season’s Bengals’ playoff run, which culminated in their appearance in Super Bowl LVI, means he is already tied with legendary Cincinnati signal caller Boomer Esiason for post-season wins for the team.
Looking at the Big Picture
While Joe may not have been on the receiving end of the passes he once wanted to catch, his quarterback statistics in just two seasons with the Bengals indicate that he’s on track to becoming one of the most prolific players to ever play the game.
That’s something that is not lost on Conor Orr.
Orr, who authored the Sports Illustrated Fall Football Preview feature story in the issue in which Burrow appears on the cover, sees only great things ahead for Burrow.
“What we saw from his senior year at LSU to now is the birth of a new, generationally talented football player,” said Orr, adding that he genuinely believes that Joe is on the same level as Hall of Famer Peyton Manning as far as his skillset goes.
“He’s controlled a really sophisticated offense that’s difficult to execute,” Orr continued, adding, that while the Bengals were a talented team last season, Burrow was the cog that pushed the squad to glory.
Looking at the big picture and the weak offensive line the Bengals had last season Orr feels that “....without Burrow, they weren’t going to the Super Bowl. He was single-handedly digging them out of these games.”
Orr predicts another contending season for the Bengals. He notes that a reorganized O-line — highlighted by the off-season signing of former Dallas Cowboys’ offensive lineman La’el Collins should not only strengthen that team’s glaring deficiency, but should also protect Cincy’s prized quarterback from the kind of harmful hits that can prematurely end a player’s career.
Collins takes his new role with the Bengals so seriously that he touted to Burrow that “Your new bodyguard has arrived” in a video statement released by the team after his signing last March.
“I think their secondary is excellent and they have three of the 10 best safeties in the league,” Orr said, adding that “They’re going to do things on defense that other teams won’t have an answer to.”
It all starts with Joe, though.
“As Joe grows in this offense, he’s so smart and so dialed in that he’s going to put this on himself and put his own stamp on that offense,” Orr said.
The veteran sportswriter added that Burrow has certain abilities others in the position sometimes lack and those qualities only serve to make him a threat to teams for years to come.
“Do you have any idea how much someone would pay to have a brain that can compartmentalize things like Joe does? To be able to take that all in. It’s amazing how he’s able to digest all those life-changing moments.”
What Orr finds particularly special about Burrow, though, has nothing to do with his gridiron skillset and all to do with his mindset and how he was raised.
In doing his research for the cover story Orr said that everyone talked to him about how Joe is the real deal, he cares about the community, he never has put on a facade or changed from his basic core values.
“I started this story around January and spoke with teachers and coaches and everyone said the same thing, this is who he is, this is who he’s really always been, that’s who Joe is.” said Orr, adding that in the process of compiling his story he was intently watching him and “kind of seeing what he was all about.”
An excerpt from Orr’s cover story perfectly illustrates what stands out to the writer about the kind of person Burrow is.
Underdogs throughout their playoff run, a popular phrase tossed around Cincinnati played up that status and Burrow didn’t particularly like it.
“Perhaps one of Burrow’s most memorable messages to the team throughout the entire season was to dismiss the rallying cry that Bengals fans had adopted during the run: “Why not us?” Burrow thought it was too suggestive of an underdog, a team that was less than. He didn’t see the Bengals that way.”
Orr said that Burrow’s disdain for that underdog status last year exemplifies who the captain is — one who looks at the strength of his team, rather than on concentrating on what may perceived to be his squad’s deficiencies.
A sort of glass half full, as opposed to half-empty mentality, one that should serve this year’s Cincinnati team well as it looks to repeat as conference champs.
It’s not lost on Orr that teams that lose in the Super Bowl one year often struggle to return to the Big Game in the next season. But any mention of a Super Bowl hangover simply doesn’t apply to these Bengals.
In reality, with the improvements made to the team during the off season, not to mention the experience the veteran Bengals now have under their belt, Orr definitely sees this incarnation of the squad continuing to be a threat this year.
“Joe kind of makes me think that’s possible, he doesn’t buy into the Super Bowl hangover effect,” Orr said.
That exemplifies who Burrow is — never an underdog, always a warrior.
Orr’s conclusions after spending endless months with Burrow were that “he really takes that stuff personally....that’s kind of what he’s all about” when it comes to Athens and his love for the community that has not only embraced him as their own, but supported him every step of the way.
And Burrow’s AHS quarterback coach and offensive coordinator would concur with those assessments of his star signal caller.
Nathan White, who is now the Bulldogs’ head football coach, said that while Burrow’s game has evolved over the years, the core of who Burrow is hasn’t changed at all.
“Joe loved the game,” White said referring to the QB’s time at AHS. “He loved the grind and committed himself every day to becoming a better quarterback. I think it’s pretty evident that his love and commitment to the game hasn’t changed.”
White added that he is not only proud of Burrow, but also not surprised with his accomplishments.
“Joe has accomplished some amazing things and has wowed everyone across the country, but these accomplishments have not been a surprise to those who coached and played with him. We saw it from the beginning. After the first few days of his sophomore year, I knew he was different than anyone else I had ever coached or been around in the game of football,” White said.
While those who are close to Burrow or have met the iconic QB all concur that he hasn’t let superstardom in the sports stratosphere change who he is, there are things about being in the public spotlight that have changed how he lives his life.
Just ask Joe, he will tell you.
“I’ve become more aware of how my words affect people. I wasn’t super dialed in on how a platform can enact change,” Joe said in an exclusive interview with The Athens Messenger from Bengals training camp last week.
“I’m more aware of social media now,” he said.
How Burrow has chosen to enact change is by helping those less fortunate in Southeastern Ohio through the Athens County Food Pantry’s creation of the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund. (see related story)
“It started out for me just seeing a lot of struggling people growing up,” he said in reference to the fund that assists area residents dealing with food insecurity issues.
Burrow admits that it can be very difficult to balance both his public persona and his private life, but he tries to find a healthy medium.
“It’s very difficult, especially with the level that I’ve reached now,” Burrow said. “I’m very cognizant about it. I want my private life to be my private life and my family understands that. I think everyone’s been handling it well.”
Burrow has also been able to handle both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat with equal aplomb and acceptance.
Having come up on the short end of both a state high school championship game and a Super Bowl, he knows that the only way to get to that highest plateau in the game is to focus on the future.
With that in mind, Burrow is excited about this year’s Bengals.
“Expectations are high inside the building, we have a revamped O-line and we’re excited about that,” Burrow said, adding that the team has moved on from their three-point loss in the Super Bowl and is focused on what they can do this season.
“We know what it takes to get there, we’ve been there and have that experience,” he said.
Burrow has not let a recent appendectomy derail his plans, either.
“I’m getting back to where I was,” Burrow said, adding that he has regained his strength, put lost weight back on and “is ready to go. We’re ready for Pittsburgh.”
That’s music to the ears of “Who Dey Nation” who are anticipating nothing less than the Bengals reaching the Promised Land and Burrow getting to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Glendale, AZ, next February.
That all starts Sunday when the Bengals take on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Burrow said he feeds off the enthusiasm of the fans, especially those Athenians who have supported him for more than 10 years now.
“The fact that people here have followed me from youth sports all the way to high school and beyond...It means the world to me. I’m forever grateful.”
It almost could be said that the game was in his blood, that it was part of his DNA and that he was destined for the accolades he has received in his gridiron career.
Born in Ames, Iowa, Burrow’s father, Jimmy, was a former football player and coach. The Burrows ended up in Athens when Jimmy was named the defensive coordinator at Ohio University in 2005.
Other members of his family also excelled in collegiate sports, his paternal grandfather and grandmother in basketball, his uncle played football for the University of Mississippi and Joe’s two older brothers were on the University of Nebraska gridiron squad.
Despite such an impressive family lineage, Joe has never taken his ability or success for granted.
And those who say that the success Burrow has had hasn’t changed the QB seem to be right.
Just Ask Joe.
“I haven’t changed. My life has changed, but underneath, deep down, I’m the same old guy I used to be. I’m just Joe.”
As evidence of the humble persona that has endeared him to millions , Burrow chuckles when questioned about whether a cutline on the recent SI cover describing the quarterback as “Ultra Cool” is ultimately true.
“I don’t know about that, but I’ll take it.”