‘It’s the people’: Why Joe Burrow’s connection to Ohio means more than ever ahead of NFL Draft

Joe Burrow played at two powerhouse college football programs in Ohio State and LSU — winning the Heisman Trophy and a national championship at the latter — and is projected to be selected No. 1 in the 2020 NFL Draft on Thursday.

Despite all those accomplishments, it’s Burrow’s connection to southeast Ohio that continues to define the quarterback’s legacy. He showed that again this week by reaching out to Lowe’s employees in Athens, Ohio for a series of video chats. For Burrow, it’s the close-to-home-call that still means the most.

“It’s people like the people that I played against and played with in high school,” Burrow told Sporting News. “There is just a certain toughness about this area of the state and the country. It’s a unique area that not a lot of people get to experience. People always ask me, ‘What was it like growing up in Athens?’ I don’t know what to tell them.”

Burrow stops for a second, then finds his go-to answer.

“It’s the people,” he said. “They are so loyal and so willing to give. I just want to repay as many people as I can from this area who helped me get to this moment.”

As I look forward to getting a call I’ll never forget later this week, I wanted to call a few special people at @loweshomeimprovement in my hometown to thank them for everything they do for our community, staying strong in good times and bad. It’s hardworking folks like these who make me so proud to be from Athens, OH #HomeUnitesUs #LowesPartner

A post shared by Joe Burrow (@joe_burrow10) on

That’s not just a line; Burrow lives by the message. The spread of COVID-19 has led to a shelter-in-place order in Ohio. Burrow has stayed home in Athens for the past month to prepare for the NFL Draft, and he encouraged residents to stay home.

On Monday, he took time out again to speak with Lowe’s employees in the area. Burrow talked about one conversation in particular with Jason Lowery, a military veteran, single father and nearby Glouster native. For Burrow, however, Lowery is another member of that southeast Ohio family.

“He told me stories about when he watched me in high school with his sons,” Burrow said. “I think it brightened his day a little bit, and it definitely brightened mine.”

Burrow’s name pops up frequently in Ohio, given the possibility the Bengals might use their No. 1 pick to draft him. That’s the next stop in a journey that started at Athens High School, where he compiled a 37-4 record as a starter from 2012-14. He passed for 63 touchdowns and just two interceptions in 2014, leading the Bulldogs to the Division III state championship game.

Burrow won the Mr. Football Award — an award he unapologetically compares to the Heisman Trophy he won at LSU in 2019. He recalls the looks he saw at media day for the College Football Playoff championship game on Jan. 11 when he reflected on that high school career.

“Some of the people were probably like, ‘What is this guy talking about? Why is he talking about his high school team and a state championship?'” Burrow said. “But it did mean that much to me. It’s like that when you have really, really good teams — the ones that can win championships. It just feels different. It’s hard to explain, but it felt the exact same in a different place (at LSU). It all felt the same.”

Burrow transferred from Ohio State after the 2018 season and, after an up-and-down first season at LSU, took off to college football stardom with the help of passing game coordinator Joe Brady, hired by Orgeron from the Saints. Burrow led LSU to a 15-0 record with 5,671 passing yards and 60 passing touchdowns to six interceptions. He broke several FBS single-season records and had an unforgettable two-game run in the College Football Playoff where he accounted for 1,035 total yards of offense.

“That led Joe Burreaux” to becoming a celebrity in Baton Rouge, La. He credits the ability to make that transition away from home to his high school days in Athens. It wasn’t just about being a small-town quarterback.

“Our school was very diverse,” he said. “Not so much racially but socioeconomically. I got a lot of practice connecting to a lot of different people, and that helped me on my journey. As a quarterback, you have to be the leader. You have to be able to connect, and I got practice with that at a very young age.”

That socioeconomic conscience prompted Burrow to focus on southeast Ohio — and the need to help others — in his Heisman Trophy speech. More than $500,000 in donations poured into the Athens County Food Pantry afterward. For Burrow, that was validation in terms of knowing his fan base.

“I thought it showed exactly what I thought about this area and the area I was playing in,” Burrow said. “Most of the donations came from people from this area who were financially able or people from Louisiana. It kind of validated what I thought about both areas. I have so much love for people for both areas.”

That’s what makes Burrow one of the more interesting franchise quarterbacks in recent memory.

He is beloved by Ohio State fans despite never starting a game there. He’s a cult hero at LSU on the level of Billy Cannon. He’ll be a franchise quarterback at the next level, tasked with leading a team to the Super Bowl next.

Burrow will go to that next stop with the same approach that made him successful from the start.

“Wherever you go, people are going to respect people that are loyal and people that work really, really hard,” Burrow said. “Those are two things that I have always prided myself on. People gravitate toward that. I think that kind of connects all of us.

Burrow plans on keeping that connection in Athens, no matter where he lands in the NFL. That legacy figures to grow with each season, too.

“We have some things I’ve been thinking about to give back to people in the area,” Burrow said. “Obviously, there are donations that can be made, but things that are made impactful when I’m able to spend time with people in the area. The more I can do that, the more fulfilling this will be.”

Burrow partnered with Lowe’s, who is using the 2020 NFL Draft to launch a new campaign dedicated to the 300,000 associates that serve their communities. “I think it is great what they are doing,” Burrow said. “I hope everyone appreciates it as much as me and my family do. I just wanted to show them some gratitude.”

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