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The Southeast Ohio Community That Molded Joe Burrow

The Bengals star quarterback has won a national championship and a Heisman trophy and has his eyes set on the Super Bowl. The people who knew him growing up know how it happened: “Nobody instills confidence in somebody—in a whole entire team—like Joe does.”

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Nathan White lives about half a mile from Athens High School. The Ohio native was named his alma mater’s head coach in 2019 after serving as offensive coordinator for a handful of seasons. After watching the Cincinnati Bengals upset the Kansas City Chiefs a few weeks ago, one of White’s former coaches called him. The two men rendezvoused at Athens’s football field—Joe Burrow Stadium—and then began ringing a victory bell to commemorate the venue’s namesake.

“As we’re down there, there were maybe 100 cars driving by honking the horns,” White told The Ringer. “There’s fireworks going off around town at 9 o’clock at night. To say that this place is excited is an understatement.”

Athens takes pride in Burrow’s success. His wins are their wins. His success is their success. He remains loyal to them, showing pride in his home.

“Well, they helped make me who I am today,” Burrow said of the Athens community this week. “I wouldn’t be here without all the people that supported me in Athens. I’m still in contact with a lot of those people and try to help the area out in any way that I can. I hope that I’m making everybody proud.”

Burrow was born in Ames, Iowa, but “the only thing I remember about Ames is the big pillar in my basement. We had a Little Tikes basketball hoop down there.” He moved to Athens in 2005, when he was 8 years old. “To call it a city is a little bit of an overstatement,” White joked.

Athens isn’t used to this kind of success. Census estimates from 2018 revealed the overall poverty rate for Athens County is the highest in Ohio (30.6 percent, per Cleveland.com), which is part of the reason why Burrow shouted out the area in his 2019 Heisman Trophy acceptance speech. “There are so many people who don’t have a lot,” Burrow said. “I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County who go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys could be up here too.”

Burrow always believed he had the potential to be standing on that stage that night. His confidence is paired with a sense of loyalty to those who watched his ascension from small-town high school quarterback to four-star college recruit to ordinary transfer to Heisman winner and now, finally, to Super Bowl starter.

Sam Vander Ven and Adam Luehrman have known Burrow since they were in third grade. They still talk, and during the season, Burrow sometimes catches up with them over games of Rocket League, EA Sports FIFA, Halo, and Grand Theft Auto. The foundations of their friendships were built playing together on the Athens Sandlot All-Star teams. (Vander Ven remembers Burrow was a “fast center fielder” who was “a very, very, very good baseball player.”)

“I think he was less vocal back then,” Vander Ven said. “He was more of a lead by example by then. But as he’s grown up, he’s taken over a major college football program, he’s taken over an NFL franchise, that’s when you have to become more vocal. His confidence and swagger is infectious to a team.”

Burrow’s legend took off in high school. As a sophomore, Burrow became Athens’s starting quarterback. White, then the offensive coordinator, had installed a new no-huddle, up-tempo offensive scheme that was easy on everyone—except the quarterback.

“We kind of put a lot on his plate,” White said. “Really everything kind of centered around our quarterback getting us in the right play and understanding kind of what everybody else is doing. And you go into that with a sophomore and … I don’t know if worried is the word but you’re certainly throwing a whole lot at him for his first start in high school.”

But in his first start, Burrow executed as if he’d been operating the system for years, throwing three touchdowns. “That sticks out to me more than his physical abilities,” White said. “Obviously he could throw it really well. He was a great athlete. But just his command of the game after that very first one, it was just something that you don’t see a lot from seniors in high school, let alone a kid starting his first game ever as a 15-year-old.”

Burrow got only better from there. He led the Bulldogs to three league titles and a state championship appearance as a senior. Luehrman played tight end and racked up more than 1,000 career receiving yards before eventually playing at Ohio University. Vander Ven played receiver and accrued more than 800 yards in two varsity seasons. They marvel at the talent and competitiveness of those Athens squads.

“I think we embodied our area pretty well,” Vander Ven said. “It’s a pretty underprivileged, gritty area. We weren’t the biggest, we weren’t the strongest, but we were the most competitive group of kids that you could imagine. And we didn’t fear anybody and he didn’t either. And Joe was our leader behind that.”

Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of stories surrounding Burrow’s confidence. White recalls competitive seven-on-sevens when Burrow trash-talked while throwing touchdowns to junior varsity receivers matched up against varsity defenders. There was a playoff game when Burrow threw a pass and had it batted into the air, then caught it himself before bulldozing a defender and scoring. Burrow’s childhood friends describe a “confident, but not arrogant” kid. White described Burrow as having “calm confidence and swagger.” That attitude soon oozed through the entire team.

“We had Joe,” Vander Ven said. “We had a shot against everybody.”

Athens’s memorable run in Burrow’s senior year ended in defeat in the state title game. That loss—his last in a postseason game—still bothers Burrow today. His success earned him a scholarship to Ohio State after then-Buckeyes assistant Tom Herman unexpectedly identified him. Herman told Urban Meyer “I found your next Alex Smith.” Burrow never earned a chance in Columbus, however. His move to LSU gave him an opportunity to start. Ahead of his senior year, when Joe Brady was named the Tigers’ passing game coordinator, White recalled Burrow sounding a bit more excited about the season than usual.

“He usually doesn’t do the ‘get excited’ thing,” White said. “It’s just kind of like another day of work. But that spring and summer, you could tell that he was pretty excited. Like, ‘Coach, I think we’re gonna be really good. This offense is completely different.’”

The rest is history. Burrow had one of the most prolific seasons in college football history. Baton Rouge embraced the Ohio State transfer as one of their own. And through it all, he never seemed fazed by any of his success or the attention that came with it.

“I think he’s the most composed person under pressure that I’ve ever seen,” Vander Ven said. “He’s the most composed and confident person, in any moment that you have, whether it’s the national championship, whether it’s Week 2 against Rice. Nobody instills confidence in somebody—in a whole entire team—like Joe does.”


Earlier this week, Rams wideout Odell Beckham Jr. tried his best to make sense of Burrow’s appeal. He said that Burrow is “going to be one of the greats,” but that wasn’t the highest honor Beckham—an LSU alum—bestowed on Burrow.

“If you look up ‘cool’ in the dictionary,” Beckham said, “there’s a picture of [Joe] with some Cartier shades.”

There’s no stat that quantifies the belief that someone can instill in another human being. That’s part of why Burrow is so mesmerizing: Those who have spent time around him know he has the “it” factor. Everywhere Burrow has been given a real chance, the results have followed. It’s as strong a testament to his ability as a culture shifter as anything. Change, however, can be fully experienced only when those in the building believe in it and are willing to embrace it. Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan notes how Burrow’s emotional intelligence allows him to connect with people of different backgrounds.

“Joe plays a huge role in [setting the tone] and he’s the one that brings it to life,” Callahan said. “Quarterback should be the guy that carries the message and brings it to life for the team. And we’re fortunate that we have a lot of guys in there that feel the same way and work the same way. So it makes his job really easy when it comes to that. I think the best-led teams in this league and in any sport are player-led teams.”

“I think what separates teams at the top is the trust and the relationships that you build in that locker room that’ll end up carrying out onto the field,” Burrow said. “And we have great people like that, that work really hard to build those relationships within the organization.”

No doctrine exists that requires quarterbacks to be the emotional leaders of their teams, but they almost exclusively are by default because no position has such a significant impact on the outcome of games. “Quarterback is the one position that can really impact the game on every single play,” Burrow said. “So I really enjoy that part. And the second is just cultivating relationships in the locker room.”

Callahan explained that “it’s hard to quantify how we got better” other than explaining that “a bunch of guys bought in to try to be the best.” It’s cliché to suggest intangible qualities such as leadership and confidence can make such a tangible difference, but that’s exactly how members of the Bengals sum up their run. Callahan said that player agency and leadership is a “huge part and I think is a big reason why” the Bengals surprisingly won the AFC.

“When things are humming along the way you want them to, your quarterback is the driver, your messenger if he’s that type of player—not all of them are that way. But Joe certainly is,” Callahan said. “And he’s the guy that takes the messaging and applies it in the locker room and we’ve been fortunate to be surrounded with a bunch of guys that think the same on offense and on defense. And so it’s really easy for those guys to carry the message and keep the focus and work the way we work because they’re a bunch of very like-minded individuals on all sides of the ball, and Joe is certainly one of the drivers.”

Burrow’s infectious personality has heightened the excitement in his home state. Rapper Kid Cudi—whom Burrow grew up listening to—shouted Burrow out and received the Bengals QB’s game jersey from the AFC championship game. After that game, Akron native LeBron James tweeted a photo of Burrow smoking his victory cigar with LSU. Former Bengals star A.J. Green even showed support. But perhaps no Ohio native has been more excited by Burrow’s rise than Luehrman, who was one of the only Bengals fans in their friend group growing up.

“I think back to right after the Bengals’ last playoff appearance in 2015,” Luehrman said. “I was like, ‘How are the Bengals ever going to be decent or be able to contest again?’ All it took was just one of your best friends to play QB for them, I guess.”