Joe Burrow’s big moment was unscripted, and it came straight from the heart.

After winning the Heisman Trophy by a historic margin Saturday, LSU’s record-breaking quarterback used his acceptance speech to tearfully remember those who are less fortunate, specifically highlighting the problem of hunger in his hometown of Athens, Ohio. That kind gesture went viral and sent ripples nationally, sparking an impromptu fundraiser that left the Athens County Food Pantry with nearly $435,000 in donations by Wednesday morning.

“Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area,” the 23-year-old Burrow said on the stage in New York, wiping away tears after he won the award. “The poverty rate is almost two times the national average, and there’s so many people there that don’t have a lot.

“I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and in Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school,” he added, telling those kids, “and you guys can be up here, too.”

It was a moment that was pure and unscripted, his father, Jimmy Burrow, told The Washington Post.

“About an hour before we were to go to where the presentation was being held, I asked my wife, ‘You know, we haven’t even really talked to Joe about whether he’s prepared any words or anything.’ So I went down to his room, and he was sitting at his desk, making a few notes on a very small piece of paper, and I asked, ‘Hey, are you putting down some thoughts?’ and he said yes,” Jimmy Burrow recalled.

“I didn’t have any idea what he was going to say, and to see him up there speaking from the heart, you knew that was probably nothing he had written down. Afterward, I said, ‘Joe, you really didn’t use anything you put on that piece of paper, did you?’ And he said, ‘No, not really.’ That’s the beauty of it. It was genuine, not prepared and not planned. He really did speak from his heart.”

The speech spurred Will Drabold, an Athens resident, to create a fundraising page the next day on Facebook for the Athens County Food Pantry.

“I started this because, like everyone else from Athens, I cried during Joey’s speech and felt like there had to be a way to harness that,” Drabold, a graduate of Athens’ Ohio University, wrote.

Contributions poured in from around the country, particularly Ohio and Louisiana, where Burrow has led No. 1 LSU into a Dec. 28 College Football Playoff semifinal game against No. 4 Oklahoma. With CNN planning a visit to Athens and NBC interested as well, his hometown food pantry is suddenly in the national spotlight. “We’re still trying to come to terms with the reality that this isn’t a dream,” Karin Bright, the food pantry president, told NPR. “It’s amazing.”

Burrow, who grew up in Athens, initially played at Ohio State but transferred to LSU in 2018 after graduating in three years with a degree in consumer and family financial services. At LSU, he has become a beloved star and the likely No. 1 pick in next spring’s NFL draft, as popular in the Bayou State as he is in Ohio. “It’s like Joe has become everybody’s next door neighbor,” Bright said, “the kid that everybody knows.”

Not surprisingly, people from Louisiana were eager to donate, too, with one caller, Bright said, telling her daughter, “Thank you for Joe, from Louisiana.” Jimmy Burrow noted that a reciprocal food drive in Baton Rouge is in the offing, with LSU keeping a watchful eye to ensure no NCAA rules are violated.

“The power of words spoken by the right people can make a big difference,” Jimmy Burrow said. “The good thing is that people saw how sincere Joe was in his thoughts about Athens County and southeast Ohio. It struck a nerve. Initially, I think it started out that just people around here and Louisiana [were contributing] and now people from all over the country are donating.

“It’s great that Joe had that kind of influence on a lot of people and he’s glad that he can make a difference in some people’s lives.”

Athens is the poorest county in Ohio, with an Ohio Development Services Agency report indicating that more than 30 percent of its population lives in poverty — a rate nearly three times the national average. The local pantry served more than 2,100 families last year. Athens Mayor Steve Patterson told the (Baton Rouge) Advocate that the town, which was founded in 1798, has seen its industrial base in the timber, oil extraction and coal businesses wither away. The top employer is Ohio University, with an enrollment of 23,000 students across all levels, followed by the hospital and Walmart.

“Hunger is a real problem in our county. We don’t have much in the way of industry. So economically, we struggle and we’re rural, so transportation makes it very difficult for people to get jobs and be able to get there,” Bright told NPR. “People are struggling, and they do their best. But it’s really, really challenging here.”

Burrow’s speech helped ease the humiliation of asking for help. Drabold told NPR that a student in his wife’s elementary school special education class had spoken proudly about using the food pantry Burrow’s remarks. “As we all know, sometimes people are embarrassed that they have to utilize something like a food pantry,” Jimmy Burrow said, “so I guess it’s okay now that Joe Burrow talked about it.”

Jimmy Burrow played at Nebraska, as well as in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers and in the Canadian Football League. He was a longtime assistant coach at Nebraska, Washington State, Iowa State, North Dakota State and Ohio, where he coached for 14 seasons until he retired last year. He will be increasingly involved as his son prepares to turn pro and has watched as Athens proudly turns out in LSU colors on game days. This episode figures to increase the community’s connection to Burrow.

“For him to bring that up … this is a man who has not forgotten where he came from, and I don’t think he ever will,” Bright told NPR. “I think he will always be grateful for the support of this community. And I think he wants to let the world know that it’s a community that, with some help, these kids can go further.”

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