The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Burrow once made his Ohio town believe. Now he has Cincinnati dreaming.

The Bengals had not won a playoff game in 31 years before Joe Burrow arrived in Cincinnati. Now the quarterback has the franchise on the cusp of the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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The Plains, Ohio

Around here they still talk about the electricity he sent through this dusty old town, a place still wheezing long after the coal miners left. They named the football stadium after him two summers ago, put up a sign commemorating his 2019 Heisman Trophy, named the western omelet at GiGi’s for him.

They want to feel that again, but deep down they know they never will, at least not without sharing him. Most places never get a Joe Burrow, and nobody gets two. So they tell stories: the time Athens High scored 77 points before halftime; the way fans from all over Athens County came like pilgrims to watch and experience and adopt him; the kid who asked for Burrow’s chin strap after a game because, in the eighth-poorest county in the nation, even the things that touch Burrow represent possibility.

“You get told a lot of things you can't do when you live in southeast Ohio,” longtime sports journalist Jason Arkley says. “And for one fall season, Joe Burrow and the Bulldogs shattered those myths.”

Here’s a story that doesn’t get told often because most people here don’t know it: Early in that 2014 season, Burrow’s last one here, he and three co-captains gathered in the locker room for a secret meeting. Athens had lost in the regional final the previous two seasons, and clearing that hurdle would officially be that season’s goal. But Burrow suggested something more ambitious: Athens could reach the state championship.

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In a flood plain city where kids say they are raised to leave, in a program that had never so much as won a playoff game before Burrow’s sophomore season, it was almost too ludicrous a thing to say out loud. But because Burrow believed it and because they were used to him willing absurdities into existence, his teammates believed. So, eventually, did his coaches and the rest of this community deep in the Appalachian foothills.

And so, seven years later, would the rest of Ohio. Two weeks ago, the hypercompetitive 25-year-old quarterback — 14 months after he blew out his left knee to stoke decades-old anxieties — calmly led the Cincinnati Bengals to their first playoff victory in 31 years. As teammates and fans celebrated, Burrow instead said he had “expected this.” A week after that, he ran onto the field after Evan McPherson drilled a 52-yard field goal to defeat the top-seeded Tennessee Titans and send Cincinnati to the AFC championship game, and he planted a kiss on the kicker’s forehead.

It sent a shock wave throughout the NFL, energizing a tortured fan base and Burrow’s home state, a jolt unfamiliar everywhere but Athens County.

“I just can’t believe he can still make us feel this,” former Athens High coach Ryan Adams, sitting in the Bulldogs’ coaching office, says his wife told him as Burrow celebrated.

“It feels like we just won,” current head coach Nathan White says.

“All these years later,” Adams says.

Columbus, Ohio

They anchored green and gold balloons to the ground before the team buses passed, and residents lined the street and waved as Athens High traveled northwest to Ohio Stadium. It was 2014, Burrow’s senior year. Athens High averaged 57 points in its first 14 games, fulfilling Burrow’s prophecy and going undefeated with a quarterback whose tranquil lethality was, according to one opposing coach, “almost disturbing.”

But not if he was yours, and it was as if Burrow’s demeanor had been designed specifically for the needs of his surroundings. The last big strip mine shut down in 2002. Almost a thousand people were out of work. Two years later, flooding caused the county to be declared a federal disaster area three times. In 2010, a tornado tore up the football field.

So by that December, Athens High and its quarterback belonged not just to the county but the entire region. When the Bulldogs took the field for kickoff, Adams says now, he saw the crowd of 10,713 and it felt as if the Bulldogs and their star quarterback had temporarily erased all socioeconomic and generational differences. It almost didn’t matter that Athens lost — “Worst day of my life,” Burrow said after Toledo Central Catholic’s last-minute, 56-52 win — because southeast Ohio had arrived.

Even more consolation: In a few months, it would deposit its favorite son in the state capital because he was the first Athens player since the 1950s to earn a scholarship from Ohio State. “A chance to win the Heisman, win national titles,” Burrow said after committing to the Buckeyes.

Off he went, but on Saturdays, his hometown kept tuning in to watch someone else line up behind center. Cardale Jones, then J.T. Barrett. He was supposed to be the backup in 2017, but he broke his hand on a freak play during practice, and a few months after high school star Tate Martell joined the quarterback room, Dwayne Haskins passed Burrow on the depth chart and later came off the bench to lead a comeback win against archrival Michigan.

Burrow competed harder, studied longer, attempted to use force of will as he had done back home. He graduated early and rehabilitated his hand, but occasionally he read social media posts from Ohio State fans who said he wasn’t Buckeyes material. The program kept collecting talented athletes, and when Burrow called former coaches and teammates, they avoided the subject of Ohio State’s depth chart and the fact that Joe Burrow was but one star in the vast galaxy of college football.

“He would call me and was just kind of like, ‘I don’t really know how to react,’ ” former Athens wide receiver Zacciah Saltzman says. “I don’t think his confidence ever wavered of who he was at all, but I think it was like, okay, these guys are not going to give me my shot.”

Trying to channel his frustration into a new challenge, Saltzman says, Burrow researched mixed martial arts gyms in Columbus and considered leaving football behind to start down a different path. Fight night wasn’t entertainment to Burrow; it was possibility. He studied Daniel Cormier and Francis Ngannou and declared to friends that, if he truly dedicated himself, he could become UFC heavyweight champion.

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“We’ll be having a regular conversation,” former teammate Trae Williams says, “and he’ll be like, ‘I’m pretty sure I could beat all you guys up.’ There’s no point in arguing with him. I’ve known the guy since I was 15; I’ve given up on trying to convince him of things.”

Urban Meyer, Ohio State’s coach at the time, announced a quarterback competition between Haskins and Burrow in 2018 that would culminate in the Buckeyes’ spring game. Burrow threw for 238 yards; Haskins passed for 120. Burrow completed 68 percent of his passes; Haskins completed less than half of his.

“I didn’t come here to sit on the bench for four years,” Burrow told reporters afterward, one last attempt at willing a career at Ohio State into existence.

Meyer picked Haskins anyway, and Burrow announced that he would transfer for his final two seasons. The University of Cincinnati wanted him. So did LSU. Ed Orgeron, the Tigers’ coach, thought there was no way he could convince an Ohio man to come to Baton Rouge. But when Burrow visited, he said he wanted to try crawfish. Mike Anderson’s was out, so Orgeron called a friend and asked them to fire up the boiler and deliver a platter of bugs to the restaurant.

Burrow seemed unimpressed, Orgeron would remember, so at one point, he led Burrow to the parking lot. LSU had other quarterbacks, too, but none who could process information and reject limitations like Burrow.

“If I don’t get you, I’m not going to last here,” Orgeron says he told him. There would be a quarterback competition in the fall. Burrow would need to earn playing time, at least officially. “I know what we have on campus. I like the guys, but I know you’re better.”

Orgeron continued, trying not to wink as he told Burrow he couldn’t just promise him the starting job.

“Look at me in the eye, Joe,” he recalls saying. “I’ve got to win. You’re going to be my quarterback.”

Cincinnati

Not quite an hour after opening, the line at Cincy Shirts is wrapped around the store. It’s a Wednesday morning in Hyde Park, and as soon as an employee drops another stack of its bestseller on a shelf — six panels of a colorful Burrow in his tinted Cartier sunglasses — the shirts are swarmed.

In this sports-mad city, where heartbreak is tradition, this outfitter’s hottest items used to be therapeutic resignations of the Bengals’ haplessness: “Hue + Lewis and the Boos,” “Seize the Meh,” “Time for Some Dey Drinking.” Now, after Burrow led the franchise to its first postseason win since six years before his birth, the store has sold nearly 1,400 “Joey Warhol” shirts in 11 days.

“For the first time in my adult life,” Cincinnati native and longtime radio host Mo Egger says, “I feel comfortable saying that the Bengals will win a Super Bowl.”

Egger knows how ludicrous that sounds, not just because the Bengals play in the same conference as Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert. But because it’s Cincinnati, where residents believe that Bo Jackson’s career-ending injury against the Bengals in the 1991 playoffs led to a curse on the city’s sports teams. How else to explain that Kenyon Martin broke his leg days before the top-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats tipped off in the NCAA tournament? Or that Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, another Heisman winner and top overall draft pick, suffered a catastrophic knee injury in the opening game of the 2005 playoffs? Or that the Reds’ Johnny Cueto, the ace pitcher of baseball’s second-best team, strained a back muscle early in a 2012 playoff game before the team blew a 2-0 series lead and was eliminated by San Francisco?

Even after Burrow was pegged as the probable No. 1 pick in 2020 — a pick Cincinnati would make months after “Joe Burreaux” became a Louisiana legend by winning the Heisman and completing a perfect season for national champion LSU — a fan base wracked with annihilation syndrome told itself an asteroid would destroy the Earth before a quarterback this good played for a franchise this bad. “You’re always expecting the worst thing to happen,” Egger says.

Burrow was indeed drafted by and immediately started for the Bengals as a rookie. His 13 touchdown passes and unrelenting poise were reasons for hope in an otherwise typical season here. Then, in November 2020, Burrow tore two knee ligaments in a loss to Washington, and that was it. Hopes dashed, ride over. But Burrow barely flinched, and when former high school teammate Saltzman visited during Burrow’s rehab, the quarterback couldn’t resist the urge to sweep his friend’s leg in a parking lot and claim that he could still join the MMA circuit if he wanted to.

“You know you wouldn’t stand a chance against me right,” Burrow texted Saltzman recently, a message he is accustomed to receiving on fight nights or just a random weekday.

In that way, Burrow is perfect for Cincinnati: a competitive sniper and comfortable-in-his-own skin Ohioan who just doesn’t sweat it, and that’s ultimately the same combination that endeared him to a town, a region and now an entire state that’s becoming almost addicted to the way Burrow makes them feel.

On this Wednesday in the backroom of the T-shirt shop, Clayton Nevels is printing yet another “Joey Warhol” design on a white sweatshirt.

“If we win …” Nevels says, shaking his head, and store owner Josh Sneed can’t help but smile.

“When they build the statue …” Sneed says, locating a picture on his phone of Burrow triumphantly pointing during the Tennessee game, in his mind a sculptor’s dream.

“We’re beating the 49ers,” Nevels announces, and Sneed’s eyes widen when he realizes his colleague is talking about the Bengals winning the Super Bowl.

It’s just not something you say out loud around here, and though Sneed has a Burrow-themed design ready if Cincinnati defeats Kansas City for the AFC championship, he can’t quite bring himself to think about Burrow hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy. So many years of muscle memory colliding with this unfamiliar spark of hope.

“What’s the point of being pessimistic?” Sneed says, chuckling when another co-worker shows him a GIF of Burrow in his LSU uniform and pointing out it’s the Year of the Tiger in the Lunar New Year. “Any optimism at all, you latch onto it. Because it’s something we’re not used to around here.”

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