THE PLAINS, Ohio — Of late in Southeast Ohio, the citizens of this census-designated community and the nearby college town of Athens repeatedly have noticed colors once unimaginable, and language that seems eccentric if not quite foreign.
Around here sprouted the 6-foot-4 Joe Burrow, the LSU quarterback who used to be the celebrated Athens High quarterback (in green and gold) before he became an Ohio State quarterback (in scarlet and gray), before he graduated from Ohio State in May 2018 and then transferred because the Buckeyes prepared to go with Dwayne Haskins, nowadays of the Washington Redskins. That’s the same Joe Burrow who finds himself as the nation’s third-rated passer and a lead actor in the annual LSU-vs.-Alabama colossus coming Saturday, and who gets obvious questions about whether that’s bigger than the Ohio State-vs.-Michigan colossus that comes annually.
“I think that’s a question for me in two years when I look back and reflect on it,” he told Louisiana reporters this week.
Meanwhile up here, let’s ride around this neighborhood where Burrow grew up, where a short, understated LSU banner on a metal stand seems to be a must-have. There’s a house with one next to a Halloween sign, then a house with two short LSU banners in the flower beds and a large “Geaux Jeaux” sign on a metal fence. Then, skipping a few houses here and there: an Ohio Bobcats banner next to an LSU, another Ohio Bobcats next to an LSU, then another, then an LSU and a “Happy Fall,” then, rounding a curve, an LSU on the left, and LSU soon on the right, then an LSU banner near one about voting for libraries, another curve, an LSU wreath and a short banner, then another LSU-Ohio combo, then another LSU.
Oh wait, there’s another LSU.
“There’s watch parties all over,” said Travis Brand, who owns Gigi’s. “It’s hard to say you feel much when driving through the town because that’s the quietest hour, when everybody’s in their homes watching the game. There may be garage parties going on, which I know there are several in The Plains especially, where people are gathering to watch the games, but as you pass the town you don’t see much, because everybody’s in front of the television. So when you really get the LSU feel is all week long, game days, coming up to the game, because that’s when everybody’s rocking their LSU gear and they’re out grabbing finger foods from the stores.”
And: “We’ll get a hundred LSU shirts per week in here, people with hats, shirts. I mean, literally, everybody that comes in here is an LSU fan now. We’re an hour from Ohio State, right? Everybody bleeds scarlet and gray down here. I mean, like crazy. So to see people wearing purple and gold, you know it’s a big deal. People take Ohio State so seriously. So seriously. I mean, it’s almost obnoxious how serious our Ohio State fans are. But now I understand because I’m an obnoxious Louisiana State fan.”
The walls of Gigi’s have kept up. There’s a plaque in the shape of Louisiana. There’s an LSU wreath. There’s an LSU sign. Here’s a man at the counter who says he doesn’t know Joe Burrow but thinks he’s the best thing to hit the town in a while. Soon the newly edited Gigi’s menus will include a Western omelet called The Burrow, which Joe typically orders when in town with double hash browns.
How unforeseeable, all of it.
“This is The Plains,” said Jimmy Burrow, who is Joe’s father, a former player at Nebraska, with the Green Bay Packers and in the Canadian Football League, and a longtime assistant coach at Nebraska, Washington State, Iowa State, North Dakota State and Ohio. “This is where we live, Joe lives [since third grade], and Ohio University is five, six miles away. That’s where I coached for 14 years [2005-19]. Now, it’s a little confusing because Athens High School is just right up the road. Athens High is in The Plains. Sometimes you’ll see Joe is listed as ‘Plains High School’ or something like that. But Athens High is in The Plains. It’s more of a township. We have a post office. We don’t have a mayor.”
Now Jimmy Burrow’s whole life with his wife, Robin, has gone purple and gold, unforeseen for a Mississippi-raised coach who had never seen a game in LSU’s famed Tiger Stadium until this past Aug. 31, even as his son also quarterbacked LSU last year. (The coaching job is “never-ending,” of course.) Last February, he drove to the football office at Ohio, sat in the parking lot for an hour while thinking and thinking, then went in and told longtime boss Frank Solich about his decision to retire, whereupon they laughed about Solich being almost a decade the older of the two.
Now he’s living a different and dreamy fall.
“I struggled last year during the season,” he said. “My wife, she went to every game. She’s a principal at an elementary school here, about 30 miles away. So she’d get done on Friday, go to Columbus, fly to wherever flights delayed. I know she got into Baton Rouge one time at 3 in the morning,” and subsequently got her car towed from their son’s apartment parking lot.
“I’m thinking,” Jimmy said, “that’s not probably right to have her doing those type things and me not being part of it, and the joy and the, sometimes, frustration, like the late-night trip, and getting towed, and I’m not there to help.”
Further, he said at one point: “How could you possibly maybe go Joe’s whole career and never watch him play in Tiger Stadium?”
Now they’re off up U.S. Route 33 the 90 minutes to Columbus on Fridays, and they’re flying off to Nashville or the teeming way station of Atlanta to connect toward Louisiana, or they’re driving as more than 200 locals did when LSU played at Nashville. Now Jimmy will drive to Birmingham and Robin will fly there and they’ll see the game in Tuscaloosa then go to Jimmy’s parents’ place in Amory, Miss., then Robin will fly back and Jimmy will stay and collect Robin the following Friday in Memphis for the Ole Miss game.
Life pointed the Burrows toward LSU partly because Tigers Coach Ed Orgeron had hired former Nebraska assistant Bill Busch to help Dave Aranda with the defense, and the Burrows have long since known and trusted Busch. And then it all became a sensation this year after LSU hired Joe Brady, then 29, from the New Orleans Saints in January to coordinate its freshly gaudy passing game, whereupon Joe Burrow got a call from one of his closest friends, former Ohio State teammate and Saints quarterback J.T. Barrett, extolling Brady.
Now the LSU fans ask Jimmy and Robin Burrow for photos, and Joe teases them about their conspicuousness in their purple-and-gold No. 9 jerseys. Now Jimmy, who eschewed media last fall because it wasn’t fair to the Ohio football program, appears weekly on a Baton Rouge radio show, appeared in the CBS RV for an interview when LSU played at Mississippi State. Now Joe Burrow’s parents hold a routine LSU tailgate, with various configurations of Joe’s two brothers and Jimmy’s sister and Robin’s brothers all gathered in a way they never could while Jimmy coached — in from Houston, in from Nebraska.
Meanwhile, around here, a small cluster of souls in purple and gold turned up inside Lucky’s Sports Bar in the pretty Ohio college town of Athens, on Oct. 26. There, both TVs above the bar played the Auburn-LSU game. Everyone understood.
“There are no schools in Athens that are purple and gold, so there’s no confusion,” bartender Jennifer Cochran said. “Everybody knows if you see purple and gold around here, they’re a Joey supporter.”