The Pride of the Plains: Hometown hero Joe Burrow

by Patrick Schmidt

Joe Burrow had to go to school 1,000 miles from home to see his dreams come true at LSU but home was never really that far away for The Pride of the Plains.

From Ohio State, LSU, a summer league basketball game in Indianapolis, or an NFL career likely beginning in Cincinnati, it all comes back to The Plains, Ohio for Joe Burrow.

Burrow had a season that put him in the record books and cemented his legacy as one of the greatest college quarterbacks. He won the Heisman Trophy and helped lead the LSU Tigers to a national championship.

You already know that story.

So, let the people who have known him since his childhood tell you who Burrow really is, what he does off the field, the time he single-handedly took over a playoff semifinal basketball game, the humility and brilliance he showed as a student and how one selfless act helped feed a community.

This is the story of the local boy made good.

Just one of the guys

Adam Luehrman knows Joe better than anyone who doesn’t have Burrow as their last name.

He’s been friends with Joe since the Burrow family moved to Athens in 2005 when Joe’s dad Jim was named the defensive coordinator under coach Frank Solich at Ohio University.

They became teammates on the baseball team that summer going into third grade.

That fall was the first time they linked up on the football field.

He and his twin brother Ryan were two of Joe’s three leading receivers at Athens High School as seniors, catching 13 and 22 touchdowns apiece of Burrow’s 63 total touchdowns. They were also his teammates on the basketball court. They’re both playing football at Ohio University now.

They’re still close and use a group text to make sure they stay in contact despite being spread out with everyone at school. They joke around and make fun of each other as friends do. Being a Heisman winner doesn’t make you immune to that and Burrow hasn’t let fame change him.

“He’s still one of the guys,”  Luehrman said. “Our group from high school jokes around with him. We still make fun of him, give him a hard time. I think he appreciates that to keep him honest.

“We don’t really talk about the games. Just what’s happening in our lives. When he won the Heisman we all just put ‘Congrats’ and then kinda joked around. Our main high school group watched the ceremony together in Athens.”

Little did Luehrman know in high school that he was on the receiving end of passes from someone who would have the greatest season by a quarterback in college football history.

It took transferring from his dream school of Ohio State for Burrow to have his dreams come true at LSU. He changed teams and schools but he didn’t change his mindset or what made him successful in high school.

“I wish I knew then I’d be catching passes from a future Heisman winner in high school. It was great being a receiver for him. Every throw was incredible. The confidence he showed at LSU, he showed in high school the same way.

“He pretty much led by example,” Luehrman said. “You could tell the way he carries himself, he’s very confident. He doesn’t talk much but he’s got a unique sense of humor.”

Joe Burrow Athens High School

Joe Burrow #10, second from right #46 Ryan Luehrman, far-right Adam Luehrman #44 – Credit: A. Luehrman

We didn’t see a lot of that sense of humor early in the season, but as it progressed, he began to open up more and show that side of his personality.

Being the childhood best friend of someone and then watching them go on a whirlwind year can mean seeing the person change from who they used to be. Burrow is still a straight-shooter but he’s opened up and been more willing to take all of this in.

“He’s the same guy, especially when he’s around us.”

Burrow likes to hang out and relax, playing video games, watching Netflix and going out to eat.

It’s that last bit when he began to know how much things had changed for his friend. Gone are the days when they could get a table at their favorite place to eat without a crowd gathering.

Now, everyone wants to get a piece of the Heisman winner and likely No. 1 pick. As Luehrman explains, it was a bizarre experience to see him turn into a celebrity.

“It was surreal. You had to sit back and take it all in. It didn’t hit me until a couple of weeks after he won the Heisman and when we watched him win the National Championship.

“And when he got back here, he went to uptown Athens and made an appearance, he didn’t really drink, he just wanted to hang out with us. So then all the students flooded the bars he went to. And he was like ‘Oh my goodness!’ That’s when it hit me because that’s the first time I’d been in public with him since he’d come to this level of fame. Seeing people literally with their phones in the windows where we were. I’m like, ’this is just my friend.’”

Everything is different but Joe is still Joe.Joe Burrow The Plains Bengals LSU

The model student and the role model

Chad Springer is the principal at Athens High School but was Burrow’s physics teacher in his junior year.

“It was a lot of fun [being Joe’s teacher]. He was just amazing. The whole class was unique. They were eclectic. They did everything together no matter who they were, what sport they played. Extremely brilliant, intelligent and a lot of fun to have.”

When asked what he remembers about Joe being in his class, he instantly recalled a memory of Joe and his classmates working on a Star Wars project.

“I saw him as a great athlete and a great scholar. To see him go this far… I still picture him in my class at that front table with his friends playing on LEGOS building their project that had a Star Wars theme to this day.”

Everyone knows about Burrow’s ability as a football player, but he’s also incredibly intelligent, which has certainly helped on the field.

He never thought he was better than anyone, and when he achieved this success, it was as if you know the whole community was able to succeed because of him.

Scouts have raved about his ability to read and diagnose defenses as well as pick up the new LSU offense in rapid order. His mental processing has been compared to greats like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

“He is naturally very smart,” Luehrman said. “He has a very good memory. He was always one of the smartest kids in class.”

Character counts and Burrow has an abundance of it.

“There were things about him you would want in any kid,” Springer said. “Not just that leadership quality but he would walk some of our students with disabilities to class, make them feel a part of the group. Or if you’ve got a kid who’s kind of on their own, he would pick them to be on his basketball team. That’s the kind of kid he is.”

So much has changed in Burrow’s life but he’s still the same kid down-to-earth kid from Athens who remains committed to his values and the morals he was raised on.

One of the best examples of Burrow’s selflessness came during his Heisman acceptance speech. Burrow won the Heisman by a record margin and the spotlight was shining brightly on him. He could have used his time to talk about what he accomplished. Instead, he thanked his teammates, his coaches, especially Ed Orgeron for taking a chance on him, and put the spotlight on Athens County and the food insecurity crisis affecting the poorest county in Ohio.

“Coming from southeast Ohio it’s a very impoverished area and the poverty rate is almost two times the national average,” Burrow said. “There’s so many people there that don’t have a lot and I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here, too.”

The fundraiser for the Athens County Food Pantry brought in more than $500,000 in the weeks that followed.

“It was surreal,” Springer said of Burrow’s Heisman speech. “You watch a student, a person, who achieved something almost unfathomable to everybody. I’ve taught a lot of athletes who played for D1 schools, and this is above and beyond even that. You never think you’re gonna see somebody achieve that great dream like that. He never thought he was better than anyone else and when he achieved this great success, it was almost as if you know the whole community was able to succeed because of him.

With many experiencing extra hardships in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout, putting food on the table has become even more of a struggle. Burrow’s selflessness is helping thousands of people worry about one less thing in these trying times.

“He is an inspiring young man that others could certainly take a lesson from,” Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks said, via The Post Athens. “On behalf of all 2 million hungry Ohioans – Thank you, Joey!”

That’s the type of humility Springer remembers from Burrow. He hasn’t developed an oversized ego, which would be an easy thing to do when you’re called the greatest college football quarterback and a future NFL No. 1 pick.

It’s why Burrow is a perfect role model for students at Athens to know they can grow up and be like him if they work hard and do things the right way as he did and to never forget where you came from.

“At one point they thought about moving and he convinced them not to. He wants it known this is where he came from,” Springer said. “In this community, it’s very relevant for us to use him as an example of a success story. And it is a dream achievable. You can have dreams and achieve big things no matter who you are.

“That’s just the way he is. That’s the way we’ve always seen him.”

Burrow’s high school basketball coach Jeff Skinner was there during the Heisman ceremony with some of Burrow’s other former coaches and his family.

“I watched his speech and tears welled up in my eyes and I thought, he just told all of Athens County how much they meant to him and that he was thinking about him. He’s just humble Joe.”

The legend of Joe Burrow, the basketball player

You know all about Burrow’s football exploits. But you may not know Burrow could take anyone off the dribble and played his best in the biggest moments on the court too. Perhaps, most importantly, he was dedicated and loyal to his teammates and coaches.

“He was playing middle school basketball and I remember telling his dad this kid has that “it” factor.

He also made it clear he was destined for greatness.

“He was just like he was as a football player,” Skinner said. “He made it look easy. He had the uncanny gift that all he had to do was show up and the other kids followed him.”

Even in his second sport, Skinner knew Burrow was going to be something special and he told Burrow’s father when Joe was in middle school. It was apparent Joe had the rare quality all elite athletes seem to have.

“He was playing middle school basketball and I remember telling his dad that I think something great is gonna happen with this guy. This kid has that “it” factor. And that was before he even played for me.”

The “it” factor is a loaded concept but hard to define. You know it when you see it and Skinner could see it early in Joe’s life. Well before he was a star in high school and years before he was torching college competition en route to the NFL.

“He always knew exactly what was going on. We used to joke. … I always used to tell all my players that ‘one-timers’ are the most successful; they’re the type of players you have to tell things to one time. Joe was not only a one-timer, but Joe was a solution guy. He understood what had to happen on the floor, what had to happen with our team, maybe even in advance of me understanding it. He just had it. There’s gonna be ups and downs, but when the going got tough, we knew we could depend on him.”

Burrow averaged 19.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.8 steals per game as a senior. He averaged 17.1 points and 6.9 rebounds for his career.

Luehrman compares Burrow to former Creighton star and NBA first round pick, Doug McDermott.

“He was a very, very tough basketball player. He was our point guard, shooting guard, he was the best 3-point shooter on the team, he was always the strongest guy on the team. He averaged the most points in our senior year. He was just as competitive in basketball as he was in football.”

Skinner describes his former star player as the ultimate chess piece who could do anything.

“He was unlimited at what he could do offensively because we could move him all over the floor. We’d played him in the post a lot. And he would also guard either the quickest guy or, if the best player on the other team was a post player, we would have him guard him. If you can think of anybody versatile that could do anything, it was Joe.

“I was always amazed at how easy it was for him to beat people off the dribble and not look fast doing it. We’d play Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s and he’s out there beating people off the dribble getting the basket and I’m thinking, ‘the quicker the competition, the quicker he gets.’”

After Burrow committed to Ohio State for football, he didn’t turn his back on his teammates and coaches. He wasn’t going to be a college basketball player, but he didn’t want to give up the chance of being the best teammate and leader he could be in his final season. That loyalty and commitment weren’t lost on his teammates or his coach.

“He gave his all in his final season, even if it meant the potential of getting injured,” Luehrman said. “He battled it out till the end.”

That’s one of the memories Skinner recalls as a defining moment of Burrow’s early sports career

“Going into his senior year, Urban Meyer wants him up there for every passing camp,” Skinner said. “Well, we had a pretty intense off-season for basketball and he never missed any of it. He had a passing camp at Ohio State one morning. I don’t know how many balls he threw in the heat of the day. When it was over, he got in a car with his mom and drove from Columbus to Indianapolis because we had a basketball event. There was no way he was gonna let his guys down by not showing up. We were literally out in the middle of the floor getting ready to jump center and he’s running onto the floor tying up his shoes.”

That’s a window into why Burrow is so respected everywhere he’s been. He gives all of himself to whatever he’s doing. Whether it’s making a Star Wars project in his high school physics class, playing basketball or trying to beat Alabama.

Burrow’s dedication, loyalty and commitment levels are uncommon. These are the intangibles teams covet.

Skinner recalls a semifinal playoff game during Burrow’s sophomore year when they were struggling in the first half and Burrow had only attempted two shots. This was the biggest game since 1967 for the program. It was time for the team’s best player to be a little selfish.

“His sophomore year he was starting to come into his own. We were playing in a district semi-final [vs. Miami Trace] trying to get to the district finals which our school hadn’t done basically since 1967. We were down by I think 14 at halftime and Joe had only taken two shots. We’re walking in and I grab the stat sheet and I’m like, Joe Burrow has only taken two shots? Are you freaking kidding me?

“As we were walking out I asked him, ‘Are you aware you’ve only taken two shots?’ And he’s like, ’Oh, yeah, trying to get everybody involved.’ And I said, ‘You know what? Screw everybody,’ basically. ‘I don’t know who told you that you need to get everybody involved. If it was one of the assistant coaches, point him out I’ll fire him right here. We don’t win this game without you.’ I think he may have scored our first 14 or 16 points of the second half. We came back and won.”

Burrow finished with 16 points, a team-high 10 rebounds, two 3-pointers and made 6-of-8 free throws in the 10-point win.

“Joe just took over,” Luehrman said.

That’s the quiet assassin, Burrow’s teammates tell stories about to this day.

It’s the same competitiveness that had him earning the respect of quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones when he was at Ohio State.

It’s just Joe. It’s what he does. He wins. He excels. Everybody likes him.

It’s that confidence in himself that was on display at LSU. It’s why Bengals fans are going to love him.

Burrow’s humility is what his teachers speak kindly of when looking back at their former student. But it’s his selfishness as an athlete that makes him special.

“In Joe’s junior and senior year he had knee tendonitis and he took a beating in football,” Skinner said. “So we tried to find somebody for Joe to guard where he wasn’t going to have to overextend himself because he was our best player. But it never failed. The other team’s best player would get away from us and Joe would always say, ‘Coach, just let me have him. I got him.’ And that would be the end of it.”

Skinner doesn’t think about how many points Burrow averaged or whether he could have been a D1 basketball player if it was his full-time sport — he does — it’s that he’s never seen someone who wants to win as much as he did.

“I’ve never seen a more fierce competitor — he is quiet and stoic about his approach to competing,” Skinner explains. “And he doesn’t let other people win. You can talk to his friends, whether they’re playing video games or whatever and he does it with a sense of grace and there’s no arrogance.

“It’s just Joe. It’s what he does. He wins. He excels. Everybody likes him.”

As for all the attention that came with his rising stardom, Skinner says it never went to Burrow’s head.

“All that attention he got in high school and there was never one issue with Joe about anything. He’s intensely loyal to his team, school and community. Joe didn’t say a lot in high school. When he said something it was meaningful but he didn’t say a lot. When Joe stands up there at the Heisman and talks about the kids around here and how he thinks about that a lot, he’s not lying. That was not a show. That was all real and straight from the heart.”

Homecoming for the hometown hero

Cincinnati is a 2.5-hour drive from Athens. It’s where Burrow will likely begin his NFL career — the Bengals own the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Burrow had Athens wearing a lot more purple and gold last year and he’ll convert any non-Bengals fans with what he does on and off the field.

We’re happy wherever he goes but we want the Bengals to take him because so many people from Athens would be able to see him play.

Luehrman drives home from team workouts and sees students wearing Burrow jerseys on their way to class. Every local store window has Burrow posters, signs and gear on display. There was even a banner on the main street.

Springer says, “We might have been Ohio State fans, but I’m telling you we have a lot of converts at this point.”

Skinner said he sees the retired guys in McDonald’s every morning when he gets his coffee and they’ve all got their LSU hats on.

“It’s become an LSU town.”

Springer says he’s heard from people who prefer he go somewhere else, while some want him to go to the Bengals so they can watch him. But ultimately, they all want whatever’s best for him.

It’s a little bit of a different experience for Luehrman, who got a shout out from Burrow during one of his combine interviews when he mentioned he has two best friends who are Bengals fans.

“It’s kinda weird how your best friend could be the quarterback of your favorite [NFL] team. We’re happy wherever he goes but we want the Bengals to take him because so many people from Athens would be able to see him play. Of course, we want him to be in a place where he’s successful. That’s the most important thing for us.”

What type of person are the Bengals getting in Burrow?

“They’re going to get a genuine person,” Springer said. “There’s nothing fake about that man.”

“I think they’re gonna be surprised at what his level of expectations is for his teammates,” Skinner said. “He’s put everything into this and he’s excelled at an incredibly high level. But he also has become a master at raising the level of play of his teammates. Whether he goes to Cincinnati or wherever, his teammates are gonna find out real quick that Joe’s gonna keep his head down, do his work and lead by example. Once he establishes himself as the alpha in the locker room then the expectations of his teammates are gonna be high. That’s the kind of leader Joe is. It’s almost a prophetic style of leadership where they just follow. I know the NFL is a different monster, but we have a lot of confidence in Joe.”

That’s just Joe.

Senior Editor, College Sports. Godfather of Netflix Life. The Chicago Cubs winning the World Series was my sports nirvana.