Why LSU quarterback Joe Burrow's Ohio home town is all about Tigers football
ATHENS, Ohio — The Plains is a blip on the radar, a small speck on the map that all but defines rural southeast Ohio.
The Appalachian foothills surround one of the only flat areas in Athens County, located a few miles from the Hocking River. There is a Valero to grab some fuel. If you're hungry, there is a newly renovated McDonald's, a Subway and, of course, the now famous Gigi's Country Kitchen. And lest we forget the sparkling new Piggly Wiggly.
But the centerpiece is Athens High School, the place LSU quarterback Joe Burrow made a household name. Southeast Ohio's first Heisman Trophy winner, and potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, is the crown jewel of a region that has never been confused with breeding football legends.
Make no mistake though, that's exactly what "Joey" is here.
Burrow and his unbeaten, top-ranked Tigers (14-0) will play defending national champion Clemson, itself 14-0, on Monday in the College Football Playoff national championship game in New Orleans.
His 55 touchdown passes, and 78 percent completion percentage are among the best produced in one season at the college level. He needs only four more to break Hawaii's Colt Brennan for most TD passes in single-season NCAA history.
That still wouldn't be enough to top his high school days.
Burrow passed for 63 touchdowns as a senior, part of a career that saw him surpass 11,000 career yards and throw 157 TDs. For good measure, he added 2,067 yards rushing, as his talent-laden Bulldogs reached the Division III state finals in his final season.
Those Bulldogs produced arguably the best team in the history of southeast Ohio, one that featured four Division I college signees in a spread offense resembling plenty of similarities to that of his current operation.
Burrow was flanked by running back Trae Williams, who signed with Northwestern, and twin brothers Adam and Ryan Luehrman, a pair of lanky receivers who signed with nearby Ohio University. Another starter, versatile tough guy Zacciah Saltzman, just finished his senior year as a running back at Georgetown.
In most cases, games in the Tri-Valley Conference were all but decided by halftime — often earlier. They once scored 11 touchdowns in the first half against league rival Albany Alexander.
"They were just a bunch of real good guys, a bunch of good kids and really were like a big family," said former Athens athletic director Chuck Robinson.
Now the head girls basketball coach at Eastern High in neighboring Meigs County, Robinson fondly recalled his days around those Bulldogs. While there was an abundance of talent surrounding him, Burrow was the unquestioned ring leader, with his voice and his example, Robinson said.
"It was his intensity," Robinson said, when asked what he remembered most about him. "He cared about what he was doing and always wanted to be the best at what he was doing. He was special early. He could do a lot of things that people just couldn't do."
That included a football rarity. In the 2014 regional finals against Columbus DeSales, his senior season, he threw a touchdown to himself in a 52-20 win that clinched the school's first final four appearance.
"The linebacker knocked it down and it went right back to him," Robinson recalled. "He just caught it and ran it into the end zone. That was the key moment right there."
The Bulldogs lost in the finals to private school power Toledo Central Catholic two weeks later, but Burrow didn't go down without a fight. That 56-52 loss, the first in Ohio Stadium in 25 years, featured championship game records 446 yards and six TDs from Burrow. More than 10,000 fans attended.
It came one day after being named Ohio's Mr. Football, an award won by the likes of Charles Woodson, Maurice Clarett and Mitchell Trubisky. Former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith won it twice.
His athletic prowess wasn't exclusive to the gridiron.
He was also a first-team All-Ohio basketball player as a senior, where he was a 3-point sniper. His LSU teammates, and others in attendance prior to the semifinal game against Oklahoma, got to see his shooting prowess on Christmas. In a friendly shooting contest with a large crowd watching, Burrow hit the game-winning 3 against the Sooners.
"He hadn't touched a ball in two years and hit like 15 straight 3-pointers," 1984 Athens grad Greg Hopkins said, shortly after having lunch on Monday at Gigi's. "Everybody was like, 'What in the world?' The boy is just a natural athlete. His demeanor is just unbelievable."
Hopkins, from Athens, said he's never seen an athlete with Burrow's poise under duress. His final season in college has looked awfully similar to his final year at Athens, he said, something the statistics support.
"His focus is unlike any quarterback I've ever seen," Hopkins said. "His ability to stand there on the spot and not panic, I've never seen anyone better. He's unbelievable."
Remembering his roots
The 31 percent poverty rate in Athens County is the highest in Ohio, far removed from the hustle, bustle and burgeoning opportunities of metros like Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus. The opioid crisis has hit here as hard as anywhere in the region.
Ohio University, in Athens, has long doubled as a local source of pride and vital employer. It is Ohio's fourth-largest university by enrollment.
But it's tough here, as Burrow pointed out in a heartfelt Heisman speech that brought many to tears, especially in his hometown. It was in New York, before a nationwide audience on ESPN, where he spoke of the poverty and hunger problems saddling the area.
Born in Ames, Iowa, he moved to Ohio at 9 after his father, who played at Nebraska under Tom Osborne, was hired by OU coach Frank Solich as the Bobcats' defensive coordinator in 2005.
Burrow saw firsthand the struggles many of his schoolmates encountered. Some were his teammates.
"Coming from southeast Ohio, the poverty rate is almost twice the national average," Burrow said. "There are so many people there who don't have a lot, and 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 can be up here, too."
Little did he know what would follow.
Shortly after, Athens High and OU grad Will Drabold took to Facebook to start a fundraiser for the Athens County Food Pantry. It started with a goal of $1,000; it's now over $500,000, with donations pouring in from across the country. A separate fundraiser brought in donations to Baton Rouge, where LSU is located.
Since then, Athens County Food Pantry President Karin Bright has been deluged with interview requests from media types wondering just how much impact the generosity created. The food pantry serves around 1,200 people, with an annual budget of around $80,000.
"What he said touched the hearts of so many people," Bright said. "It shows the kind of person he is. Beyond the fact that he's been a real winner on the field, for him to use his platform and his voice to address such a huge problem in this country — this is not just in Athens. It's out in California, in the desert in Arizona and the mountains in Wyoming. It's across the board."
She said the Food Pantry board met with attorneys to discuss the future of what would be done with the surplus of funds. There are multiple options, from sharing with other organizations to creating endowments. They hope to come up with a final solution soon, which she said will be made public.
Almost a month later, Bright was still wrapping her head around the whirlwind of events. She couldn't thank Burrow enough, calling his thoughtfulness "refreshing to see from a successful athlete."
She hopes his speech continues the conversation.
"This is an issue in this country that requires a solution," Bright said. "As a country we are too rich, too blessed to let people go hungry."
It wasn't the first time Burrow gave a passionate speech.
The freshman son of United Appeals of Athens County Executive Director Jennifer Eskey was part of the Athens High program when Burrow was a senior.
She listened as he addressed the overflowing crowd at the team's postseason banquet.
"All of the seniors got to talk," Eskey recalled. "Joey went up to talk, and he was so emotional. I don't think I've ever seen an 18-year-old be that compassionate about something ever. Just the team, the family and where they've went and how close they all are, and how much he was going to miss it. It stuck with me.
"When a young person can produce that amount of passion and love, you know they've been taught right and they truly, from the depths of what they have, truly love what they are doing," she added. "I knew when he got up and cried in front of the whole cafeteria — it was chock full of people — and showed that passion I knew that kid had something."
The Heisman speech, and its purpose, was merely a continuance of his empathy for others, Eskey said.
"Every now and then you’ll hear people talk negatively about people using their platform for their own, and here is this kid who chose to take it off of him and put it to where it’s needed," Eskey said. "What kid does that? ... That's his compassion. He has done what he can to help, and if you look back, how many people have done that?"
Hopkins said the humility is real. His parents still frequent Gigi's, which is known for its daily specials and variety of down-home fare.
"Not only is he a phenomenal athlete, but he's also very intelligent," Hopkins said. "He has used his head quite well through all of this and continues to do so. He's just a humble young man. For all of that spotlight and attention he's getting, for being a young man 23, 24 years old, I couldn't do it. We're very proud of the man here."
Burrow's popularity stretches beyond Athens and The Plains. He has become a hero for the entire region, including most Ohio State fans who supported him even after he transferred last summer.
"He's got the support of all of southeast Ohio," Robinson said.
Hopkins has been a regular at Gigi's, which has been a bustling place since Burrow's 2018 interview with ESPN reporter Marty Smith.
"It's great," Burrow told Smith. "Gigi's is my favorite breakfast place in Athens. Western omelet, double side of hashed browns every time I go home."
That was before Burrow became the talk of college football. His ascent only added to the restaurant's popularity. One drive down Ohio 682 in The Plains will show multiple street signs supporting Burrow and the Tigers, with Gigi's leading the charge.
Tiger fans who have visited often bring back memorabilia to add to the restaurant, like the LSU flag that flies in front of its entrance.
Inside are placards on the walls featuring "Joe Burreaux," as he is referred to in French Cajun country, along with a banner touting his Heisman Trophy.
Owner Travis Brand has been deluged with calls and interviews from media wanting to know the story about Burrow and his go-to restaurant. He wasn't sure about an uptick in business, but there has certainly been a rise in popularity and atmosphere.
"On game days we'll pass out beads and people are screaming 'Go Tigers!' all day," Brand said. "It's just the atmosphere. It's not a measurable thing. We've had people from all over. The first purple party we had was the week of the Alabama game, and we had ... some folks from Independence, Kentucky, came down. It's about 2½ hours for them to get here, just came in for lunch."
Brand called Burrow's climb "a whirlwind," adding he never opened a restaurant with any preconceived notions that he'd be doing interviews with the likes of ESPN, CBS and the New York Times. WBRZ-TV, from Baton Rouge, even followed them to a tailgate when they attended the Texas A&M game earlier in the year.
He booked his plane ticket to New Orleans on Monday but doubted he would attend the game given the exorbitant ticket costs. As for the Western omelet, it has since been re-named "The Burrow" in his honor.
"It's the Joe Burrow World, we're just living in it," Brand said.