Archdeacon: Burrow’s Ohio grit plays well in L.A. spotlight

Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez

Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez

LOS ANGELES – Odell Beckham Jr. was right.

The Los Angeles Rams wide receiver was praising Joe Burrow – the fellow LSU product he’ll meet in Super Bowl LVI today at SoFi Stadium – saying the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback was “going to be one of the greats.”

OBJ then added a special compliment:

“If you look up ‘cool’ in the dictionary, there’s a picture of him with some Cartier shades.”

If you been around Burrow this season – whether it’s been back in the suddenly-enlivened confines of Paul Brown Stadium or basking in the sunshine with him here Friday as he met face-to-face with the media at UCLA’s Drake Stadium – you know what Beckham means.

His coolness is smooth and effortless, not contrived, not forced.

He might be in L.A. now, but he’s not Hollywood.

Like so many chasing a dream here, he’s not filled with self-absorption, botox and delusion.

As Burrow sat there in the stands of the Bruins’ track and field stadium – with his mirrored blue shades, reddish surgical scars snaking down his left knee and right hand and a puzzling left sock worn inside out – he answered all questions with thoughtfulness, honesty and sometimes real bemusement.

The night before – at the league’s annual awards show in L.A. – he had been named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year for the way he had overcome a devastating knee injury 14 ½ months ago and, following surgery and arduous rehab, had had a record-breaking season.

In two days, he would be leading the Bengals to their first Super Bowl appearance in 33 years and only the third in the history of the franchise.

Because of COVID restrictions, all other Super Bowl interviews has been done by Zoom sessions, so the international press corps was anxious to experience “Joe Cool” in person. And if you think that’s hyperbole, consider Burrow’s Instagram page has gained over 1 million followers since the season began.

Friday, he fielded questions from Mexico, England and Germany and was queried not only by the sporting press, but people from fashion and entertainment outlets.

He handled the light stuff with ease:

Skyline Chili or Louisiana gumbo?

“Gumbo,” he said quickly.

The movie star who might play him?

“They say I look like Macaulay Culkin.”

His Saturday night routine before a Sunday game is always the same, he said. He likes to watch Saturday night fights or pay-per-view bouts.

He didn’t bring this up now, but in the past, he admitted when he wasn’t getting to play at Ohio State – before his transfer to LSU -- he contemplated getting into mixed martial arts and even told a friend he thought he could become the UFC heavyweight champ.

But Friday when he talked about getting bypassed at OSU, he said he flirted briefly with changing course and “finding a job in finance.”

He was asked about Saturday night’s UFC 271 middleweight title fight between Israel “Izzy” Adesanya and Robert Whittaker:

“I got Izzy,” he said.

Back on football, the conversation turned to Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback, who had been named the league MVP the night before.

“He deserved it,” he said. “He played great all year. He’s been the best player in the league for…”

He caught himself and amended the thought:

“I don’t know if I should say that. Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady and Aaron have been the three guys battling for that.”

As for joining that celebrated trio, he said:

“I try to. I’m chasing Aaron Rodgers to be the best. He’s been doing it a long time.”

In his short rise to fame, Burrow – who’s just 25 – already has had his championship moments.

When he took Athens High School to the state title game, he threw for over 500 yards and six touchdowns that game.

He led LSU to an undefeated season and a national championship.

And now he has the Bengals in the NFL title game after they won a total of just six games over the previous two seasons.

At each stop he’s not only lifted his team, but the town around it.

That’s what’s happened in Cincinnati since he engineered a huge comeback in Kansas City in the AFC Championship game.

He’s said he’s witnessed the pure joy, the pride and the communal embrace that’s come from that and understands it better than many other players:

“I’m proud to be from Ohio and be the quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals.”

Small-town roots

When he won the Heisman Trophy in 2019, Burrow gave an emotional acceptance speech that focused on growing up in Athens County and the poverty and hunger faced by too many kids there.

He was raised in The Plains, a small, sister town of Athens. While the latter is home of Ohio University, the county also is rooted in Appalachia and has some of the ills that often come with that region.

Burrow’s sudden fame has drawn national media to his corner of southeastern Ohio and most reports detail how the football stadium now bears his name, there are signs coming into town proclaiming it the home of the Heisman Trophy winner and GiGi’s Country Kitchen features a Joe Burrow omelet.

But when a Washington Post writer described the “dusty old town still wheezing long after the coal miners left,” and said “kids say they are raised to leave,” the OU student paper took exception and ran an editorial decrying his “overreaching narrative” and saying “poverty porn sells.”

Stretched story line or not, there’s no denying the struggles around Burrow’s home town. Recently 24/7 Wall Street deemed Athens the eighth poorest small city in the nation and listed Athens County as Ohio’s poorest.

These number are somewhat skewed though because OU students who make little money are included in the formula.

But away from the college, there are areas of real need, Burrow said Friday:

“In rural Ohio where I’m from, there’s a lot of poverty (and) hungry people. You don’t realize what you’re seeing growing up, but when you reflect, it sticks out in your mind, like ‘Wow. That was a really sad moment.’”

Since his Heisman speech – which led to the formation of his Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund – more than $1.3 million has poured into the Athens County Food Pantry, NPR reported.

Burrow’s mom, Robin, is the principal at Eastern Elementary School in nearby Meigs County and she’s on the board of the Appalachian Children’s Coalition, which advocates for children in the region.

She has said that while her son has helped fill the plates of kids in their area, the biggest thing he’s doing is filling their hearts and minds to believe in themselves and push themselves as they deal with the burdens of life.

He wants them to know they are as good as anybody else and they, too, can be the best at what they do.

He embraced that mantra when he was a three-sport star at Athens High and now he’s doing the same thing with the Cincinnati Bengals.

He said he even sees similarities between the two towns:

“Cincinnati is really just a more populated Athens.”

In the past three decades, Cincinnati sports teams have stumbled and fallen dramatically on the championship trail. Some called it the Curse of Bo Jackson, who suffered a career-ending injury in a 1991 playoff game against the Bengals.

While Bo might not be the culprit, the town’s bad luck can’t be denied.

Otherwise, how do you explain Player of the Year Kenyon Martin breaking his leg just as the No. 1 ranked Cincinnati Bearcats were headed to the 2000 NCAA Tournament? And Bengals’ quarterback Carson Palmer – like Burrow another Heisman winner and No. 1 pick – suffering a crushing knee injury in the opening game of the 2005 playoffs? And the Reds’ Johnny Cueto straining a back muscle in the 2012 playoffs and Cincinnati blowing a 2-0 series lead to be eliminated by San Francisco?

Things are different now and Burrow said he’s drawing on lessons first learned back in Athens County.

“The small-town Ohio mindset is really the mindset I play the game with,” he said. “I just feel the toughness of that region and try to embody it in everything I do.

“Growing up back there really molded me, not just in football, but life in general. You see a lot of things back there some other people don’t see – poverty, people that are hungry.”

Bengals players talk about the way he seems to be able to lift them in every circumstance, no matter how dire it looks:

He gets sacked nine times against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC playoff game and still leads the team to a 19-16 victory.

In the AFC title game, the Bengals are down 21-3 in the first half and he still leads them to victory in overtime

Today the Rams – who have a vaunted pass rush led by Aaron Donald and Von Miller and the best cornerback in the game in Jalen Ramsey, Burrow said – are favored by 4 ½ points.

And yet that’s seems to be an iffy advantage at best when it comes to the Bengals and their ever-resilient quarterback.

‘Dark moments’

While Burrow’s on-the-field heroics – whether it’s pin-point passes, his Houdini-like ability to avoid a sure sack or his grit to pop back up after defender does violently dump him – have all earned him admiration and respect from his teammates.

But nothing did it more than the way he came back from that late November injury in 2020 that left him with a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee.

“There were some dark moments in the beginning – when you need help getting out of bed to go to the bathroom or putting on your pants in the morning,” he said. “There were some long days and a lot of pain, as well.

“But I had a lot of help – my family and friends, my physical therapists, the surgeon, the trainers and everybody.”

When pressed about the journey from destroyed knee to Super Bowl, he said something surprising:

“I wouldn’t change it for the world. I think it helped me become a better player to be honest.

“There was a lot of adversity – mentally and physically – but it allowed my throwing motion to become more refined because I had to start standing and throwing at just five yards.

“It helped me focus on a lot of things: My hips, my core. I ended up getting more velocity and accuracy on the ball.”

He completed 70.4 percent of his passes this season, while throwing for 4,611 yards and 34 touchdowns, both Bengals records.

His extreme effort on the field and his relaxed style off of the field have drawn various celebrities to him and especially fans who have bought Cartier glasses like he wore after one game and shirts bearing his many nicknames.

The blue-mirrored glasses he wore Friday will likely become the next collector’s item.

As for the inside-out sock, he just shrugged it off:

“Oooh, I’ve always worn one sock inside out. It’s just something I do. I wouldn’t call myself superstitious. It’ just part of the routine.”

He said he wanted to keep everything the same going into Sunday’s game:

“Right now, I’m treating it as just another game. Really, we’ve tried to treat every game along the way like it was the Super Bowl. That’s why we’re here.”

And for those who still don’t believe in him and his team, Burrow paused a moment and then, with that coolness OBJ said so defines him, he smiled and said:

“All this year we’ve gotten better and better each week. We’ve won a lot of big games and we’ve been in a lot of situations. This is no different.

“I think we’ve proved, if you underestimate us, we’re going to beat you.”

Just like that one sock, he turns you inside out.

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