Sam Smathers chuckled, with his long gray beard bouncing off his chest, as he recalled his first meeting with Joe Burrow, future Heisman Trophy winner.
Smathers, a former electrician, lives just beyond the end zone fence at Joe Burrow Stadium at Athens High School in The Plains — a village on the north perimeter of Athens in southeastern Ohio. Smathers bought his home there in 1988, and shortly thereafter started a youth football program that he continued to run and coach in for nearly two decades.
Smathers has fond memories of many of the Athens Bulldogs that have come through his program. But Burrow, naturally, stood out. It was 2005, and trudging up the hill was a blond-haired third grader — wearing sun glasses.
“One of my coaches, he elbowed me and said ‘Look there, here comes Joe Cool. That’s our next quarterback.’ I thought, yeah, okay,” Smathers said.
“We got into practice, and get to throwing the ball…and the kid could sling it. In third grade,” he continued. “He grasped the plays, first time through. He got that wing-T stuff down pretty good.
“I thought, heck yeah, that is our quarterback.”
Now, 15 years later, a franchise in the NFL — perhaps the Cincinnati Bengals with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft — will be saying the same thing. Burrow is the prohibitive favorite to be taken No. 1 overall after guiding LSU to the national championship in January and fresh off one of the most dominating seasons ever produced by a college quarterback.
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Burrow was a graduate transfer from Ohio State in 2018 and blossomed into the top prospect in the 2020 Draft after a sensational final season at LSU. He led the Tigers to a perfect 15-0 record with 5,671 passing yards and 60 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Burrow was brilliant in the College Football Playoff, where he accounted for 1.035 yards in two playoff games.
Burrow won the Heisman, the first for LSU since 1960, and made his hometown even more proud when he talked about his roots — and the poverty issues that plague his home county — on the stage in New York.
LSU signs and ‘Joe Burrow’ banners dot the yards and front porches throughout the town. There’s a billboard with Burrow’s face and the Heisman Trophy alongside Route 33 leading into The Plains. The high school stadium has been renamed in his honor. It’s been a whirlwind of big games, eye-catching highlights and headlines for Burrow.
And his hometown backers have soaked up every second of it. Now with the draft on deck, The Plains is still trying to grasp how one of their own has thrust this nook of Appalachia into the forefront of the national NFL discussion.
Matt Frazee is also an Athens grad, back in 1996, and now acts as a radio broadcaster for the Bulldogs on Friday nights in addition to his regular job as a service manager at a local car dealership. He called most of Burrow’s games in high school and always expected Burrow to deliver on his potential in college, but even he is struggling to find a way to put it all into context.
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“There’s been 84 people, ever, who have won the Heisman. One of those is a mile from right here,” Frazee said, chatting as he and Smathers watched one of Burrow’s old high school games off a DVD in Smathers’ garage — affectionately known as the ‘Dawg Pound.’
“That’s incredible. And now the kid who lives literally a mile from here is about to be the No. 1 pick? That’s just unreal.”
Nathan White was Burrow’s offensive coordinator in high school, and now is Athens’ head coach. He went to New York for the Heisman presentation. He’ll be one of just a half-dozen expected to be at the Burrow residence on Thursday night as the family will be part of the ‘virtual’ draft televised by ESPN and the NFL Network.
When Burrow was lighting up SEC defenses and taking the college football world by storm, White simply rolled with it. He was simply watching Burrow do what he’d always done. At Athens, Burrow led the Bulldogs to a 37-4 record as a starter from 2012-14. He passed for 63 touchdowns in 2014 as Athens set an OHSAA record for points scored in a season and the Bulldogs reached the Division III state title game.
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“Maybe it’s because I’ve had time to sit at home and think, but I’m just now starting to realize how unbelievable it all is,” White said.
“Remember when you were in like fifth grade, and you had your favorite player’s jersey and you wore it like twice a week because you loved them so much?” he asked. “Well, that’s going to be Joe’s jersey on so many kinds around here. I hate to use the word because you hear it all the time around here, but it’s just surreal.”
However, there will be no big watch parties, no public gatherings to celebrate Burrow’s moment. The Covid-19 pandemic has essentially made planning for the big night a moot point. It’s the one negative in what has been a dizzying eight months for Burrow backers in Athens.
Jimmy Burrow, Joe’s father, acknowledges that the celebration that normally accompanies a moment like the one anticipated Thursday night just isn’t possible.
“It’s a dream come true for really everyone who has been a part of this. He’s one of their own,” Jimmy Burrow said. “I think we’re all a little disappointed, but we understand there are a lot more pressing issues around the country right now.”
So the hometown fans will gather in small groups around televisions and computer monitors to watch Joe Burrow be selected at the top of the draft. The prospect of watching Burrow play for the Bengals is enticing for some, but for most it doesn’t matter which team takes him. He’ll be the first player from Athens County to be drafted in more than 40 years. That’s enough.
“Never in a million years would I have thought that we’d have the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft,” said Troy Bolin, the sports director at a local radio station for more than a decade. “I can’t wrap my mind around that.
“But that’s Joe for you.”
The Burrow family has made sure at every step to let everyone know how much Athens, The Plains, and all of Southeast Ohio have meant to them. They won’t be able to involve everyone they’d like to on Thursday night, but Jimmy Burrow said it’s just another beginning.
“It’s been fun for us to share Joe’s journey with the community here and really all of Southeastern Ohio.
“And Thursday, the journey continues.”
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