Tiny Ohio town bursting with pride over local hero Burrow

Feb 11, 2022, 9:21 PM | Updated: Feb 12, 2022, 11:24 am
A banner stretched across Court Street in uptown Athens, Ohio, recognizes Joe Burrow's ascension fr...

A banner stretched across Court Street in uptown Athens, Ohio, recognizes Joe Burrow's ascension from Athens High School star to Super Bowl quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. Burrow, who grew up in the nearby village of The Plains, will lead the Bengals against the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl on Sunday. (AP Photo/Mitch Stacy)

(AP Photo/Mitch Stacy)

THE PLAINS, Ohio (AP) — Joe Burrow has become something akin to a mythological figure in the weathered southeastern Ohio village where the Super Bowl quarterback spent much of his youth.

In a region with more than its fair share of sorrow from poverty, the opioid epidemic and ongoing pandemic, Burrow has given people something good to claim as their own.

“I think these people are proud that he’s from here, that he carries himself the way he does off the field, as much as they are proud of what he can accomplish on the football field,” said Matt Frazee, a service manager for an auto dealership who on Friday nights in the fall is the radio voice of the Athens High School Bulldogs.

Athens High School is here, but the more picturesque and bustling college town of Athens is nine miles away. About 3,000 people live in The Plains, including Burrow’s parents, Jimmy and Robin.

The community has a couple of stop lights, a few restaurants, scattered businesses and a lot of trailers in one of the poorest areas of the state. Burrow has talked about going to school with kids here who often didn’t have enough to eat.

“Let’s set the record straight — he’s from The Plains, Ohio,” said Sam Smathers, who started the youth football program here and was Burrow’s first coach. “So when you see it on TV and it says Athens, he is not from Athens.”

Close enough, say the people of Athens and the 20,000 or so students at Ohio University who have claimed a piece of him. Bars and restaurants have renamed menu items after him. There’s a Burrow banner stretched across Court Street and signs all over town. Burrow spent plenty of time in Athens, so it’s legit.

It’s different in The Plains though, more personal.

At the center of it is a feeling that Burrow left but didn’t leave the people behind.

Burrow’s poignant mention during his 2019 Heisman Trophy speech of the poverty in the region turned into the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund, which has taken in $1.5 million in two years. Donations are still rolling in.

His face is not ubiquitous on national TV commercials, at least not yet, but last fall he used his name to help publicize a nonprofit program to help train Ohio workers for in-demand jobs.

People here see Burrow projecting the same unassuming cool, polite forthrightness and unshakeable confidence he always did. That he hasn’t changed makes him even more appealing: They can still identify with him.

Smathers, the former youth coach, is a 56-year-old retired electrician who now keeps busy driving a shuttle bus for the university. A big, gregarious guy with a graying ZZ Top beard, Smathers has lived across North McDonald Street from the scoreboard at the football field since 1988.

He watched from his porch this week as dozens of cars, many with out-of-state plates, rolled by slowly and went up the hill to the “Joe Burrow Stadium” sign. GiGi’s Country Kitchen, a breakfast place on the main drag where Burrow was fond of the Western omelet, is a regular tourist stop.

Bursting with pride that sometimes makes him emotional, Smathers is eating up the media attention this week. Everyone wants to come talk to the coach who first installed Joey as the peewee team’s quarterback in the third grade.

“Everybody is seeing what I’ve seen for years — you put Joe Burrow on the team, that’s the X factor,” Smathers said.

His garage, known locally as the Dog Pound, once stored football equipment for the youth league. Now it’s decorated with Burrow photos and memorabilia and serves as a gathering place for anybody who wants to talk football, watch games, or even review footage of Joey tossing TD passes as a sixth grader. Burrow himself headed to the Dog Pound to hang out when he was in town before the season.

That’s where Smathers will be watching Burrow and the Bengals face the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl on Sunday night.

Burrow grew up here because this is where his parents bought a house when Jimmy Burrow was hired away from North Dakota State by coach Frank Solich in 2005 to be defensive coordinator for the Ohio Bobcats. It was a reunion for the two coaches with deep Nebraska ties.

A lot of people are very glad he did.

Kevin Wiseman is the sports editor of The Athens Messenger and covered Burrow’s high school career. He thinks Burrow’s skyrocketing notoriety has been a galvanizing force for good that has nothing to do with whether the Bengals win the Super Bowl.

“I know Joe always talks a lot about how he’s thankful for the people from southeast Ohio,” Wiseman said, “but sometimes I’m not sure he understands — or he even could — how much people appreciate him here and how much he’s loved.”

___

More AP Super Bowl coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/super-bowl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Arizona Coyotes forward Barrett Hayton, left, collides with Anaheim Ducks defenseman John Klingberg...
Associated Press

Drop the puck: What to know about the 2022-23 NHL season

The NHL is back to normal with the regular season stretching from October through the middle of April before the two-month thrill ride that is the chase for the Stanley Cup. Over that time, teams are scheduled to play a total of 1,312 games over 189 days, starting with Nashville and San Jose facing off […]
1 day ago
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) and Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) battle for t...
Associated Press

LeBron in Vegas? He makes an expansion pitch to Adam Silver

LAS VEGAS (AP) — LeBron James came to Las Vegas for a preseason game. And a pitch. James, who has spoken in the past about wanting to eventually own an NBA franchise — with Las Vegas on his mind — sent a crystal-clear message to Commissioner Adam Silver on Wednesday night, reminding him of his […]
1 day ago
FILE - Dallas Stars' Jason Robertson skates during the third period of an NHL hockey game against t...
Associated Press

Stars sign 41-goal scorer Robertson to $31M, 4-year deal

FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Jason Robertson has signed a $31 million, four-year contract with the Dallas Stars after the young 40-goal scorer missed the first two weeks of training camp. The Stars announced the deal late Wednesday night, after their exhibition game in Denver, only a week before the regular season opener Oct. 13 at […]
1 day ago
The ski slopes are almost devoid of snow at the Tūroa ski field, on Mt. Ruapehu, New Zealand on Se...
Associated Press

Missing snow puts famed New Zealand ski areas on precipice

TUROA SKI AREA, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand’s Turoa ski area is usually a white wonderland at this time of year, its deep snowpack supporting its famed spring skiing. This season, it’s largely a barren moonscape, with tiny patches of snow poking out between vast fields of jagged volcanic boulders. The ski area was […]
1 day ago
FILE - Kansas City Royals pitching coach Cal Eldred in the seventh inning of a baseball game, May 1...
Associated Press

Royals fire manager Mike Matheny after 65-97 end to season

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred were fired by the Kansas Cty Royals on Wednesday night, shortly after the struggling franchise finished the season 65-97 with a listless 9-2 loss to the Cleveland Guardians. The Royals had exercised their option on Matheny’s contract for 2023 during spring training, […]
1 day ago
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) blocks a shot by Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25...
Associated Press

James scores 23 points, but not enough as Suns defeat Lakers

LAS VEGAS (AP) — LeBron James flashed his midseason form Wednesday night, scoring 23 points in 18 minutes before the Phoenix Suns beat the Los Angeles Lakers 112-115. James, who missed all seven of his shots in Los Angeles’ loss to Sacramento on Monday, was much more aggressive with the Lakers playing without Anthony Davis. […]
1 day ago
Tiny Ohio town bursting with pride over local hero Burrow