It’s the last day of “Joe’Bleness” week at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital as I write this, and the staff is wearing their Cincinnati Bengals gear, orange and black. The LED sign uptown that usually flashes COVID case count numbers is cheering “Who Dey,” the Bengals’ infectious chant. Speaking of which: It’s “Fri-DEY” of Joe Burrow Spirit Week at the Athens City School District, and the kids are wearing animal print and stripes.
I live in Athens, Ohio, and it has been quite a week. I’ve never lived in a place that produced a football phenomenon like 25-year-old Joe Burrow (aka Joe Shiesty, Joe Brrr, Joey B., Joe Cool), the extremely mediagenic up-and-coming quarterback who played high school ball here and will lead the Bengals at the Super Bowl on Sunday. So I’m not sure if what’s happening here is normal or not. But my little Appalachian town is going off, and the Burrowmania is contagious.
The scenes in Athens have accumulated into a portrait of a hometown undone. When I went into Donkey Coffee, uptown, a few days ago, the customer in front of me in line was chatting with the baristas, who were all joking about how they don’t care about football (which, same). They were so nervous for the big game: “I almost can’t watch. I’m just like, Don’t hit him that hard!” one of them said. The customer in front of me agreed. As he was leaving, I realized that under the KN95 mask, he was our mayor.
Meanwhile, the mural above appeared on the “graffiti wall” on the Ohio University campus in town this week. The picture is from a pre-game photo taken before the AFC championship game in Kansas City two weeks ago. The coat Joe is wearing was designed by Micah Saltzman, the younger brother of Burrow’s high-school teammate, Zacchiah. When I first saw that, I had to think for a second to place the name, then realized: The Saltzman kids’ mom was my kid’s (wonderful) babysitter a few years back. This is some small-town stuff. No wonder I’m feeling the fever.
Burrow’s story is extremely Athens County. As my husband, an Athens native, former Athens High football player (pre-Joe), and inveterate booster for the area, would describe Athens: “It punches above its weight.” This place isn’t a typical football powerhouse, and it’s somewhat improbable that Burrow grew up here. (He came to Athens when his dad got hired as a football coach at Ohio U.) In his three seasons at Athens High, our Bulldogs went 37-4; his eight playoff game wins remain the only ones in the school’s history.
Neither has the (short!) path from Athens to the Super Bowl been smooth sailing. Even after those high-school miracles, and after Burrow won a scholarship to Ohio State, he had to move on to LSU before he could really shine, leading the team to the national title and winning the 2019 Heisman Trophy. In his first season with the Bengals, he was horribly injured (don’t watch the tape), and I was worried: Would my adopted hometown’s deep faith in their Joey finally be tested? But Burrow got back to it in his second season, got the Bengals their first playoff win in 31 years, and here we are. My husband—and the rest of this town—never doubted it for a second.
I spoke with Alex Hulvalchick, editor of the Athens Messenger, right as she was closing a special section on Joey B. for this weekend’s paper. She said it was originally going to be 12 pages, but after their regular advertisers heard about it, they bought in at such a rate that the paper ended up doubling it to 24. The paper printed T-shirts (proceeds going to the Athens County Food Pantry) and as of Thursday, had sold 700 of them. “Any type of angle you can take with Joe, any type of coverage, anything that involves him, readers just love it,” she said. “People just love him.”
Reporters from hither and yon are writing pieces about Athens, which are always a little odd to read, because, as we all know, big-city papers love an out-of-nowhere sports star from a small town that’s down on its luck. Burrow did grow up in The Plains, a small town cheek by jowl with Athens that has about 3,000 people, and The Plains is a little bit down on its luck, if not quite “dusty” (thank you for that, Washington Post). But even if the city of Athens is a 20,000-person hippie college town that doesn’t quite fit the “gritty” template for national news stories about Appalachia, and even if Burrow did grow up the kid of an OU football coach, he did love Gigi’s Country Kitchen, and the Bob Evans, and his mom is the principal of an elementary school in nearby Meigs County, which has a very high poverty rate. And his emotional mention of hunger in and around Athens in his Heisman speech (“I’m up here for all those kids in Athens…that go home to not a lot of food on the table”) has, as of now, netted $1.5 million in (mostly small) donations to the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund. As a local friend put it, he might not have come from poverty himself, but what’s important to everyone here is: He didn’t forget what he saw.
Like a few other Athenians, I don’t usually care too much about football. But man, am I going to be watching the QB that my daughter now calls “the boy from our town” on Sunday. I just want to see everyone’s faith and effort bear fruit: the mural that just got finished on Friday, crowned with new laurels; people streaming out of the uptown bars and going mad; Joe Burrow’s icy, unfailing, joyful confidence, rewarded again. I’ll be watching through my fingers to see it come true.