THE PLAINS, Ohio (FOX19) – It’s the first thing you notice driving into Joe Burrow’s hometown and the lasting image that sticks with you leaving the place that Burrow stills calls home – the countless number of signs.
The endless signs that sing his praises are a representation of a place that has embraced Burrow like family, long before he traveled more than 1,000 miles from home to win the Heisman Trophy and a national championship.
“I think wherever he goes, whatever community he goes to, he has that ability to connect and to engage with a community and be part of something bigger than himself,” Burrow’s youth coach Tom Vander Ven said. “That’s what makes him a great leader.”
In pictures with his youth baseball team, Joe looks like any other kid. What makes Joe unusual is what others saw in him at a very young age.
“Super competitive,” Burrow’s friend Ryan Luehrman said. “Everything we did - we’d play touch football and arguments would last the whole day about if he was touched or not or if he scored or not. It was intense.”
“Just his ability to lead people without saying much,” Burrow’s friend Adam Luehrman said. “People just play better around him. He elevates the play of everyone around him. That’s his most outstanding ability.”
"Joe always felt like we were going to win games,” Burrow’s youth coach Don Cooley said. “There was no fear involved. He was so confident.”
"There was an intensity and focus that's unusual for a kid his age,” added Vander Ven.
Pictures of Burrow the toddler display a born winner with a little plastic football in hand and a helmet by his side. The ones who know him best claim proudly they saw Joe doing all of this - Heisman winner, national champion, likely number one pick - long before anyone else.
“You sound a little cocky saying that,” said Nathan White, who was Burrow’s offensive coordinator at Athens High School. “To be honest, none of this is overly surprising. If you would’ve told me Joe’s senior year of high school, ‘hey, he’s going to win the Heisman,’ I would’ve said, ‘I can see that happening.’”
It’s not all smoke with Burrow. The picture of him smoking a cigar after winning the national title perfectly paints the confidence his friends and family have always seen in Joe. It’s the ‘I don’t care what you think of me’ way about Burrow.
“The dad doesn’t always approve of it,” Burrow’s father Jimmy said. “It’s just part of his confidence and personality when he transforms into that football player. What he would bring to an NFL team? He’s smart, football smart and a good leader.”
“I watched him take our program from average to the state championship,” added White. “He got LSU over the hump. He has an aura about him. He’s a leader. He’s a guy that can change a program or franchise around.”
The long drive to watch Burrow play football might soon be over for his friends and family. A quick three-hour trip south could change the entire color of Burrow’s hometown.
“I think a lot of Athens is open to being Bengals fans,” Vander Ven said. “If Joe was in that uniform, you’d see a lot of Bengals colors around here on Sunday.”
Even if the colors change, the signs around town still tell us the same thing about Burrow. The same kid who won over his hometown, and two major college programs (Ohio State and LSU), is ready to win over Cincinnati - and may have already done it.
“This is something that will change the future of Bengal football,” said Cooley. “[To Mike Brown], please don’t screw this up. Please don’t screw this up.”
(Footnote: Joe Burrow has helped raise more than $500,000 for the Athens County Food Pantry as a result of his Heisman speech)