Meet Joe Burrow: LSU's Toughest Renaissance Man and Maybe Savior at QB
HOOVER, Alabama — Joe Burrow remembers tucking a stool into his locker and then collapsing onto the floor. He’d never passed out before so this was all new. His body was devoid of nutrition after one of the longest games in college football history, LSU’s seven-overtime, five-hour marathon loss at Texas A&M in which Burrow attempted 38 passes and ran 29 times. One minute, he lay on the visiting locker room floor. The next, he was on a table with an IV in his arm and trainers feeding him cookies and applesauce. And then he saw his parents, ushered inside by team personnel for one of the scariest sights any parent could see—their son a literal example of a human body giving out after a football game. The issue was serious enough that it delayed the team from departing Kyle Field that night, trainers tending to the Tigers’ star quarterback before finally helping him to the bus. “To see somebody put that kind of effort, desire and passion in a game,” longtime head LSU trainer Jack Marucci says, “it’s probably one of the first times I’ve seen anyone get into that kind of state of fatigue.”
Eight months later, toward the end of his five-hour twirl through SEC media days Monday, Burrow says of the episode, “It’s not my favorite memory of the season.” But isn’t it the most Joe Burrow thing of the season? He is, after all, heralded as the tough guy with gobs of grit, a player who seeks collisions and refuses to slide, who as a backup quarterback at Ohio State begged Urban Meyer to play on the kickoff team. What’s more Joe Burrow than collapsing onto the locker room floor after a football game? “He literally,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron says, “left it all on the field”—almost too much of it. Burrow emerged last season as a potential savior at an embattled position for this program. He cemented himself as a centerpiece to the 2019 team with this kind of stuff, not just for throwing for more than 3,000 yards or tossing 18 touchdowns to five interceptions, but for being a fearless kid that Cajuns love so much. There is more to Burrow, though, than a bunch of stats and bruises, and he got to show his weird, quirky side here at college football’s biggest unofficial kickoff event in this Birmingham suburb.
You’ve seen Burrow throw TDs, take body blows and convert third downs, but have you heard him talk about black holes, time travel and neutron stars? Because that’s what he read about last week on his phone after he lost cable TV as Hurricane Barry swept across south Louisiana. “There’s a theory of white holes,” was how Burrow began one sentence in front of puzzled reporters Monday. Oh, he was just getting started. Burrow has views on social issues, stances that some players are not knowledgeable or courageous enough to publicly express. He believes players should be compensated—“the system right now is broken,” he says—and he’s got his own views on racial inequality, pointing to a recent tweet from President Donald Trump that directed four U.S. Congresswomen to “go back” to their home countries. Trump has faced a backlash over the tweet suggesting freshmen U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, all women of color, weren't born in America. Omar, a Somali refugee, is the only who wasn't born in the United States. “Why does racial inequality have to be political?” Burrow asks aloud. “It’s basic human decency.”
Fearless on the field and off it, Burrow, of course, has a lighter side. He wore blue and yellow socks Monday depicting on it the Road Runner from Looney Toons. He’s a cartoon buff. He’s got much more where they came from, he says, including a Space Jam sweater he still sports. He’s a guitarist, too, but he can only play one song—Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin”—because it’s the only tune he learned during guitar lessons before breaking his arm and never restarting tutoring. Burrow spent a summer in New York interning at Goldman Sachs. He has an interest in Wall Street, too. He’s a different kind of renaissance man, but one nonetheless who can hold a conversation with anyone, including SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. The two met Monday and bonded over their shared passion for apples. Burrow eats a Honeycrisp apple each morning, a sort-of healthy version of caffeine, he says. You know, he told Sankey, that one apple is the equivalent of drinking one cup of coffee. “Really?” Sankey replied. He’s honest about a great many things. He admits to having two bizarre superstitions: eating a Carmel apple sucker before each game and wearing one game sock inside out. He likes Carmel apple suckers so much that a girl in high school asked Burrow to prom by bribing him with two giant bags of the candy. He said yes.
But back to that tough side of Joe Burrow, the one that had him collapsing after a football game. “He’s a competitive guy, the tough guy, the Midwest kid you want,” Marucci says. “One thing you don’t have to teach him is grit.” Burrow’s junior season highlights are compiled in a YouTube video post titled “Toughest QB in College Football,” and it has more than 15,000 views. There’s the clip in which Burrow drags a Florida defender a few yards on a QB keeper, and the one where an Ole Miss defender pummels him to the ground at the goal line. There are some from the pocket, where he stood upright in the face of pressure to deliver a couple of significant third-down completions in the big win at Auburn last September. How about the clip of him stiff arming a Georgia defender in a move that resulted in 30 more yards?
Burrow’s toughness is rooted in a family full of athletes originally from rural Northern Mississippi. The Burrow athletic lineage dates back nearly a century. Dot Ford, his grandmother, once scored a state-record 82 points in a Mississippi high school basketball game back in the 1940s, and grandfather James Burrow starred as a point guard at Mississippi State. His uncle, Johnny, played safety for Ole Miss in the 1980s, and his father, Jimmy, was a defensive back for Tom Osborne’s Nebraska Cornhuskers. His two older brothers, Jamie and Dan, played for Nebraska, too. If that’s not enough, dad Jimmy followed his playing career by coaching ball for nearly 40 years. This spring, he retired as the longtime defensive coordinator at Ohio University in order to catch every game of his son’s senior season. “That did play a part in it,” Jimmy says. “It was all to go to these games.”
Sports runs deep in this family. Joe attended his first sporting event—his brother Dan’s basketball game—at the age of 5… days old. At age 6, he watched Jamie start at middle linebacker and his father coach on the sideline during the 2001 Rose Bowl, when No. 1 Miami beat No. 2 Nebraska 37-14 for the BCS title (all he remembers from that day was the T-Rex float in the Rose Parade). That’s right around the time little Joey began to play youth football, when his third-grade team didn’t have a quarterback and so it was up to the coach’s son to run the offense. That’s how Joe became a quarterback and not a defensive player like his dad, uncle and two brothers. Just because little Joey played offense did not mean he played soft. “He had no choice,” Jimmy says, “we weren’t going to let him not play physical.”
Dan now lives in Houston, and Jamie resides in Omaha, Nebraska, both of them having developed into rabid LSU fans. Jamie even sports a purple jersey on game days with the Louisiana version of his surname, Burreaux, emblazoned on its rear. Joe’s hometown, The Plains, Ohio, where he led the local high school team to the state championship game as a senior, has caught LSU Tiger fever, Jimmy says. A local restaurant offers game-day discounts for those wearing purple, and the amount of LSU flags sprinkled throughout the city confounds newcomers. “We have a new basketball staff at Ohio,” Jimmy says, “and one of the assistants was driving around with the realtor and asked, ‘What’s the deal with the LSU stuff here?’” Dozens of residents of the town journeyed to Baton Rouge last season to watch their hometown hero play. Meanwhile, dad was coaching his own games at Ohio University. Jimmy hasn’t watched his son play in Tiger Stadium yet, only catching a trio of road games last year. That’s about to change, and Joe is excited enough about it—a father giving up his career for his son—to get ever-so-slightly emotional Monday. “It’s for the sole purpose to see me play,” Joe says. “That’s pretty special” This is a close bond between dad and son. In April, Jimmy spent an entire week with Joe staying at his three-bedroom apartment (he doesn’t have roommates). The two lounged around, watching the only football on (Canadian) and their favorite TV series (Law & Order).
Joe is a coach’s son through and through, a football junkie who’ll watch film deep into the night. Having graduated from Ohio State last spring, Joe is in a Master’s program at LSU (Liberal Arts) that requires only online classes. There are parts of LSU’s campus he has never seen. His days in Baton Rouge are mostly spent in the football facility, his apartment or at the casino. He’s a blackjack player who’s currently on whatever’s opposite of a heater. “They have been taking my money,” Joe says. “Went last weekend. They stole all my money.” Outside of that, it’s mostly football, and that’s probably why in just a few short months, Burrow won the starting quarterback job, learned the offense enough to lead his new team to 10 wins, captivated the LSU fan base and was here in Hoover as the school’s first quarterback to be brought to a media days event in six years—one of just three SEC teams to have such a streak (oddly enough, the other two, Georgia and Alabama, are bringing quarterbacks this week too). In Baton Rouge, the quarterback position has long been viewed as the thorn in the side of a program that appears to have everything else for a return to championship glory. An LSU passing offense hasn’t cracked the top 50 nationally in six years, but things are looking up. Behind Danny Etling in 2017 and Burrow last year, the Tigers broke a stretch of three consecutive years in the triple digits nationally. In fact, the reputation of LSU quarterbacks is such that it showed itself during Joe’s recruiting process after he announced he was transferring from Ohio State. He visited just two schools: LSU and Cincinnati. “We were, by other coaches, reminded ‘Hey you’re going down there to be under center and hand the ball off to a tailback 60 times a game,’” Jimmy remembers. “We had to research the QB situation then and be convinced that things are going to be different with the offense. They’ve been moving in this direction. It’s been an evolution. We were told up front they were going to change.”
This offseason, Orgeron hired Saints assistant Joe Brady, who with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger is installing a new RPO-reliant, no-huddle spread offense, a scheme Tigers fans have been craving for years. It’s finally here, Orgeron says, and the centerpiece is, of course, the long-haired quirky kid being whisked around the Hyatt Regency on Monday. Check that: he’s no longer long haired. Burrow cut his shoulder-length locks earlier this summer after this Midwestern boy experienced the pot of steaming gumbo that is summer in south Louisiana. “Can’t have long hair in camp,” he says, “or you’ll die.” The heat might be his biggest obstacle since his arrival last June. He went through two pairs of cleats during preseason camp last fall. The first pair melted from so many days spent on the team’s outdoor artificial turf practice field. Practice on that field is, Joe says, “like having a hairdryer blowing in your face.” The other obstacle of south Louisiana, he tells Sankey, a health conscience man, is the food. Burrow gained about 10 pounds in his first six-week period in Baton Rouge, a result, he says, of trying every different kind of food he could get. He’s now learned to cook to avoid the fatty south Louisiana fare, but it’s a work in progress. He recently ate a chicken tortilla so burned it was nearly black.
He pokes fun at himself about his cooking, and everything else, part of a personality that warmed LSU players to him so quickly. It’s part of why Ohio State fans and players openly root for him still. Former OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett, now living 90 minutes south of Baton Rouge as a member of the New Orleans Saints, visited Burrow earlier this summer and plans to attend a few LSU games. Burrow himself returned to Ohio State to watch the Buckeyes spring game. Last fall, LSU’s last-second field goal to beat Auburn played in real time on a jumbotron at the site of Ohio State’s game against TCU in Arlington, Texas. Roars from OSU fans engulfed AT&T Stadium as the kick split the uprights, and there was Joe, shown on the screen with his hands in the air. That was when he began to feel comfortable at LSU, he says, a feeling surely helped by his late-game play. He connected with Derrick Dillon for a 71-yard touchdown with 8 minutes left, and then kept the Tigers alive with a dart to receiver Stephen Sullivan on fourth-and-7 with less than three minutes left, a drive that ended with Cole Tracy’s game-winning, 42-yard boot. He entered the huddle ahead of that fourth-down play, looked at his teammates and, smiling cheek to check, said, “Hey guys. What’s up?” That’s just Joe, LSU center Lloyd Cushenberry says—cool, calm, disarming Joe.
There were hiccups last season, too. He threw a game-ending interception at Florida, and Alabama was a doozy—“they kicked our butts,” he says—but then came a furious final four games in which he completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,166 yards (291 a game), throwing 10 touchdowns to one interception. That encouraged everyone in Baton Rouge and led to a shift in offensive philosophy, something always planned but expedited because of this new quarterback’s tools. Even the trainers know it. “His last four games is who he is,” Marucci says. “That’s who we’re building around.” Marucci was there for the Texas A&M postgame fiasco. And, no, we’re not talking about the fisticuffs. In the locker room, Burrow dropped to a knee and then the floor. Michael Bonnette, the school’s longtime sports information director, saw it all. “I ran to get Jack (Marucci),” Bonnette recalls. At that point, nearly every player had already loaded the bus. Word filtered through the rows of seats, Cushenberry says. “We were definitely worried about him, but he’s tough.” Ah, that word again. He is tough, but he’s so much more. He’s Joe Burrow, maybe the savior at quarterback for a program that badly needs one and a guy who knows a thing or two about black holes. Toward the end of his media parade through the Hyatt Regency on Monday, Joe found himself staring into a camera being asked bizarre made-for-TV questions. One of them: What’s the last topic you searched on Google. “Oh Gosh,” Joe says, slipping his phone from his pocket and searching its browser history. He looked up and provided the questioner with the answer: “Superluminal time travel.”