From Heartbreak to Heisman: How Joe Burrow's Magical Season Eased His Family's Pain

Joe Burrow’s Heisman Trophy win Saturday night is about more than just football. His sensational, almost unbelievable season helped heal a family that was supposed to be bigger.
Author:
Publish date:

Jamie Burrow will forever remember the date. March 20, 2019. It was a Wednesday when his wife called him with the awful news. Jamie, traveling for work, drove from eastern Iowa directly to the hospital in his home of Omaha, Nebraska. Four months into her pregnancy, Codie Burrow’s water broke. Jamie and Codie were expecting twins, a boy and girl. Like any parents, they’d made the necessary arrangements to welcome their second and third child into this world, readying a room in their home with the normal newborn items, one set blue and another pink. The entire Burrow family was excited—grandpa Jimmy, grandma Robin, uncles Dan and Joey.

Since their marriage in 2015, Jamie and Codie hoped to have three children together, two boys and a girl. The twins would join their 4-year-old son, James IV, to make a dream become a reality. “It was like winning the lottery,” Jamie says. “We were going to have the family we envisioned.” Two days later, during a laborious birthing process on March 22, the twins were gone, lost to the world without ever taking a breath. The experience shook a family of tough, football-playing men. “We’re all about talking about our strengths in my family. This was one of our family’s weakest moments,” Jamie says. “You really feel alone when you’re going through it. You’re not alone. There’s a community and support groups out there. It should be talked about more.”

Joe Burrow’s Heisman Trophy win Saturday night in New York City is about more than just football. His sensational, almost unbelievable season helped heal a family that was supposed to be bigger. Jamie calls it a welcome distraction, a silver lining. In a dark year for this family, Jamie’s little brother provided a bright light, captaining an LSU team (13–0) that completed an undefeated regular season, won the SEC championship and landed the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs. Joe Burrow took another step in finishing off one of the best seasons in college football history this weekend, becoming the first Tiger to win the Heisman Trophy in 60 years and just the second overall, joining the late Billy Cannon. He won by an expected and record-breaking margin, garnering 93.8% of possible points to become the biggest Heisman winner in the 85 years of the award. Jalen Hurts finished second, Justin Fields third and Chase Young fourth.

Burrow’s big win is a testament to a one-year turnaround that many experts believe is unparalleled in recent college football history. He’s set SEC single-season records for passing yards (4,715) and touchdowns (48) while also on pace to break the FBS record for completion percentage (77.9%), startling statistics for a kid who last year threw 16 touchdowns, 2,894 yards and completed less than 60% of his attempts. From NFL scouts to college football analysts, from former coaches to ex-players, everyone is somewhat dumbfounded. “I don’t want to call it unprecedented,” says Rece Davis, ESPN College GameDay’s lead anchor, before pausing for a brief second during an interview with Sports Illustrated, “but I can’t think of anyone who has made this drastic a leap.”

By now, many know the details of Burrow’s stunning rise to the top spot in college football. A reserve quarterback at Ohio State, Burrow transferred to LSU in May 2018, won the starting job during fall camp, produced that ho-hum junior year, began this season as a 200-to-1 Heisman longshot and, roughly eight games in, was the odds-on favorite to win the top individual prize in the game. He’s flourished in LSU’s new shotgun-based, no-huddle spread system, implemented this offseason by Joe Brady, a 30-year-old former Saints assistant. The Tigers have the nation’s most prolific offense (554.3 yards a game), slightly ahead of their semifinal opponent, Oklahoma (554.2). Burrow & Co. meet the four-seeded Sooners (12–1) in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 28.

Saturday capped a wild week for the quarterback that included three cities, six plane flights and five awards. He was in Baltimore on Wednesday to accept the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, spent Thursday in Atlanta claiming the Maxwell, Davey O’Brien and Walter Camp awards and landed in New York on Friday for weekend-long Heisman events. He returns to Baton Rouge on Monday for the team’s own awards banquet and, of course, for the start of bowl practice.

For much of this storybook season, his family has been along for the ride. They’re a tight-knit, football-crazed group. Jimmy Burrow, a former Nebraska defensive back under coach Tom Osborne, spent decades as a high school and college coach, ending a 14-year tenure as Ohio University’s defensive coordinator this spring in order to watch his son’s senior season. The baby of the household, Joey, they call him, is a much younger half-brother to Dan, 38, and Jamie, 40, a safety and linebacker, respectively, at Nebraska in the 1990s and early 2000s.

This crew of Midwesterners has been indoctrinated into the south Louisiana culture of football and fun. Before most LSU games, you’ll find Joe’s parents and brothers under a tent in the shadow of Tiger Stadium, a banner hanging nearby marking their location—“Burrow Gang,” it reads—while they partake in gumbo and jambalaya, adult beverages too, of course. On Saturday night, they became members of another club, this one more exclusive. They will forever be a Heisman Trophy family. “It’s something we never really talked about growing up,” says Jimmy. “I think it was always in the back of Joe’s mind, and here we are.”

This year has taken this family from heartbreak to Heisman. Jamie has never spoken publicly about the loss of his twins. Up until about two months ago, he couldn’t have done this, he says. In two separate interviews with Sports Illustrated, he opened up about the most trying time of his life, partly to shine a spotlight on an issue often cast in darkness, one that impacts millions every year. According to national estimates, roughly 15-20% of all pregnancies in the United States end in miscarriage. “That’s one of the things I’d like to get out there,” Jamie says.

For two years, the couple tried for another child. They wanted more children to join a family that included James IV, nicknamed I-V, and 9-year-old Charlie, Codie’s son from a previous relationship. They learned of the twins almost exactly a year ago, a Godsend for the Burrow family that almost seemed unbelievable. The first 15 weeks of Codie’s pregnancy went smoothly. In the middle of the 16th week, the amniotic sac surrounding the female burst—five months too early. “You hope and pray. There’s not a lot of options,” says Jamie. “You wait around. She’s on bed rest. You hope the sac heals itself and there’s enough fluid in it. Next day, they did an ultrasound. I saw it, and it was… it was like an empty plastic bag encasing the fetus.”

Instead of evasive surgery, the Burrows opted for a normal childbirth the next day. The grieving process then began. Jamie and Codie left town. “We hid ourselves away and fought through it,” Jamie says. “We’ve got a good extended family. My dad dropped everything and came to town after we had found out about it.” Joe Burrow, then in the middle of LSU’s spring practice, learned of the tragic event. Five months later, the quarterback began a season that would help soothe his family’s pain. Now, eight months since tragedy struck the Burrows, since darkness enveloped them, the family all gathered in New York City for its brightest moment. “This story is unique,” says Jamie. “Two months ago, I wouldn’t be able to have this discussion the way it is. Everybody has their challenges.

“The way I was raised, in the darkest moment, you find a silver lining,” he continues. “We were like ‘This is terrible. There’s not much positive here.’ One of the positives is that now we were able to watch all of Joe’s games. We were just like, ‘Let’s just enjoy Joe’s last season.’ It’s bought us time to heal.”

Celebrate the winner of the 85th Heisman Trophy by taking home your own copy of Joe Burrow on the cover of Sports Illustrated. From Average Joe to No. 1 Pro.

For More Tigers Coverage, Visit LSU Maven