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Joe Burrow’s Rise to Stardom Wasn’t As Easy As He’s Made It Look—Just Ask His Parents

They watched him as he languished at Ohio State, as he was carted off with his knee in shambles. Now, Robin and Jimmy Burrow are watching their son on the verge of a Super Bowl.

The biggest worry for the Burrows these days is figuring out exactly how they’ll squeeze Mike into a checked bag for their flight.

Mike is the family’s three-foot-tall stuffed Bengal tiger that sits on the hood of their rental car during pregame tailgate parties. He has developed a reputation as a talisman of sorts for Robin and Jimmy, the parents of the quarterback who has gifted the city of Cincinnati its first playoff victory in three decades and ended the NFL’s longest conference championship game drought. That is to say, life is pretty good right now.

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While there will always be pregame jitters—both say the bustle of the tailgate does little to calm the surge of worry—most of them vanish upon entry into the stadium once they get a look at Joe warming up, see his face and understand that he’s having the time of his life; he’s got this under control. For more than 24 hours before that moment, they don’t see Joe or talk to Joe, so it takes that visual to confirm. Both mom and dad have sent him pregame text messages for years; they joke that they’re still waiting for replies (once, when Jimmy advised him to take some practice throws against the wind in college, Joe simply said to him after the game, “I know, Dad,” which confirmed he was at least reading the messages). He locks himself into a place where only the game matters. During home games, that means they plan their arrival at Joe’s place only after they know he’s departed for the stadium. On this Saturday morning in downtown Nashville, at the team hotel just a few hours before the Bengals would stun the No. 1–seeded Titans, Jimmy laughs and says, “If he happened to walk by right now and saw me, I know enough not to go see him. I might wave at him, but he’s so one-track-minded.”

Jimmy is pawing a cup of black coffee, surrounded by folks in replica jerseys bearing his family name. His favorite is the LSU one with “BURREAUX” on the back, an idea Joe came up with himself. Jimmy’s seat, just a few feet from a wall of windows with views of the Cumberland River and Broadway is like a receiving line of relatives, friends and former LSU football staffers, all of whom have been inspired, reconnected or invigorated by the continued ascent of Joe Burrow, a cast-aside collegiate transfer who arrived in the infertile offensive mud pit that was LSU, torched the SEC’s NFL subdivision teams and outdueled Trevor Lawrence in the national championship game. There will one day (maybe soon) be a statue of him outside of Tiger Stadium. His goal, it seems, is to rescue one once-proud football outpost at a time. The Bengals, one game from Super Bowl LVI, are next.

Since the start of that national championship season, the Burrows have been living in a kind of surreal fantasy world. Jimmy and Robin have rekindled bonds with so many members of their extended family, hanging out with first cousins, second cousins, uncles and aunts in every road city. Jimmy got to have three generations of Burrow men together at the LSU–Mississippi State game (Joe’s grandfather played basketball for the Bulldogs). Jimmy, a former NFL and CFL defensive back, as well as a longtime college football coach, grew up a Mississippi State diehard and still owns a cowbell. The sound of them clanging that day gave him chills.

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“We’re probably always going to have trouble with the idea that this is just the way it’s going to be,” Jimmy says in a quiet Southern accent with a smile. “We had breakfast this morning, and there’s one other person in the place. A Bengals fan. He wanted a picture. And that’s great. We love people’s support of Joe and our family. But yeah, I don’t think we’ll ever get used to it.”

Robin, who is still a school principal at Eastern Local in Meigs County and will dutifully report to bus duty the morning after the AFC championship game, said a fifth-grader walked up to her the other day and said:

“You know, it’s so weird that you’re Joe Burrow’s mom, like, you’re actually Joe Burrow’s mom.

“And I said, ‘I know! Pretty amazing, isn’t it?”

Of course, both of them know that their current reality didn’t just materialize. Bringing up Burrow wasn’t a seamless glide into celebrity. They know that their son didn’t just conjure from the football ether to come and entertain us. Burrow’s path from Ohio State transfer to No. 1 pick was riddled with human moments, of times when he just needed to see mom and dad. So, too, was his climb back from a potentially devastating knee injury that threatened to wipe out more than just the end of his promising rookie season in Cincinnati. Right now, it just seems like another convenient hero’s detour in Burrow’s perpetually meme-able cigar-smoking journey of cool. But is life ever that simple?

“I was just worried he might not be able to mentally push through being hit again,” Robin says before laughing the kind of laugh you get only from moms who have been through hundreds of football games, watching-through-your-fingers moments after big hits, and, yes, the sight of your baby boy on a green NFL injury cart. “Clearly, he’s gotten over that.”

Joe’s parents took off on the two-and-a-half-hour drive for their son’s Cincinnati home the moment they saw it. It was four days before Thanksgiving 2020, the Bengals visiting Washington, leading 9–7 early in the second half. Now, more than 400 days later, looking up the moment on YouTube comes with a disclaimer for those with weak stomachs.

Burrow took a hit not dissimilar to the one that ended legendary quarterback Joe Thiesmann’s career. One defender, Montez Sweat, pounced on Burrow up high on his right shoulder. At the same time, another defender, Jonathan Allen, was being pushed into Burrow’s left leg, just above the knee. The simultaneous collision resulted in a torn ACL and a torn MCL. He also partially tore his meniscus and PCL. Burrow was on the ground, clasping his knee with his right hand, as if he were the hinge holding the whole thing together. Burrow tweeted soon afterward that the NFL couldn’t get rid of him that easily.

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Robin and Jimmy spent their time on the road answering calls and texts from concerned family members. They said the Bengals were “great,” keeping them constantly updated. Robin just wanted to be where Joe was going to be before her son got there. Paul Brown Stadium MRI room? The hospital? She didn’t care.

Total Mom Energy took over Joe’s house as she stocked the fridge full of water, brought up his favorite comfortable clothes and dragged out the blankets. Burrow’s list of favorite foods from his childhood had to be kept in strict moderation now thanks to his new NFL diet, but that didn’t stop the biscuits and gravy, potato soup, veggie stew and Snickers salad (an incredible sounding dessert with pudding, Cool Whip and chopped-up pieces of Snickers bar) from running through her mind.

“It’s tough for mom and dad,” Jimmy says now.

It reminded Robin of a few years back, when Joe was struggling at Ohio State. He had a broken bone in his hand, requiring surgery. It looked like his dwindling chances of realizing an NFL dream involved moving elsewhere, leaving Ohio. It weighed on him. The unforgiving grind of an Urban Meyer roster. So she did what any mom would do, making the trip to Columbus a few times a month to take him out for a vanilla ice cream cone.

“Literally, it was silly, but I would drive up on Sundays and trade out his laundry with a new batch that was clean, so he didn’t have to worry about that,” Robin says. “Little things, so we could keep life as normal and stress-free as possible. Help maintain his confidence, so he’d keep pushing through it.”

He was able to maintain emotional levity, never once sinking into a comfort zone where he’d just happily accept a college scholarship and move on with life. Jimmy and Robin would just keep reminding him that there are things in his control. That there are ways to get better every day, even if he’s not on the field.

Just a few years later, he’d earn a pair of degrees from two universities, win a national title and position himself as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, to a place—Cincinnati—where he’d always wanted to play. Jimmy, to this day, calls the rumors that Burrow didn’t want to play for the Bengals “unfounded.” Joe always believed he could fix things.

His parents knew they shouldn’t expect anything else that day, as he arrived home from Washington to try to rebuild his knee and his mentality after an injury that could have altered the course of many developing players.

Jimmy wanted to tell him how sorry he was. He wanted to talk about how unfair the whole thing felt.

“Joe wanted to talk about how well they’d been throwing the ball against Washington,” Jimmy says. “But, that’s just him.”

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Matty Meyer is rolling through the concourse of Nissan Stadium wearing orange snow pants with a spiderweb design, orange hat with Burrow’s No. 9 on the top and orange sunglasses. He is carrying a flag with the word “JACKPOT” written along the top, with another No. 9 underneath.

Meyer looked up the name of, and reached out to Burrow’s agent, Brian Ayrault, in an effort to trademark the slogan. Just wait, he said, because JOE JACKPOT is going to be the hottest nickname in sports. Burrow has also been called Joey Franchise, Joe Shiesty, Joe Cool, Smokin’ Joe and the Tiger King.

A few yards down, another fan is wearing a custom-made shirt featuring Burrow’s iconic LSU photo in which he is sitting, right foot over left leg, smoking a cigar after the Tigers won the national championship in 2020, pasted over the Cincinnati skyline.

He has become an attitude, an expression. Few quarterbacks in the NFL can sell a T-shirt based solely on the shape their face takes when they’re about to do something cool. Peyton Manning always looked like he was trying to fix a broken lawnmower. Brother Eli looked like he was gazing into the sun without shades on. Aaron Rodgers looks perpetually dour, as if a passive-aggressive parent was taking away his car keys.

Burrow has somehow channeled the trendy carelessness of the Jay Cutler smoking meme, the purposeful glare of the John Belushi poster in your college dorm room and the hair of a young Kennedy portrait from the White House. Not bad, his mom says, for a kid who she could never get to pose for photos.

The Burrows say they’re happy Joe is sharing his personality with the world. His dad is still blown away that his pregame outfit gets Instagrammed. Until the middle of this season, Robin says, many of the people they saw in Burrow jerseys were family members or friends. They would be able to strike up a conversation. Now Burrow is one of the top-selling jerseys in the country.

“As we’re driving into the stadium we always play this little game,” Jimmy says. “For three or four hours we’ll tailgate, and we wait to see how long it takes to see a No. 9 jersey. It’s usually within five minutes.”

The Burrows spent part of their summer vacation watching Joe work out and strength train. By Christmas 2020 he’d already taken comfortable strides with no cast or brace on his leg. He went from resistance bands and gravity treadmills to isolated leg squats with a kettlebell dangling from his arm. By organized team activities he was throwing with an industrial-sized brace on his leg.

Burrow was carted off after a season-ending injury in November 2020.

Burrow was carted off after a season-ending injury in November 2020.

“Just seeing how strong in July his leg was, it helped ease my mind. It was clear he was going to be strong enough,” Robin says.

Of course, deep down she already knew that. She had seen it so many times before. They wouldn’t start doubting him now. Though she winced through the first few games, the first few sacks (Burrow was taken down a league-high 51 times this year) they started noticing obvious running situations and seeing how he would comfortably dart for the sidelines without hesitation.

On Saturday, tucked in their seats at Nissan Stadium, Robin says she never wavered in her belief that the Bengals were going to win. Joe was sacked nine times, which tied a playoff record. The Titans had a 66% win probability with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Her least optimistic thought was overtime, but even then, they’d leave with a victory.

All of this takes some getting used to, of course. But after a while you stop worrying about the hits. You start believing that good things are always going to happen. You embrace the chaos, toss the stuffed tiger on the hood of the car and let it ride. Being around Joe so long has that effect on people.

“I knew,” she says. “I just knew it was going to be O.K.”

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