Jimmy Burrow is wary of sharing the photo with just anyone, especially a member of the media. He has mostly kept it to himself and his family. It’s never been published, never been seen by the outside world.
He’s afraid of the optics. After all, he says, what father gives his 7-year-old son a cigar, tells him to pose with it and snaps a photo?
“Is that child abuse?” Jimmy says jokingly.
He finally relents and shares the photo through text.
There, in all of its glory, is his son, Joe Burrow, smiling for the camera while donning a red-striped shirt and black jeans, a basketball positioned under his left tennis shoe, and awkwardly gripping an unlit cigar in his left hand.
Wait, wait, Jimmy says. He can explain.
He says the scene is a recreation of a 60-year-old black-and-white photo of himself as a young boy, his foot on a basketball and his hand holding a cigar, this one lit. Why did Jimmy’s father photograph him with a lit stogie for a portrait that was published in the local newspaper?
That’s a story for later.
For now, what has been revealed here is Joe Burrow, Cincinnati’s first-round draft pick and quarterback extraordinaire, has posed for photos with cigars for quite some time. The nation has only recently taken notice—first, two years ago, when an image of a cigar-smoking Burrow surfaced after LSU’s national championship, and over the past few weeks, when Burrow lit cigars after the Bengals won the AFC North and later beat the Chiefs to advance to Sunday’s Super Bowl.
The cigar has now become part of Burrow’s identity—a symbol of success, a representation of the smooth and cool quarterback himself. Fans have gifted Burrow and his family dozens of cigars (Jimmy Burrow keeps a jar of them in his basement). In fact, just last week, a Bengals fan contacted LSU’s athletic department in an effort to send the quarterback’s family a gift … a cigar. A Louisiana-based tobacco distributing company is also offering Joe Burrow his own line of smokes, while former NBA star Karl Malone plans to ship five boxes of his own cigars to the Bengals if they win it all.
“It cracks me up that Joe is known for smoking cigars,” says Dan Burrow, one of Joe’s two older brothers. “I’ve never known him to be a cigar guy.”
Thing is, he isn’t.
In his Baton Rouge office, on Jeffrey Marx’s desk, is a pile of documents specifically devoted to the most famous photo he has taken.
According to the U.S. Copyright Office, the photo’s official name is Joe Burrow Victory Cigar. Those using the photo for commercial gain must pay royalties to Marx, a 59-year-old who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for investigative reporting and now works as an author and freelance writer. Marx doesn’t take a dime from the photo—all of the royalties are split between charities in Louisiana and Burrow’s home state of Ohio.
The pile is evidence of unlawful uses of the photograph, many of them uncovered by LSU fans, Marx’s readers and friends who alert him of violations. Marx primarily goes after major media outlets using the photo without permission or companies profiting from the photo by selling goods without paying royalties. He says the most recent offenders include ESPN, Barstool Sports and Fox Sports. Marx has dozens of examples of copyright violators that have produced and sold items like sweatshirts, T-shirts, tote bags and coffee mugs that use the photo.
Violations have reached an all-time high during the Bengals’ march to their first Super Bowl appearance in 34 years. His inbox has been flooded. “There’s not a day that has passed without me dealing with this photo,” he says.
Such is the consequence, Marx says, of being at “the wrong place at the right time.” On the night LSU beat Clemson, 42–25, to win the national championship at the Superdome in New Orleans, LSU officials gave Marx special access for a series of stories he eventually wrote on the relationship between Burrow and then Tigers coach Ed Orgeron. It’s the only reason he was there at the game, and the only reason he found himself within a caravan of people, Orgeron and Burrow included, parading through the stadium halls on the way to the postgame news conference.
They all arrived at a holding area reserved for school officials, players and coaches. In the celebratory mayhem, no one told Marx to leave. He nestled into a corner hoping to acquire behind-the-scenes material while Burrow, Orgeron and others waited for Clemson’s news conference to end. Suddenly, he glanced up and saw it.
“It’s not every day you see a player in full uniform smoking a cigar,” Marx says.
On the ground, near Burrow’s cleated feet, LSU videographer Matt Karin pointed his camera upward and around for a panoramic view of the scene.
“He just sat right down on the couch, crossed his legs and started hamming it up,” Karin recalls. “It was like a scene out of a movie. The ironic thing about the whole couch-smoking thing is it only happened because [Clemson coach] Dabo Swinney ran long in his press conference.”
Burrow would later describe the scene to Marx as his “exhale moment.”
“The game, the stress, the celebration, the locker room,” Marx says, “it was his first quiet [postgame] moment.”
Using his phone, Marx snapped the shot at 12:04 a.m. Two minutes later, as Burrow took the stage for the news conference, Marx posted the image on Twitter.
“I hardly know how to use a phone, let alone take good pictures with one,” Marx says. “I was back there and no one had seen this. That was the first picture that went out to the public, the original Burrow cigar picture. It went nuts.”
In August, before LSU kicked off the 2019 season, Tyler Shelvin, then LSU’s nose tackle and now teammates with Burrow in Cincinnati, pulled aside KJ Malone.
“When we go to the natty, I wanna smoke some of your dad’s cigars,” Shelvin told him.
Malone, son of Karl and a former LSU football player who was at the time an intern on the Tigers strength staff, just shrugged. Yeah, sure.
“He had to remind me the week of practice for the championship,” Malone says. “I had forgotten!”
So, on the afternoon of the title game, Malone strolled into the Superdome with two plastic bags full of Karl Malone cigars, all 150 of which had to be cleared by the U.S. Secret Service, who were on hand for President Donald Trump’s appearance at the game.
Hours later, amid a celebratory locker room, Malone distributed the cigars, realizing then he forgot two important ingredients: lighters and cigar cutters. Players instead used their teeth to bite off the foot of their cigars and borrowed lighters from event staff members. They huddled around the few flames they could acquire like cold campers around warm fires, says Gus Stark, an LSU athletic department photographer who documented the celebration.
Soon, the Superdome locker room, an older structure with low ceilings, turned into a smoky dungeon. And with the stadium just 80 miles from the LSU campus, the traditional open locker room turned into a zoo of former LSU players and current NFL stars, including Zeke Elliott, Odell Beckham Jr. and Michael Thomas. Beckham, an LSU alum who minutes earlier distributed $100 bills to players on the field (an NCAA violation the school eventually self-reported), entered the locker room in a mad rush and leaped into players’ arms.
Soon behind him, the locker room got new visitors: officers from the City of New Orleans Police Department.
“Never did it ever occur to me that the Superdome is a non-smoking arena and people were just lighting up,” says Gordy Rush, a sideline radio reporter for LSU.
Police threatened to arrest players if they didn’t tamper the cigars. Some players ignored them. Others tossed still-lit cigars into trash cans, making matters worse. “Odell, the smoke, the police. It was chaos,” remembers Brandon Berrio, an LSU communications staff member.
At some point, Malone approached Burrow with a cigar. The quarterback at first waved off the cigar before reconsidering. He looked around, saw everyone else smoking and told Malone, “O.K., give me one!”
If the Bengals beat the Rams on Sunday, Joe Burrow’s cigar smoking will come full circle, KJ says. The Malones are sending enough cigars to Los Angeles for the entire Bengals team.
“He was passing them out to everybody,” Burrow said of Malone during a 2021 radio interview, “and mine was about halfway [smoked] when they said it’s time to do media.”
Communications staff members whisked Burrow through a winding, smoke-filled pit of a locker room, down the Dome hallway and into the holding area. He plopped on the couch, puffed on the cigar and then hopped on stage for his turn, but not before officials strongly advised him not to take a lit cigar into a news conference.
He argued with school communications director Michael Bonnette. Why couldn’t he smoke and talk to the press?
Finally, he gave up. “He takes a big puff, blows it and presents the cigar to Michael. ‘You deal with this,’” remembers Karin.
“I’m not a big cigar guy. The smoke is blowing in my face,” Bonnette says. “So I tapped it out.”
Exiting the stage and realizing his cigar was no longer lit, Burrow sneered at Bonnette, “Why’d you do that!?”
Two years later, Bonnette chuckles about it all. If nothing else, he can always say he has a claim to a famous stogie.
“It was cool to be the guy who held Joe’s cigar,” he says.
James Burrow, Jimmy’s father and Joe’s grandfather, is the real cigar smoker of the family.
James starred as a point guard at Mississippi State in the early 1950s and later became a high school basketball coach known for two things: ball and cigars. His son would often sit on the bench with his father during games, something that sparked the Amory (Miss.) High School student newspaper to write a story about little Jimmy.
For the newspaper portrait, students dressed Jimmy up to depict his father—he wore a V-neck sweater, rolled-up jeans, a basketball under one foot and a cigar in hand. A lit cigar, at that. Years later, Jimmy and his wife, Robin, recreated the image with their young son Joe. Jimmy took a photo of the two pictures side by side, an amazing family heirloom he kept private until this week.
James, now 91, still lives in North Mississippi and golfs good enough to shoot better than his age, but gave up smoking cigars a few years ago. Well, kind of.
“Without my mom knowing, he might have one on the golf course every now and then,” Jimmy says.
Jimmy never got the cigar gene from his father, but his oldest son Jamie did. An avid smoker of Oliva Churchill Blondes, Jamie claims to have given Joe his first cigar after LSU beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2019, but his little brother didn’t smoke it. Why? As it turns out, Joe isn’t a big cigar guy.
In fact, after LSU’s title win, Jamie saw the photo on social media of his little brother puffing a cigar and thought it weird.
“I didn’t know you smoked cigars,” he said to Joe.
“I don’t,” Joe told him. “That was my first one.”
Jamie laughs retelling the story. “A lot of cigars find their way to Joe. Whether he wants them or not, he gets them.”
Even in Jimmy and Robin’s Ohio home, you will find the image of a cigar-smoking Joe on T-shirts, as well as an artist’s rendering of the photo hanging from their den wall. And to think, nearly 20 years ago, they thought they were bad parents after handing their son a cigar and telling him to smile for a photo.
At least it wasn’t lit.
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