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Looking back at his Heisman Trophy speech from Dec. 14, 2019, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow realizes that he didn't initially grasp the magnitude of the moment.
It was an award ceremony for Burrow’s record-setting season at Louisiana State University. Burrow didn’t expect much to happen when he discussed his hometown of Athens, Ohio, or the hunger and food insecurity problems in his community that had been on his mind throughout his life.
But during 31 seconds of his speech, when Burrow spoke about the “kids in Athens County who go home to not a lot of food on the table,” Burrow began the process of changing the community he grew up in.
“I didn't really expect anything to happen,” Burrow says now. “I was just saying what was on my mind, what was in my heart. Then it kind of turned into this big thing that's helped a lot of people.”
Burrow’s speech in 2019 led to a Facebook support page that quickly raised $350,000. Then in 2020, it led to the creation of the “Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund.”
In Sunday’s Bengals game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Burrow will highlight the ongoing work in Athens by wearing special orange-and-green cleats. On one side, Burrow’s cleats say, “Foundation for Appalachian Ohio.” On the other side, “Athens County Food Pantry.” On the back, “Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund.”
Again, Burrow is using his platform and the national spotlight to focus on food insecurity in Athens.
“It's had a big impact to provide meals for people when they need it in the area where I'm from,” Burrow said. “The last number I saw, a couple months ago, we raised, at that point, over $6 million for people in the area. There's a lot of stories I've heard where it's really helped some people, and that means a lot to me.”
According to Feeding America, Athens County was home to 12,970 food insecure people, as of 2016. In Athens County, that’s 19.9% of the population, which makes it the most food insecure county in Ohio.
When he was in school, Burrow realized that some of his classmates went to food banks, but they hid their food insecurity. Burrow’s mother, Robin, saw the same thing in her career in education.
“Growing up, we knew kids that had to go to food banks because they didn't have a lot,” Burrow said. “But nobody really talked about it.”
The Athens County Food Pantry serves 300 households a week and up to 14,000 households during the year. Despite the need, before Burrow’s Heisman speech, the Athens region had nine times fewer philanthropic dollars than the rest of the state of Ohio.
Karin Bright, the President of the Athens County Food Pantry, hoped for more resources so they could feed everyone.
“Back then, when the food was gone,” Bright said, “That was it.”
With Burrow’s support, the food pantry switched from a “first come, first served” model into a “never out” model.
“When that money started to hit, we weren’t going to run out any longer,” Bright said. “If we start to run low, our packing crew comes back and we pack more. Anybody who comes in when we are open will not be turned away because we don’t have food.”
In 2020, Bright and Cara Dingus Brook, president and CEO for the Foundation of Appalachian Ohio, began working with Burrow to expand his impact. After they helped him found his charity, Bright and Brook suddenly had new possibilities for their services.
All the food packages now include higher quality ingredients and more protein. They’re starting a cleaning supplies and personal hygiene project that will kick off in January.
Many of the people who grew up in the same neighborhood as Burrow are now eating better and living better because of how Burrow has used his platform.
“We are just so grateful and so inspired,” Dingus Brook said. “It brings such a sense of pride just because of who Joe Burrow is and what he’s doing. Everyone feels a lift from it. It certainly has inspired many others to do what they can. He showed young kids that they can have high expectations, and we couldn’t be more grateful.”
At the food pantry, Bright regularly hears about the community’s connections with Burrow. Recently, a client told her about how Burrow shared food with kids at school. A homeless person told her about Burrow buying him a meal.
Over the last two years, Burrow has learned about the impact his fund is having. In addition to feeding his community, he’s making food insecurity easier to speak about.
“Teachers said that little kids were coming up to them, and they were like, 'Hey, my family goes to the food bank.'” Burrow said. “They were excited about it. It wasn't a thing where you were trying to hide it.”
The next step for the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund is Burrow wearing the new cleats on Sunday. Burrow even found a way to include his hometown in that process.
Last year, Burrow held an art contest at his high school to design the cleats he will wear for Sunday’s game. They’re half Bengals-orange and half Athens High School-green with hearts on the side panel.
During the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats Week,” which gives players across the league an opportunity to represent different charities on their shoes, Burrow gets his next chance to bring attention to his community in Athens.
Nearly two years after the Heisman speech that transformed Athens, Burrow will share his story again.
“The people of Southeast Ohio felt with his message that somebody finally was speaking out for them,” Bright said. “He understood how people here live, and that impact has meant a lot to them. He gives us a voice.”
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This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Joe Burrow's foundation: My Cleats, My Cause for Cincinnati Bengals QB