- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Someone please locate a Photoshop artist, because the only thing missing from the 2008 team photo of the fifth- and sixth-grade Athens Bulldogs is a cigar — unlit of course — clenched between the teeth of the smallish blonde quarterback wearing the green No. 4 jersey.
If you’ve been paying attention to what Joe Burrow’s Cincinnati Bengals have been doing — and make no mistake, the Bengals are Burrow’s team — you may have seen footage of the 25-year-old quarterback from The Plains smoking a stogie in the locker room after the Stripes won the AFC North Division two weeks ago to clinch their first playoff berth since 2015.
Or rewind to Jan. 13, 2020, when LSU won the College Football Playoff national championship game. As Burrow left his postgame interview, Tigers coach Ed Orgeron issued a wink-wink warning: “Take it easy on that ciiiigar, boy.”
Jimmy Burrow watched with wonder as his son enjoyed those celebratory moments.
“I don’t think Joe even smokes them,” papa Burrow said this week.
Clearly, Joe is no stranger to the rolled tobacco symbol of victory. Now, where is that Photoshop specialist? After all, Burrow led his youth team to the Tri-County championship, right?
What’s that? He didn’t?
“We lost in the championship,” Sam Smathers said. “Me, as coach, lost that game. My kids never lost a game, just games I didn’t prepare them for …”
Smathers is too hard on himself. Ask around. The 58-year-old was one heck of a youth football coach. Part of his success and popularity came from modeling an unselfish “my fault” mentality that rubbed off on his young players, including Burrow, who still accepts responsibility when things don’t go as planned.
Leadership is defined many ways, including the “Great Man” theory that posits that leaders are born, not developed. There is the personality theory, in which certain natural qualities create leaders. And there is the environmental theory, which holds that circumstances (during battle, for instance), shape leadership behavior.
Blah, blah, blah. Most coaches don’t dwell on leadership theoreticals, instead sticking to the eyeball test of “You know it when you see it.”
And Smathers saw it in Burrow soon after the third grader arrived with his family from Fargo, North Dakota, where Jimmy had been defensive coordinator at North Dakota State for two seasons.
“Oh, crap yes,” Smathers said of realizing almost immediately that Burrow had leadership tools. “He was a young fella who listened. He wasn’t a rah-rah type kid; just did what he was told to do. He executed well and wanted to learn more and more.”
Smathers recalled getting an early glimpse of the cool customer who eventually made his way from Athens High School, where Burrow went 29-1 as a starter in the regular season, to Ohio State to LSU to the first pick of the NFL draft to the playoffs, where the Bengals play Las Vegas on Saturday looking for their first postseason win since 1991.
“We’re down 12-0 with four or five minutes to go, and in youth football if you’re down two scores that late you’re pretty much down for good,” Smathers said. “We drew up a play in the dirt and Joey said, ‘I can make that.’ We fake pitched and Joey ran a bootleg and made the perfect throw. We ran that play three times and scored three times and won in overtime.”
Ohio State fans never saw that side of Mr. Clutch, at least not in games. Dwayne Haskins moved ahead of Burrow as J.T. Barrett’s backup in 2017 after Burrow broke his hand on a defensive player’s helmet during preseason camp. It was Haskins who entered the 2017 Michigan game and rallied the Buckeyes past the Wolverines when Barrett left with a knee injury.
Urban Meyer, with input from then-quarterbacks coach Ryan Day, decided to go with Haskins after the 2018 spring game, prompting Burrow to transfer to LSU, where as a graduate student he was able to play immediately. After a good but not great first year in Baton Rouge, Burrow blossomed his second season under offensive coordinator Joe Brady and won the Heisman Trophy while leading the Tigers to the national championship.
Time softens hardened sentiments. Burrow’s transfer no longer sparks such hot debate. Still, Meyer’s decision remains a puzzler for many Ohio State fans, as well as for Jimmy Burrow.
“I don’t know if anybody will ever know what determined the situation Joe was in,” Jimmy said. “You’d have to ask other people that. Let’s just say it worked out for the best.”
Indeed. Haskins excelled in 2018 and Burrow did the same in 2019. Win-Win.
Smathers takes a novel approach to the Haskins vs. Burrow argument, believing Meyer purposely recruited the kid from Athens just so others couldn't.
“Just my opinion, but Urban Meyer was the smartest guy in the country,” Smathers said. “He recruited Joe Burrow and knew ‘If he’s … in my quarterback room then he can never play against me.’ ”
It’s true Burrow never played against the Buckeyes, though he almost did. Had Ohio State not lost to Clemson in the 2019 playoff semifinals it would have played LSU in the championship game.
Close but no cigar for the Buckeyes. For Burrow? “Can I get a light?”
Just take it easy, boy.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Joe Burrow to start first NFL playoff game in Bengals vs. Raiders