How Athens, Ohio is holding up ahead of the Super Bowl.

It’s the last day of “Joe’Bleness” week at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital as I write this, and the staff are wearing their Cincinnati Bengals gear, orange and black. The downtown LED billboard that usually displays the number of COVID cases applauds “Who Dey,” the infectious Bengals chant. Speaking of which: it’s “Fri-DEY” from Joe Burrow Spirit Week at the Athens City School District, and the kids are wearing animal prints and stripes.

I live in Athens, Ohio, and it’s been a whole week. I’ve never lived in a place that produced a football phenom like 25-year-old Joe Burrow (aka Joe Shiesty, Joe Brrr, Joey B., Joe Cool), the high-profile quarterback who played high school ball here and will lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl on Sunday. So I don’t know if what’s happening here is normal or not. But my little town in Appalachia is going away disabledand Burrowmania is contagious.

Scenes from Athens piled up in a portrait of an undone hometown. When I went to Donkey Coffee in the city center a few days ago, the customer in front of me in line was chatting with the baristas, who were all joking about how they don’t care about football (which , same). They were so nervous for the big game: “I almost can’t watch. I’m like, Don’t hit him so hard!one said. The customer in front of me agreed. As he left, I realized that under the KN95 mask, he was our mayor.

A mural by four artists, inspired by Joe’s pre-AFC photo, on the Ohio University campus on Friday.
Photo by Rebecca Onion.

Meanwhile, the mural above appeared on the “graffiti wall” on the Ohio University campus downtown this week. The photo is from a pre-game photo taken before the AFC Championship game in Kansas City two weeks ago. The coat Joe is wearing was designed by Micah Saltzman, the younger brother of Burrow’s high school teammate, Zacchiah. When I first saw this I had to think for a second to place the name, then I realized: the mother of the Saltzman children was my child’s (wonderful) babysitter a few years ago . It’s small town stuff. No wonder I have a fever.

A poster says "Keep writing the Joey B story."
The Southeast Ohio History Center in Athens this week.
Photo by Rebecca Onion.

Burrow’s history is extremely close to Athens County. As my husband, an Athens native, former Athens High football player (pre-Joe) and inveterate propeller for the region, would describe Athens: “He punches above his weight.” This place is not a typical footballing powerhouse, and it is somewhat unlikely that Burrow grew up here. (He came to Athens when his father was hired as a football coach at Ohio U.) In his three seasons at Athens High, our Bulldogs went 37-4; his eight playoff wins remain the only ones in school history.

The (short!) road from Athens to the Super Bowl was also not easy. Even after those high school miracles and after Burrow won a scholarship to Ohio State, he had to move to LSU before he could truly shine, leading the team to the national title and winning the 2019 Heisman Trophy. his first season with the Bengals, he was horribly injured (don’t watch the video), and I was worried: would my hometown’s deep trust in their Joey finally be tested? But Burrow returned in his sophomore season, got the Bengals their first playoff win in 31 years, and here we are. My husband – and the rest of this town – never doubted it for a second.

A floor lamp with an orange decoration saying #9.
Streetlights in downtown Athens adorned with Burrow’s #9. (Decorations by local Passion Works Studio.)
Photo by Rebecca Onion.

I spoke with Alex Huvalchick, editor of the Athens Messenger, just as she was closing a special section on Joey B. for this weekend’s paper. She said it was originally supposed to be 12 pages, but after their regular advertisers heard about it, they bought up at such a rate that the paper ended up doubling it to 24. printed t shirts (proceeds will go to the Athens County Pantry) and as of Thursday had sold 700. “Any kind of angle you can take with Joe, any kind of coverage, anything involving it, readers love it,” she said. “People just love him.”

Journalists from here and abroad write articles about Athens, which are always a little strange to read, because, as we all know, big city newspapers love a sports star from nowhere from a small unlucky town. Burrow grew up in The Plains, a small town near Athens with a population of around 3,000, and The Plains is a little down on his luck, if not quite “dusty” (thanks for that, Washington Post). But even though the city of Athens is a hippie college town of 20,000 people that doesn’t quite fit the “gritty” pattern of national Appalachian reporting, and even though Burrow grew up with a coach’s kid of OU football, he does likes Gigi’s Country Kitchen and Bob Evans, and his mother is an elementary school principal in nearby Meigs County, which has a very high poverty rate. And his emotional mention of hunger in and around Athens in his Heisman speech (“I’m here for all those kids in Athens…who go home with not much food on the table”) has, at this day, brought in $1.5 million in (mostly small) donations to the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund. As a local friend said, he may not have come out of poverty himself, but what’s important to everyone here is that he hasn’t forgotten what he saw.

Like a few other Athenians, I don’t usually care too much about football. But man, am I going to watch the QB my daughter now calls “our town boy” on Sunday. I just want to see everyone’s faith and effort bear fruit: the fresco that just ended on Friday, crowned with new laurels; people come out of downtown bars and go crazy; The icy, unwavering and joyful confidence of Joe Burrow, once again rewarded. I will look through my fingers to see it come true.

A candle with Joe Burrow's face on it.
Exhausted and burning.
Screenshot from White’s Mill Instagram.

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