This is Cincinnati’s moment and Joey Burrow is wearing it all with lightness

Keith Duggan: star quarterback is a good news story and the idol The Plains area needs

If you feel as though you know the Joe Burrow story even as you hear and see it for the first time that's because the fabulous trajectory of his sports life has been spun into endless television dramas and movies. On Sunday night the 25-year-old will attempt to shatter yet another glass ceiling of improbable mythology and derring-do when he stars for the Cincinnati Bengals, for decades an endearing non-entity, in the Super Bowl.

It's quite obvious where he is headed: to the stratospheric place occupied by Brady and Montana and the other touchstones of America's fascination with football. But it's where he comes from that makes Burrow such a compelling and influential figure during a fraught time across the Republic.

It's over 20 years since Ben Stiller starred as Derek Zoolander, the wilfully dumb, preening fashion model in a determinedly zany film. The comedy has endured because it is literally harmless fun. But perhaps the most memorable scene carries the sting of social relevance and satire.

Zoolander, disillusioned with the shallow world of New York fashion, has returned home to his father and brother, working with them in the coal mines. He fears he has acquired the “black lung” after his first shift and coughs feebly as they sit at the local bar with the other miners, watching a football game. Tammy isn’t playing on the duke box but she could be.


"Who's winning the match?" Derek asks. "State," replies Jon Voight's Larry Zoolander, his face stony and eyes glued to the screen.

Straight away the audience is immersed in time-honoured pop-cultural Americana: we are in the world of the Deer Hunter, of the Coal Miner's Daughter, of The Last Picture Show, of All the Right Moves, of Friday Night Lights: of the forgotten interiors where the skies are foreboding and the Miller Lite sign blinks on deserted streets. In short, we are in the neglected strip of middle America which Donald Trump promised to make great again.

Broken bone

Joe Burrow went to State. The trajectory of his sports life is truly breathtaking: he became the first player from Athens High School (in Athens county) to earn a football scholarship to Ohio State, the mothership of the game in the region, since the 1950s. The setbacks have been well-documented: a broken bone in his throwing hand during a practice game; two seasons where he was the third choice quarterback; a desperate decision to transfer to Louisiana State University (LSU) and then a stunning tear which ended with a national championship and the Heisman Trophy.

That was 2019. Since then Burrow has shaken off a serious knee injury in 2020 and guided the Bengals to a first play-off win in 31 years. Now they are a few hours away from a Super Bowl.

Burrow is 6’3”, has a loose-limbed athleticism and gazes out at the world with slightly sleepy eyes. He’s enormous fun to watch doing what he does best: finding team-mates with the football and avoiding the hits of primed athletes who are paid to hurt him.

Of course he’s also savvy enough to have gauged, even as he was living that transformative college season, that his ascent meant that he was becoming a persona: that he was acquiring the cryptocurrency of permanent fame.

The footage of his Heisman speech is memorable because of the rawness of his emotion as he thanked the people who had guided him to that point. And also because of how he chose to portray the reality of his region: "Coming from southeast Ohio: it's a very impoverished area and the poverty rate is almost two times the national average. There's so many people there that don't have a lot and I'm up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here too."


Of course, Burrow, above all people, knew just how unlikely this was: it’s utterly unlikely that anyone from the region will win the Heisman in his lifetime. What he meant, of course, was that kids in a deeply depressed and broken section of the country had, in him, an easily identifiable figure of hope.

Burrow comes from The Plains, a sort of census-designated area. In the 2010 census the median household income was just over $30,000. The final existing strip mine closed in 2002. In 2010 the area was declared a disaster area due to flooding. The local football stadium was ravaged by a passing tornado. In short, Burrow was the good news story the locality badly needed.

And he provided it with absurd consistency, moonlighting as the school’s star basketball player in the autumn, taking Athens to the high school state championship in 2014 and announcing himself nationally with LSU in the 72-74, seven overtime spectacle against Texas A&M.

He was emerging even as American politics was about to get chucked into the threshing machine of Trump’s devising. Athens County was for decades a Democrat stronghold but in 2016 it was one of the regions whose voters heard something in Trump’s rhetoric which resonated.

So when the LSU team were invited to the White House, Burrow listened with a polite smile as the president compared him to a young Tom Brady. "You're gonna be so rich," he enthused.

What Burrow certainly shares with the recently-retired Brady is an unreasonable level of self-belief and a disconcertingly tranquil concentration. Nothing fazes him. Where Burrow stands apart, however, is that he evinces a steadfast political and social integrity typical of his generation. And he shares those views.

Political view

While he has never publicly criticised the Trump regime he has on social media endorsed a radically different political view. He made public appeals to people to adhere to the science during the uncertain days when the pandemic was raging, he has re-posted messages from Barack Obama and Joe Biden, he has supported the outspoken views of Steve Kerr, the veteran NBA coach, on gun control and posted a video featuring the testimony by the mother of Emmet Till, the Missippian teenager who was lynched in 1955. "This really made me tear up," he wrote in the post.

None of this exactly constitutes front-line activism. But Burrow has an enormously wide reach of influence and for almost his entire football career he has been delivering carefully nuanced messages of an American future in which he believes.

The obligatory, clichéd response of backwater sports stars who make it good is to leave it behind; to run with the Zoolander crowd. The further Burrow travels, the more deeply he seems invested in Ohio. Even his endorsements seem thought out. While he could align himself to any prestige car company he fancied, he chose to announce a partnership with Lordstown Motors, an Ohio manufacturer specialising in electric cars. "We will continue to work for change in our region," he wrote in his post.

He stands at an absolutely fascinating point this weekend. If the Bengals win then he becomes the living embodiment of all those movieland stories both corny and memorable: the steadfast quarterback carrying the hopes of the community on his shoulders.

Nobody had ever been able to authenticate the Mark Twain quote, "when the world ends I want to be in Cincinnati because it's 20 years behind the times," but it travelled through the centuries anyhow. Well, this is Cincinnati's moment. Joey Burrow wears it all with amazing lightness. And in a time of grave disappointment and social struggle in his heartland, he may have more influence than he yet knows.