Rob Oller | Joe Burrow’s popularity has a lot of people in his hometown pulling for LSU

Rob Oller
Joe Burrow, avoiding DeSales' Austin Andrews in a playoff game, led Athens to the Division III state championship game in 2014, where the Bulldogs fell 56-52 to Toledo Central Catholic. [Dispatch file photo]

THE PLAINS — At Gigi’s Country Kitchen, the Western omelet is getting a new name. As soon as the updated menu arrives from the printer, the breakfast offering of egg, ham, cheddar jack cheese, onions and green pepper will be called the “Burrow.”

“But we’ll include an explanation with it so people know what they’re getting,” said Travis Brand, the restaurant’s owner.

What they’re getting is a deal. For just $6.99, Gigi’s customers can eat the food of kings. Or at least one king. Joe Burrow is royalty in these parts.

Did I say $6.99?

“We might have to jack that up a little,” Brand said, smiling.

Such is the reach of Burrow that the Louisiana State University quarterback even benefits the local economy along North Plains Road.

Suggesting that Burrow is simply well known in Athens County undersells his popularity. As one local described it, the former Athens High School quarterback is like one of the Beatles. He is even bigger than that in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Burrow makes the Fab Four seem like a garage band. The 22-year-old is the starting QB for the No. 1 team in the nation and the leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy.

Down on the bayou, where Burrow has had to adjust to a crawfish diet and Cajun dialect, his first name is cutely spelled Jeaux. They accept the Midwesterner as one of their own.

Yet Burrow remains the stock of southeastern Ohio, where he used to be known as “Jimmy’s boy.” Not anymore. Jimmy Burrow, who played football at Nebraska and coached Ohio University’s defense for 14 years before retiring after last season, is now known as “Joe Burrow’s dad.”

“He’s kind of a big deal here,” Brand said of Joe.

Ripple out from the Athens area and LSU purple and gold gives way to scarlet and gray. Keep moving west or north and Joe Burrow is called something else: “Former Buckeye.”

It is not a derogatory tag. At least not yet. Of all the Ohio State players who have transferred to other schools, it is hard to recall one who departed with as much blessing from Buckeye Nation as Burrow. Part of it is circumstantial. After redshirting his first season at Ohio State in 2015, Burrow spent the next two falls waiting his turn while J.T. Barrett ran the show. A small minority of fans thought Burrow deserved a chance to unseat Barrett, but it was never going to happen. Instead, Burrow’s supporters figured he would shine when Barrett finally exited after the 2017 season.

Except the shine never happened. Burrow broke his hand in August 2017, an injury that allowed Dwayne Haskins Jr. to become Barrett’s backup. When Haskins entered the Michigan game for an injured Barrett and led the Buckeyes to a win against the Wolverines, Burrow’s fate was sealed. He competed with Haskins for the starting job in the spring of 2018, but saw where things were headed and opted to leave Ohio State after graduating from the school in June.

Burrow eyed potential landing spots, including Cincinnati and North Carolina, before settling on LSU, which offered the best chance to become the immediate starter. He won the job, enjoyed a successful 2018 season with the Tigers and has excelled even more this season — 3,198 passing yards and 33 touchdowns against four interceptions — in a new offense that closely resembles what he ran at Athens his senior season, when the Bulldogs reached the Division III state championship game before losing 56-52 to Toledo Central Catholic.

It is a stretch to say Burrow is beloved among all Ohio State fans, but as a whole the base still brags on him. Part of it is because of Haskins, whose success last season setting all kinds of school and Big Ten passing records meant Burrow’s departure became easier to stomach. Imagine if Burrow had left and Haskins had bombed? Adorable Joe would not be nearly as accepted by those cheering him now.

But there also is something about Burrow the person that ingratiates him to others — a mix of swagger, charm and unselfishness that makes him darn near impossible not to like.

As his former head coach at Athens explained it, Burrow brings people together.

“In school, Joe would be sitting cross-legged in the hallway next to a Goth kid,” said Ryan Adams, who retired as the Bulldogs’ coach after last season. “People would wonder, ‘What is he doing?’ But that’s Joe. Joe is open.”

Jimmy Burrow put it this way: “Joe has a lot of different interests. A lot of different friends from a lot of different types of environments. Not just all football players or athletes.”

Nathan White, who took over for Adams this season, worked closely with Burrow from 2012-14 as the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

“Joe has the ’it’ factor, which I’ve always thought is having the ability to command the room,” White said. “It’s so impressive to me that he went to a completely foreign place, a different part of the country, and very quickly kind of became their leader.”

How far Burrow leads LSU is a prickly subject, even in Athens, where Ohio State fans still outnumber LSU fans. The Buckeyes and Tigers are on a collision course that could end in a College Football Playoff matchup, either in a semifinal or the championship game, which is being held in LSU’s backyard of New Orleans.

“Very few people have thrown away their loyalties to Ohio State,” White said. “But anyone who did not have loyalties is now a diehard LSU fan.”

Jimmy Burrow would love to see an Ohio State-LSU showdown.

“That would be a dream matchup for everyone, including our family, because it would be special for Joe to have a chance to play versus Ohio State,” Jimmy said. “He still has a lot of really good friends on that football team, and he would see it as a great challenge and another opportunity to make his mark for LSU. I would bet he would love that to happen.”

LSU did not make Joe Burrow available to be interviewed, but those who know him think he would relish playing the Buckeyes.

“The bigger the stage, the more ready he’s going to be,” Adams said. “The more time you give that kid to prepare for you, the more trouble you’re going to be in. I told an Alabama coach (who recruited him), ‘Joe Burrow is the guy you don’t want on the other sideline, because he’ll find a way to beat you.’ ”

Inside Gigi’s, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue that point or be upset by it. From the wooden cutout of the state of Louisiana attached to the wall to the purple and gold T-shirt hanging from the ceiling — Brand keeps things fair with two Ohio State wreaths also decorating the restaurant — Burrow love is everywhere.

“We’d have loved to have seen him play for Ohio State,” Brand said. “It would have made this whole process easier for all of our fans, than having the moral dilemma of wearing purple and gold.”

But also maybe a lot less fun? Here’s hoping we get Ohio State vs. LSU in NOLA. Burrow vs. the Buckeyes. Wowza.