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Joe Burrow celebrates the Cincinnati Bengals win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
Jamie Squire via Getty Images

I’m not sure what “it” is, but whatever it is, Joe Burrow has it. In a five-month span, he took home the Heisman Trophy, won a national championship at LSU and was the number one overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2020 NFL Draft. Now, in just his second NFL season, Burrow has a chance to win a Super Bowl.

Let me repeat that: Joe Burrow took the Cincinnati Bengals (yes, the same Cincinnati Bengals that hadn’t won a playoff game since 1990) to the Super Bowl in his second season. Not bad for a guy who was once buried deep on the bench at Ohio State.

Burrow’s uncanny composure in huge moments is what separates him from the average quarterback. He’s calm under pressure and has the confidence to deliver. On top of everything, he’s just a cool dude. He’s humble, he has a phenomenal glasses collection, no one has ever looked cooler smoking a cigar and he just feels like one of the guys. What’s not to like?

Burrowmania is sweeping the nation, but his former high school coach has known that for a long time.

Nathan White, his coach at Athens High School in The Plains, Ohio, saw something in him when he was 15. White gave us some insight into how Burrow’s game has improved, the moment he realized his quarterback was special, what attracts guys to follow his lead and why he wasn’t heavily recruited by major college football programs out of high school.

Joe Burrow’s High School Football Career

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Burrow took over as Athens High’s starting quarterback as a sophomore. It didn’t take long for White to realize he had an exceptional talent under center.

“I knew [he was special] after the first game,” said White. “Joe was a 15-year old sophomore. We ran an up-tempo, no-huddle offense and in his first game he made it look like he had been doing it for years. We lost that game, but he didn’t lose another regular season game in his career.”

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So, it was evident early on that losing and Burrow don’t go together often. His record that year? 11-2. His record as a junior? 12-1. Senior? 14-1. His lone loss during his senior season came in a thrilling state championship game against Toledo Central Catholic. The Bulldogs lost 56-52, but Burrow threw for a modest 446 yards and six touchdowns against one interception, which was only his second of the year.

It’s safe to say where Burrow goes, winning follows. More importantly, so do his teammates.

“Joe’s desire to win drives his effort and preparation,” said White. “He enjoys the grind and possesses the toughness that is required to be successful. He holds himself and his teammates accountable and this becomes contagious. Practice reps become just as important as game reps which leads to great practice and preparation. And when great practice and preparation lead to wins, it makes it pretty easy for everyone to keep grinding.”

You don’t have to look any further than his connection with Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase to confirm this. The Bengals’ decision to draft Chase fifth overall in 2021 was a bit of a head-scratcher at the time. After all, Burrow suffered a brutal knee injury as a rookie and drafting an offensive lineman to protect their franchise quarterback made perfect sense. However, intangible links like the one Burrow and Chase share outweigh sensibility. The duo was absolutely electric at LSU and were integral pieces of one of the greatest offenses in college football history. They didn’t miss a beat in the pros, and Chase is already among the NFL’s best receivers.

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Toughness, preparation, personal accountability and the desire to get better are all the things you want in a quarterback. Burrow’s high school numbers are reflective of this mindset. He improved his passing yardage and completion percentage each year while also cutting down on interceptions. The totals? 11,416 passing yards while completing 68.6 percent of his throws and 157 touchdown passes. Add in 2,067 rushing yards, 27 more touchdowns on the ground and a 6-foot-4 frame and you have the makings of a highly-touted recruit, right?

Why Wasn’t Joe Burrow Highly Recruited?

Well, even though Burrow was a four-star prospect, major programs weren’t lining up to sign him. White attributes this to the perception of competition in southeast Ohio.

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“There are not many Division-I kids from southeast Ohio, and there is a stigma that the competition around here isn’t very good, which makes it a bit more difficult for great players in this area to get on the recruiting radar of big schools,” White said.

None of this mattered when Ohio State evaluated a young Burrow though.

“An Ohio State coach came to watch Joe throw in the spring before his senior year,” White said. “Before the throwing session, I don’t think Ohio State had much interest in offering him. After watching Joe throw, it was a done deal. ‘This guy is a dude. We’re gonna offer him, coach,’ they said. There were many, many offers that came in after Ohio State but they didn’t get much publicity because Joe was steadfast in his commitment.”

Give the Buckeyes credit. They were the first to realize what kind of player Burrow was and quickly reeled him into playing college football in his home state. The marriage wasn’t perfect, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say Burrow’s decision to transfer to LSU worked out for the best.

Although, it is surprising more big programs weren’t initially after him after seeing his high school highlights.

Joe Burrow’s High School Highlights

I’ve mentioned Burrow’s outstanding numbers, but just watching the plays he made in high school help you realize he was different. When I asked White to talk about Burrow’s best play, he had countless options.

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“This is a near impossible question to answer because there were so many,” White said. “In week 12 of 2013 he ran a QB zone for 25 yards and a walk-off TD on our first offensive play in overtime. In the regional final in 2014 he broke two 50-plus yard runs for TDs…and threw a TD pass to himself. There are so many throws that stick out but if I had to choose one it was in the fourth quarter of the 2014 state semifinal. He threw a TD on a wheel route in the corner of the end zone — low hip defender and he ripped it to the only spot it could have been caught. This gave us our first lead of the game and was also the last score of the game.”

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My vocal cords are just getting warm from singing Burrow’s praises. I mean, there’s a reason he’s so beloved, and I’m a fan myself. However, for all his greatness on the field, what I particularly admire about him is his dedication to improving his craft (in addition to him making Joes proud everywhere). For White, he isn’t surprised Burrow’s having the success he is now.

“Watching Joe play right now, the plays he’s making, the success he’s having is very similar to his high school days,” White said. “Understanding that the level of competition is dramatically different in the NFL and he’s having the same success, I think it’s safe to say that Joe has improved as a QB in all areas.”

If you think Burrow’s outstanding career isn’t fully appreciated by his alma mater, think again. White and his team now play their home games at Joe Burrow Stadium, which was renamed in honor of the 2014 Ohio Mr. Football winner in 2020.

The stadium’s victory bell rang gloriously after Burrow’s Bengals defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game and punched their ticket to Super Bowl LVI.

Move over Joe Montana, there’s a new Joe Cool in town.

MORE: Joe Burrow’s Girlfriend Will Always Be His No. 1 Fan

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Joe Grobeck About the author:
Joe is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and lives in Austin, Texas. He believes Ndaumkong Suh should've won the 2009 Heisman and is an avid basketball fan.
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