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Joe Burrow Heads Into NFL Debut Leading With Boyhood Values 

Joe Burrow has already earned a locker room's respect.
Joe Burrow has already earned a locker room's respect.

The hype surrounding Joe Burrow's first NFL pass has been thick enough to skate on as the Bengals rush to Sunday's opener (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium.

But Burrow actually racked up his first pro completion days before in that player space where face coverings and unmasked thoughts are required. Hype need not apply.

That's when teammates Giovani Bernard, C.J. Uzomah and Carlos Dunlap approached him during the team's intense, introspective conversations about social justice in a signal that showed just how important the prized rookie quarterback has become in the locker room and how comfortable he is in the role.

Center Trey Hopkins had written the mission statement to be read to the world in front of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, but the trio of veterans wanted Burrow to read the second and last paragraph after Hopkins read the first.

"Him telling us that story and him being as vocal and as active as he is," Uzomah said, "it definitely speaks volumes to all of us."

It's far from the first time Burrow has let his feelings on social issues be known. He delivered one of the most riveting Heisman Trophy acceptance speeches in history last December with an inspirational call to the youth of his economically ravaged home of Athens County.

But it was the first time as an NFL franchise quarterback. A rookie, no less.

And the fact Burrow felt like he could tell "The Story," an ugly, wrenching tale from high school days, also speaks volumes about the crew of young veterans that has filled one of those locker room leadership vacuums that can happen in the last belches and first rumblings of massive transitions.

Uzomah, the sixth-year tight end, calls this Bengals team the closest he's been on since, well, Little League. Right down to the moms bringing the juice boxes. And how it may have helped Burrow help them.

There are the new guys on defense, like Vonn Bell's morning wake-up calls and D.J. Reader's steady voice in the social justice meetings. There are the standbys like Dunlap, Bernard and the suddenly chatty Geno Atkins with the grizzled, accomplished Reader and Mike Daniels joining him up front. There are Bengals veterans like Uzomah, Hopkins and A.J. Green comfortable in their new senior adviser positions.

"Trey doesn't say much," Uzomah says. "But when he has something to say, it's powerful."

It's far from 2015, Uzomah's rookie year in a locker room stocked with entrenched thirtysomethings veterans that started 8-0 after four straight playoff seasons. Rookies were seen, not heard and maybe even a little hazed.

"It's the most connected team I've been on in a while. We're even close with the coaches," Uzomah says. "And I feel like it's still a young team with a lot of leadership. Having guys like Vonn Bell and that new culture on defense. This is the most I've ever heard A.J. speak up in terms of talking ball. Gio doesn't love speaking in front of crowds, but he's doing it and that's helped us with how things have been going on and help bringing us closer together.

"Crazily, what happened with this Covid quarantine stuff, we get back hitting the ground running. There's no time to waste with cold shoulders or rookie hazings. Not time for any of that. It was, 'In a few weeks we're playing a game.' As crazy as the Covid has been, I think it helped build the unity of the team."

And maybe that gets back to Burrow.

"The way we've handled ourselves, maybe he's been able to be himself that much more," Uzomah says. "'I can say this and do that because I know my guys have my back and I have theirs.'"

When the Bengals met in the days leading up to their mission statement, there were a lot of tough stories. Hopkins and Dunlap opened that window slightly to the media when they talked about experiencing racism.

But Burrow also had a story and Adam Luehrman, the Ohio University tight end, Athens High School teammate and Burrow's lifelong friend knows The Story all too well.

"I have never seen him more pissed off in my life," says Luehrman of that game on the road all those years ago. "When he found out (the home team) was saying racial slurs to (a teammate) during the game, Joe was literally screaming on the field. He never says anything, but that's the one occasion he was talking to the other team. It's one of the most horrific things I've been a part of.

"It's situations like that where Joe realized injustices are still happening."

So many years past and Burrow won't say which player they were slurring. He doesn't want to put one of his best friends through the hell again.

But if you want to know why Burrow is so passionate about standing with his African-American teammates, you have to know The Story because there were times, "we would go on road trips and people would say some terrible things to some of my real good friends. It was eye-opening to say the least."

Even before he showed up for work in July he caught the eye of his new locker room with a supportive tweet as social justice protests began to spread nationwide. And this is why he doesn't blink:

"Kids on the other team targeting our black players. Trying to hurt them," Burrow says. "Poke them with pens they carried in their pockets. Crazy stuff like that. One of them was one of my three best friends. It was pretty emotional after one game where it was pretty obvious that he was targeted by the team. That was a tough couple of days for our friend group."

It was the exception rather than the rule. Burrow loves the people of Southeast Ohio and calls it home. But the moment left its mark on the impressionable all-state quarterback and his appearance in front of the Freedom Center last month surprised none of his fans from his high school days. He's never backed down from advocating.

Will Drabold, a media and business consultant who took Burrow's Heisman speech and turned it into more than half a million dollars for the Athens County Food Pantry, does things like keep up with social media. It has caught his eye that in Burrow's home region he can only see "positivity," since he and Hopkins stood in front of the Freedom Center.

"What that tells me is people trust him. They feel he's authentic and they think his voice is legitimate. There's consistency," Drabold says. "He's saying exactly the same stuff. He's feeling the same stuff. He's expressing the same values.

"You guys in Cincinnati are seeing what we've seen for quite a while. You really get what you see. He is who he says he is."

What Burrow is, Burrow says, is a guy that just wants to see people treated equally and fairly. As if in a playbook or on a scoreboard. Where only one thing counts.

"I'm not into the whole politics thing," Burrow says. "I'm passionate about what I believe in. To me, that's racial inequality. Socioeconomic inequality. To me, that's not politics, its human rights. It's giving the same opportunities to people regardless of their skin color or social status.

"Whether it's racial or socioeconomic or just people out there not given the same opportunities, I think being in our position it's our responsibility to help those kinds of people."

Burrow was in second grade when he moved from Fargo, N.D., where his dad was the defensive coordinator for North Dakota State. They landed in Athens, where Jim Burrow would be Ohio University's defensive coordinator for the next 14 years. One of the first things they noticed is they could turn the corner from a trim, sparkling subdivision and end up flush in a knot of homes missing some of their sides.

That's about the time his eyes began to open. And it was about that same time, Adam Luehrman figures, Joe Burrow began to see his dad's players in his home from time to time. All kinds of kids. All kinds of colors.

"I grew up in a poverty-stricken area," Joe Burrow says. "I just saw people that don't have a lot struggle through school. Trailer parks everywhere. Not a lot of wealth in that area. That opened up my eyes to it."

 He remembers those Friday nights where a home game might have gone long or the bus pulled in late from a road game and some of the kids would wait for mostly everybody to leave the locker room. Then they'd pull out the tackling dummies and go to sleep. Either they didn't have a car or their parents were working and they had to be back early in the morning for either the varsity films or the junior varsity game.

And then after Saturday morning football followed by meals at Bob Evans, Burrow and some of the guys would make sure they'd bring out some leftovers for hungry people that began to wait for them each week.

"There were always some people struggling there we'd try to help out," Joe Burrow says. "We knew most of them. Not knew knew them, but knew them from that."

Jim Burrow says that's probably where you can start to find the roots of his son's empathy. His teammates. He remembers he and his wife Robin trying to raise him right, to treat everyone the same and with respect. He can't remember any specific talks to a pint-sized Joey Burrow. But Jim Burrow says there's no life lessons like sport.

"Sports is such a great microcosm of the world," Jim Burrow says. "Those teammates from all walks of life, they become close. All working for the same goal. If one sees the other one disrespected, it affects them not only for one incident, but also in the future.

"Playing a lot of different sports, that helped a young kid growing up. There's no status on a team. It doesn't matter who you are, where you're from. You're a teammate. That's always been a big part of Joe loving sports and loving his teammates … he knows there are issues his teammates believe in. And he sees it and understands it and he's willing to speak out and let people know."

Uzomah says even though the mission statement has been read, they're trying to bring it to life. The leadership committee had a meeting Monday and Burrow made sure to tell Dunlap if he had a community event, "Make sure you tell me and I'll help anyway I can."

"I think that's what we're all trying to do for each other," Uzomah says.

Joe Burrow throws his first NFL pass Sunday. But he's already got his first NFL completion.

"I'm just trying to do what's right," he says.