Scott Burson, the college philosophy professor who has written a book about C.S. Lewis, and Sam Smathers, the resourceful electrician who re-built a carburetor on his kitchen table when he was 14 and hasn't stopped, have teamed up to jolt Bengaldom with the best look yet at the ever-elusive Joe Burrow.
Burrow famously doesn't like to sit for interviews. So with the help of Smathers, his youth coach and maybe the last person who didn't listen to him when he put him at quarterback instead of running back or wide receiver on that third grade team, Burson talked to everyone else and they produced the first of what promises to be a barrage of Burrow bios.
From Bulldog to Bengal: The Joe Burrow Story Through The Eyes of His Hometown, with Amazon.com and orangefrazer.com already taking orders.
It hits the bookshelves next month. But given the subject matter and nuggets like the Athens High School teacher who thought Burrow could have been an astrophysicist, or how the Western omelet with a double side of hash browns at Gigi's in The Plains became "The Burrow," it already is a hit.
"It's a sacred story for me and other people of Athens, but in many ways it got me back in touch with my roots in southeast Ohio," says Burson, who had the same elementary school principal Burrow did 35 years later. "I just care so much about this story.
"My hometown. My home region. I've followed Joe since he was in high school. He's meant so much to the region. He means hope, family and community. He gives back constantly. He's wearing clothes that hometown guys designed. He's wearing cleats designed by the kids at the high school. Athens County means a lot to me."
Burson, who teaches at Indiana Wesleyan University, didn't meet Smathers until last year. Jimmy Burrow, Burrow's father, texted Smathers and told him there was someone out there writing a book on his son and the football part of it had to start with how Smathers got Joey and his once-in-a-generation gifted friends started in a sport that took Athens to its first state football title game and the protagonist to the Heisman Trophy, the NFL's overall No. 1 draft pick and the Super Bowl.
Mirroring one of the book's main themes about how powerful diversity is whether it's in a small college town in Appalachia with about 120 countries represented on campus or the massive industries of sports and music, the professor and the electrician worked so well together that they sparked 275 pages that has something for everyone. From the hard-core Bengals fan to the awkward junior high reserve point guard trying to make friends and the team at the same time.
"I told Scott I hadn't read five books in my life," jokes Smathers, who did enough for a community to have his family's name on the Athens youth football field.
When Smathers reveals he read the Lord of the Rings books, Burson reminds him that the author, J. R. R. Tolkien, was friends with C.S. Lewis. With that unshakeable foundation they grew a Burrow-Ja-Marr Chase-like connection.
"Sam was reading it as I was writing it," Burson says. "He would fact check it, give me feedback and we kept at it together and we got it done last summer."
Burson, 60, a 1980 Athens High grad who went away to become a sportswriter before sanity prevailed and put him back in the classroom a quarter of a century ago, had been mulling a book about several Athens County notables. Maya Lin, who was a senior at Athens High when Burson was a freshman, found international fame as a Yale undergraduate when she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and current assistant administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. Just to name two. Burrow, as Burson saw it, would be in the sports section of the book.
But after conducting a handful of interviews on Burrow with his parents, Robin and Jimmy, Smathers and a pair of coaches who saw him do it all in football, basketball and baseball in Fred Gibson and Jeff Skinner, Burson was convinced there was enough for a book on just Joe Lee Burrow. The 60 or so ensuing interviews confirmed it.
"The anecdotes," Burson says, "just kept piling up."
Such as how Smathers, who birthed the Athens youth football program in his garage still named "The Dawg Pound," snapped at Burrow one day in the sixth grade. Burrow, already bringing Athens to unknown heights, was also the scout team quarterback and Smathers was trying to get his defense ready for its heated rivalry with Nelsonville. But Burrow saw how he could beat the defense and when he did easily, Smathers scolded, "Will you run the cards I gave you please. Nelsonville can't do that."
"Heck," Smathers says now. "Nobody can do that."
Smathers wanted to make sure they gave Robin and Jimmy the tasteful, classy book they wanted and Burson was on the same page, making sure they saw everything that would go to print.
'Sam and I really wanted to make sure we had their blessing," says Burson of the Burrows. "For me, the No. 1 thing was to make Team Burrow happy and No. 2 I wanted Athens County to be proud of us."
There is plenty on the transfer from Ohio State to LSU and the Bengals' magical Super Bowl run to satisfy the football junkies. But it is the book's look at Burrow coming of age amid the mini melting pot of Athens that gives you a sense for the kid that sportswriters and edge rushers just can't seem to capture.
There's so much Burrow stuff out there that you almost need Superluminal Time Travel to track it. (Which, the book says, was Burrow's 2019 answer to a reporter's question about what was his latest Google search.)
But Burson and Smathers have put it all between two covers.
Burson finds this nugget Burrow told the "Full Send Podcast.":
"I love playing football, but I don't like everything that comes with it. I hate (the attention). I get anxiety going out and having to take pictures … I love the fans and I'm very appreciative of everybody, but it's a lot sometimes."
Burson, whose mother taught music for 40 years, does a terrific job crafting what he calls "the soundtrack," of Burrow's life and chronicling his relationship with the music of Scott Mescudi, the hip-hop artist from Cleveland. Otherwise known as Kid Cudi, he appeared at the Bengals Super Bowl party singing the playlist at the request of his new friend. The finish, of course, was "Soundtrack 2 My Life."
Like Burrow, you can't fit Kid Cudi into a tidy, one-stat-fits-all line score. In a tough-guy genre, Cudi sings of the struggles of the soul and Burson concludes, "Cudi gave quiet Joe Burrow permission to express his emotions. To see sensitivity and empathy as manly things."
Burson had a play list of his own while writing the book, which no doubt helped him bring out Burrow's voice without talking to him. Take Chapter 5: The Shoe Doesn't Fit, the chapter dealing with the transfer from Ohio State, and the author's liner notes.
There is the "Star Wars," theme song," as Burson writes about Burrow beginning to listen to Kid Cudi and the "Man on the Moon" album in his Star Wars-themed bedroom. Then there is the Ohio State fight song, "Fight The Team Across The Field," as Burrow signs with the Buckeyes. Next is "The Scotts," by Travis Scott and Kid Cudi in which Burson reflects, "Joe develops amazing emotional intelligence, in part by listening to Kid Cudi's music, which gives youth permission to pay attention to their emotions."
And then the theme song to "Late Night with David Letterman." While OSU coach Urban Meyer celebrates the national title on Letterman's show, Burson writes about Burrow beginning to have "second thoughts." about Ohio State.
"As I was writing, certain things came to mind," Burson says. "Music is a thread."
The best part of the book may be the conclusion, the closest Burson probably came to talking to Burrow. He phoned Zacciah Saltzman, Burrow's close friend as far back the AAU basketball days and the memories stretch to Burrow's play-by-play while they're learning how to drive.
"I wanted to see what were some of the best songs that best represented their friendship," Burson says. "And Zacciah had all these great stories and he was texting with Joe to confirm them."
Which in the end is what Burrow's first bio does. Confirms that the soundtrack of what has become one of football's most fascinating lives has been pretty much a familiar chorus.