Burrow has been an ‘incredible leader’ since his playing days at Athens High School

Credit: Aaron Doster

Credit: Aaron Doster

THE PLAINS, Ohio — Athens High School football coach Nathan White may be shopping at Kroger or simply walking the school hallways when a conversation arises about Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and Ohionative Joe Burrow.

Burrow, a 2015 Athens High School graduate, grew up two-and-a-half hours east of Cincinnati. He’s the talk of the town lately.

“That’s what everybody wants to talk about,” White said. “‘What do you think of the Bengals? Can they win? Can you believe what Joe has done?’ I answer that question 10 times a week.”

Burrow likely answered 10 questions in less than 10 minutes during the Bengals’ press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Reporters peppered Burrow with questions that ranged from his film study to his postgame attire preferences.

“The excitement of making the playoffs was really cool,” White said. “Winning is a whole new level. We’re now into round two and the buzz is even bigger.”

The Burrow buzz has peaked two other times in Athens: Burrow led the Bulldogs to the 2014 Division III state final as the Ohio Mr. Football recipient and in college, the Heisman Trophy winner led Louisiana State University to a national title in 2020 before being selected No. 1 overall by the Bengals that spring.

Even after the Bengals won their first playoff game in 31 years last weekend, Burrow hasn’t changed his calm and cool demeanor.

“I think the fans were very excited but I try to downplay it and all that because this is how it’s going to be from here on out,” Burrow said after the win over the Raiders. “It was a great win for us but this is the standard for the bare minimum every year going forward.”

White, the Athens offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2011 to 2018, said Burrow thrived under pressure in high school. In addition to Burrow’s football success, he was also a 1,000 point scorer in high school basketball.

“I think Joe has a natural ability to rally guys around him,” White said. “I think he is one of the few guys that as a quarterback can help make the defensive guys better. I really think, to Joe, it still feels like high school football. Like he’s playing with his buddies. It’s important to him that those guys are close and have the same goal.”

There are obvious differences between high school football and the NFL. Yet, White sees similarities in how Burrow played at a high school stadium that was named for him in 2020 and today.

“He looks right now in the NFL the same as he did in high school,” White said.

“Understanding in my head that the level of competition is drastically different. So for him to still make those same plays and look the same clearly he has improved everywhere. His arm is stronger. I know he’s really worked in the offseason on his mechanics - kind of shortening up his motion, adding a lot more core so a shorter motion but more velocity.”

Most fans might not realize the mechanics. However, they do see Burrow’s signature fist bump after a touchdown. That hasn’t changed either from his Athens High School days.

White recently watched highlights of Burrow’s first few touchdowns as a 15-year-old high school sophomore.

“He doesn’t sprint down the field to celebrate,” White said. “It’s always just a fist (clench). In his head he’s thinking, ‘Got ‘em.’ It sounds dramatic but I think he views every series as kind of life and death. ‘It’s me against the defense. I’ve got to go get them. I want to steal a little bit of life out of them on every single series.’”

Burrow’s battle strategy has certainly helped the Bengals this month. He’s locked into the moment and that’s exactly what the Bengals need during this postseason.

“We could feel the energy and intensity in the locker room for the playoff game and I was trying to remain calm and get everyone else to remain calm as well,” Burrow said.

“We hadn’t been in that situation for a long time. The key to performing in those kind of situations is treating it like every other week. If you go out in warm-ups and are super intense and wear yourself out - you’re not going to be able to sustain that into the fourth quarter of these high intensity games.”

The Bengals (10-7) play at Tennessee (12-5) in an AFC divisional playoff game Saturday at 4:30 p.m. looking for their first ever road playoff game.

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