At this Sunday's "My Cause My Cleats" game at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow steps into shoes he's been wearing since his mother can remember.
If there's one thing elementary school teacher Robin Burrow wanted to teach their son she was raising with her coach husband Jimmy Burrow it's that he had it better than many of the children she saw every day growing up with him amid the relentless poverty of Appalachia.
"Little ways," Robin Burrow says. "Not necessarily big ways."
He heard it and saw it and by the time he was point-guarding the Athens High School basketball team to glory up and down Route 32, he and his family were hosting team dinners just to make sure everyone had a meal.
That's just one of the reasons why in the middle of his first NFL playoff run he's pulling on the spikes stamped with the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund targeting his hometown Athens County Food Pantry.
In the weeks following that sound bite that broke the sound barrier and shook The Plains of Athens into action during his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech, Burrow heard from his mother that she had been talking to a teacher in town.
Remember what he said that night in New York City he took home the Heisman? The mayor of Athens said it was 32 seconds that tilted the landscape of his city:
"Coming from southeast Ohio it's a very impoverished area and the poverty rate is almost two times the national average. There's so many people there that don't have a lot and I'm up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here, too."
This week, Burrow remembered.
"Growing up we knew kids that had to go food banks because they didn't have a lot, but nobody really talked about it," Burrow recalled for the media. "I heard stories from teachers that said little kids were coming up to them when they heard that and they were like 'Hey, my family goes to the food bank.' They were excited about it. It wasn't a thing where you were trying to hide it. So that meant a lot to me."
Naturally, it was Robin, the teacher in the family who sees it every day, who heard the story.
"She's where that story came from. And that story sticks with me," Burrow said.
Here's another story:
Whether it was a church function or maybe even a school field trip where there might be something like a $3 fee, Robin would make sure to give Joey a few extra dollars and tell him to give it to the teacher in case there was a child that didn't have money for a meal or the trip. Not big stuff. But like pocket change, quiet and good deeds add up.
"Just being consistent in modeling that giving behavior, I think it must have resonated with him," says Robin Burrow, now the principal at Eastern Elementary in the Eastern Local School District in Meigs County. "It's not like I ever did anything purposefully to teach him to be aware of it. I think it was just the culture of our family in trying to help him be aware that there's always somebody out there that could use a little help."
When she was teaching in the classroom, back before COVID and the state and federal programs that now assure every student a meal, there always seemed to be a group of children who routinely didn't have lunch money and weren't signed up for free and reduced lunches because their parents didn't turn their money in and they were left the cheese or peanut butter sandwiches instead of a regular lunch. Mrs. Burrow could see the humiliation etched on faces from first grader to third-grader to senior in high school.
'Over the years that's all changed, thankfully," Robin Burrow says. "But before COVID, that was definitely still happening. And that's really big at any age. It can be very degrading."
Here's another reason for Sunday's cleats:
As he got older, Joe Burrow saw what his mother saw. Always, the quarterback, Burrow was a varsity point guard first as a freshman at Athens and he began to wonder about some of his teammates that just stayed at school after practice because they couldn't get a ride to the games at night.
"Once he started talking to me about that, he was worried about them having energy for the game," Robin Burrow says. "So we started doing some teams meals on game nights at the house. I think once you start looking beyond your own personal front door, it's pretty easy to find people that have a very real need. I'm glad he had the foresight and the perception to note that and try to help people."
Robin Burrow is proud so many of the little things added up to the big thing. Maybe the thing that makes her proudest of the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund is that it has allowed the food panty to offer satellite distribution centers in faraway pockets of Athens where it is a hardship to get to the main food pantry.
Places like Shade and Albany, where a 20-minute ride away can make all the difference. And now they have the money to go beyond the staples and add fresh produce.
"Before Joe's speech," Robin Burrow says, "they ran out of food every single week. They couldn't serve everybody."
Now they can serve anybody. Just imagine how well the shelves are stocked now. Just six weeks after his speech,
$650,600 had been raised for the Athens County Food Pantry and its yearly budget of $75,000. Six months later the fund was formed.
Now he gets to wear the cleats for the first time.
"It's had a big impact. There's a lot of stories I've heard where it's really helped some people, and that means a lot to me," Joe Burrow said. "The whole thing started after my Heisman speech and I didn't really expect anything to happen. I was just saying what was on my mind, what was in my heart and it kind of turned into this big thing that's helped a lot of people. I don't know if I really expected it to come from anything at the beginning."
A little thing that became a big thing.
Things are better for Robin Burrow's school. But there is always a need. Her school has a monthly food distribution that they send home and there are always extra bags. Just this past Monday, with her son and the Bengals still feasting on a 41-10 win over the Steelers, a fourth-grade boy came in at the dismissal bell to ask if there were any extra bags. He needed one. Not much. Mac and cheese. Oatmeal. Peanut butter and crackers. Enough to get his family through the next time they can get to the store.
"It could be a transportation issue. It could be a money issue. It depends on the family and their circumstances," Robin Burrow says. "He's a little guy. When you think about it, how many other kids are embarrassed and won't come in ask?"
That's why her son is wearing the cleats on Sunday. So on Monday the kids will come in and ask.