In Focus: Joe Burrow
Senior QB's Impact Upon the LSU Program is Immeasurable
At the heart of everything Joe Burrow does – the eye-popping statistics, the awe-inspiring toughness, the game-changing leadership – is an undeniable will to win.
If you’re looking for the foundation for Burrow’s 2019 run at the Heisman Trophy and national championships, the platform upon which he’s mounted a campaign as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC, it’s a competitive drive he was seemingly born with.
Ever since he first picked up a ball, Burrow had to be the best, and he’s spent every day since collecting characteristics – grit, accuracy, poise, and everything else he’s displayed all season – geared to making him unbeatable.
“He’s always wanted to be the person with the ball in his hand and be the person scoring points,” his mother, Robin, says, “whether it was soccer or basketball or baseball or football. It’s just in his DNA, I guess.”
“He’s the most competitive dude on the planet,” says Sam Vander Ven, Burrow’s childhood friend and high school teammate. “Without a doubt. Whether it’s a video game or anything outside of sports, he’s a ruthless dude.”
The first time his parents saw that ruthlessness on display was after a fourth grade baseball tournament. Burrow never paid attention to trophies, his parents say. They were trivial consequences from the thing he was really after – scratching that unending competitive itch. The only time he ever noticed one was when that itch went unscratched.
“The only trophy that he ever paid attention to was when he got second in a baseball tournament, and one of his best friends had thrown the second place trophy in the garbage can,” says Jimmy, his father. “So we’re driving home and we’re just horrified that that happened. Joe gets home, and we go up to his room and about an hour afterwards, and he had dismantled the second place trophy.”
That provided an opportunity to teach Burrow a lesson in humility and losing with grace. Even as he absorbed that lesson, it didn’t make the losing less intolerable to his disposition.
As much as he loves winning, Burrow may hate losing even more.
There’s plenty of evidence to support that claim. Like his senior season basketball picture, taken just three days after Burrow lost the state championship game in football. The hurt in his eyes is evident even today, five years removed from the defeat.
“He carried that loss with him quite a long time,” Jimmy says.
Burrow never forgets a loss – there aren’t many to remember, to be fair – whether its collective or personal. Tom Vander Ven, Sam’s father, remembers a high school game in which a rival intercepted a Burrow pass early in the first quarter.
“The most potential you’d see in Joe was after he threw an interception,” Tom says, “which was not very often in high school. Whenever somebody picked him off, he would make them pay.”
After that interception, Burrow changed the game plan. He started targeting the defensive back who’d intercepted him in the first quarter as often as he could. Three quarters, 300 yards, five touchdowns, and a 55-9 win later, Burrow made good on the debt.
“Joe definitely made him pay,” Tom says.
It’s something his teammates at LSU notice. Sometimes, the worst thing you can do in practice is intercept a Burrow throw. You’ll spend the rest of the practice in the center of his target, which is a dangerous place to live.
“I see it in practice all the time, in 7-on-7s,” says punter Zach Von Rosenberg. “Guys that pick the ball off, he’s infuriated. He’s like, ‘Give me the ball. Let’s do this again.’ It’s a switch that gets flipped that turns him into that massive competitor.”
Perhaps the only thing that gets Burrow going better than a pick is getting hit. That’s something his high school offensive coordinator, Nathan White, realized as early as Burrow’s sophomore season, when the offense got off to a sluggish start against an inferior opponent.
Man, White thought. I’m just going to run Joe until he gets into this thing.
He got into that thing, alright. Burrow would finish the game with 161 yards on 23 carries, and for the rest of his prep career, Burrow ran the ball on the second or third play of every single game. To this day, White – now the head coach at Athens High School, Burrow’s alma mater – runs his quarterbacks early in games to get them going.
“He started rolling, got a few hits,” White says. “He was like a different man after that.”
“I enjoy getting hit sometimes,” Burrow says. “It makes me feel like a real football player instead of a quarterback. People can look down on quarterbacks sometimes if they’re not taking hits. I like mixing it up in there.”
Perhaps no hit hurt Burrow last year quite like LSU’s seven overtime loss to Texas A&M. He took plenty of hits in that game, throwing for 270 yards and three touchdowns while adding 131 rushing yards (sack yardage not included) and three touchdowns on the ground. It was, by all means, a heroic effort, and it was, perhaps, the catalyst to his 2019 run as college football’s best quarterback.
But it took a toll, physically and emotionally. After 39 passes, 23 carries, six sacks, and seven overtimes, Burrow passed out in the locker room and needed an IV bag, cookies, and applesauce to recover.
“That was the second dagger,” Robin says, comparing the A&M defeat to the state championship game loss his senior season at Athens.
Like a hit or a pick, though, Burrow has always had an ability to catalyze defeat, to harness heartbreak and transform it into motivation and clarity of thought. He takes them hard, but they don’t hold him back. In fact, they have the inverse effect.
“He can channel that frustration into positive energy,” Robin says. “I think he definitely internalizes things a little bit, but uses it in a positive way.”
That’s why Jimmy says Burrow entered 2019 with three games circled on the calendar.
First was Florida, who handed him his first loss as LSU’s starter in 2018 and clinched the win with a pick-six. One year later, Burrow completed 21-of-24 passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-28 win over the Gators.
Then came Alabama, who shut Burrow and LSU out in 2018, 29-0, in a game he played with an injured shoulder. One year later, Burrow went into Tuscaloosa and hung 393 yards on the Tide, leading LSU to a 46-41 victory.
Next up is A&M, and be assured that Burrow remembers that dagger.
“I know he looks forward to three games this year, more than any,” Jimmy says. “Florida, Alabama, and A&M, just because of that will to win. In his mind, those were failures. In games like that, he tries to focus on not letting things like that happen again.”
That’s the will to win that Burrow’s tapped into all year, his entire career. It’s the force behind everything he’s done on his way to the brink of everything he’s ever dreamed of.
It’s what makes him special, and it’s what should keep his opponents up at night.
Joe Burrow’s comin’. And he ain’t backing down.