My Christmas story is about ex-Athens (Ohio) High School and current LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, and the ripple effect of a 31-second good deed.
Saturday, Dec. 14. Burrow accepted the Heisman Trophy in New York City. Early in his speech, speaking off the cuff, Burrow spoke for exactly 31 seconds about things you don’t hear, ever, in a nationally televised Heisman speech: poverty and hunger. “Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area. The poverty rate is almost two times the national average. There’s so many people there that don’t have a lot. I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home—not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here too.” In the audience, his parents sat impressively stunned. “I think we were all in awe,” his father, Jimmy, told me. “We never saw that coming.”
Sunday, Dec. 15. When Jimmy Burrow woke up in the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Manhattan, his voice mail was full, which never happens, and his phone was bursting with more than 500 text messages. “How can that even happen?” he said. “People are talking about the speech, and then it’s ‘Congratulations on the Heisman.’ We didn’t pound the table when Joe was growing up. It was just, Be thankful for what you have. Respect everyone.” Jimmy Burrow coached for 14 seasons on Frank Solich’s football staff at Ohio University in Athens, a college town in the middle of the most impoverished county in Ohio. “Joe didn’t pick his friends because of their economic status,” Jimmy Burrow said. “He had a lot of friends from all parts of the area.”
Back in Ohio, an Athens High and Ohio grad, Will Drabold, felt energized by the speech. He logged onto Facebook, created a fundraising page for the all-volunteer Athens County Food Pantry at 11:02 a.m., set a goal of $1,000, and left town that afternoon for Los Angeles on a business trip. Donations blew past that and before Drabold went to bed in California that night, he raised the goal to $50,000.
Monday, Dec. 16. NPR aired a story on the speech and the fundraising, and CNN reached out. By 9 a.m. ET, when Drabold got up, and less than 24 hours into this, the total was more than $80,000. The Athens County Food Pantry’s annual budget is about $80,000. It serves about 430 families and 1,200 people.
Nothing like this had ever happened for an organization that pinched its pennies each month. It was just beginning.
Tuesday, Dec. 17. There’s a wall on the Ohio campus that gets painted by community and university groups. By Tuesday morning, it was painted with a Joe Burrow football figure and the words:
CONGRATS JOE BURROW
THANK YOU FOR FEEDING YOUR ROOTS
By 10 a.m., the total was $350,000.
Wednesday, Dec. 18. Drabold’s Facebook fundraiser passed $400,000 overnight. By the end of the day, he’d raise the goal to $500,000. On the phone that afternoon, I told Kirk Cousins about it. “Wow,” he said. “Wow. That’s powerful. It goes to show the platform of football, playing the quarterback position. That just reinforces what a challenge to all of us playing this position. You can really make a difference in a high school, in a college campus, in a community, in a state like Ohio or nationally, like Joe did. What a great job by Joe.”
In a classroom 10 miles east of Athens, at the Federal Hocking Middle School, Sarah Crabtree prepared to show the Heisman speech to her 12 seventh-graders. “I’d say half of my kids in that class are experiencing some sort of financial hardship in their families,” Crabtree said. “It’s so important for these kids to know there are people who make it from here.” When they finished watching the speech, she said she saw “a lot of bug eyes, like, Wow, he’s talking about us.” They sat down to write letters to Burrow. One of the boys in the class turned this in:
Dear Joe Burrow,
Thank you for showing me and other children that no matter where you’re from or your life story, if you work hard you can achieve greatness. Also, thank you for giving back to your community. You have inspired me to not be embarrassed by my life story and work hard to achieve my goals. Again, thank you very much.
The student signed his name, and under it wrote: “Just a kid from Southeast Ohio.”
I asked Crabtree her reaction when she read the letters.
“I cried a little,” she said. “My kids can see themselves in Joe Burrow.”
Thursday, Dec. 19. Jimmy Burrow on responding to the calls and texts: “I’m down to 396 left. I do 20, then I get 10 to 15 more. We thought it was gonna calm down, but then another round of media hit. It just shows what the power of words from the right person can do.”
The Athens City School District Board of Education voted unanimously to name the high school football venue “Joe Burrow Stadium.” The community was surprised at how quickly the decision was made—just five days after Burrow won the Heisman. School board member Kim Goldsberry told me: “Honestly, I felt that it wasn’t necessarily because of football. It was about Joe the person. While he has excelled in football, the ability to bring awareness to our community, and the hunger need, and social issues, it shows he is the whole package, and we wanted to recognize that. This goes beyond football.”
In LSU’s home, Baton Rouge, something unexpected happened: The Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank was linked by the Athens movement, and to their shock, more than $50,000 poured in. (By the weekend, donations topped $64,000.)
Friday, Dec. 20. In Ohio, Jimmy Burrow did a talk show in rural Nelsonville for one hour. “One hour of people saying thanks,” he said. In Baton Rouge, Joe Burrow, in cap and gown, was awarded his master’s degree in liberal arts. TMZ interviewed him. “I didn’t expect that at all,” he said of the money he helped raise. “I’m starting to realize the impact I can have on the area.”
Saturday, Dec. 21. Donations were slowing now—$474,749 was the total of Drabold’s drive by early evening—giving Drabold (Athens High Class of ’12), time to figure out just what it all meant. He does communications consulting and strategy and lives in Athens.
“This is what happens when social media works right,” he said.
“We’ve been fighting the war on poverty since, when, the sixties?” Drabold said. “But the needle hasn’t moved in Appalachia. We may well have been waiting for inspiration like Joe’s. When Joe says, ‘You guys can be up here,’ he’s talking to a generation of kids in Appalachia. That could change lives. It’s way too early for this, but could Joe do for Appalachian Ohio what LeBron has done for Akron?”
Sunday, Dec. 22. At 11:02 a.m., exactly one week after the Will Drabold page for the Athens Country Food Pantry was posted on Facebook, this was on the front page:
$477,340 raised of $500,000.
“Who would have thought that, in the middle of a speech for a football trophy, that a young man would have kicked off this incredible fundraising, and this incredible dialog across the country?” said Karin Bright, the president of the food pantry’s board. “We’ve had people call from Vermont, New Hampshire, California, Texas, everywhere, just saying thank you and wanting to help. I truly hope this opens a conversation across the country and we finally address the issues of hunger and food insecurity in this country. We’re better than this. People in this great country should not be going to bed hungry. And for Joe Burrow to put such a personal face on it—his classmates at Athens, he knew, were going hungry. And he remembered that at this momentous time in his life.”
Karin Bright sounded emotional over the phone from Ohio. The board hasn’t decided how to spend the money. It’s still unreal. There are 15 more fundraisers going on, local ones, and she has no idea what they’ll bring in, and she has no idea how many people who say they’re sending checks will actually do so. She said this money is a sacred trust, and she wants to be sure they spend it with utmost respect for those who gave it.
“It’s a Christmas miracle,” she said. “Thank God for Joe Burrow.”