Just to be standing in the Babe Ruth Birthplace Sports Legends Museum in Baltimore on Wednesday, wearing a blue throwback Johnny Unitas Colts jersey and hearing tales of Unitas’ feats and those of other Baltimore sports legends, was a surreal moment for LSU quarterback Joe Burrow.
The Athens, Ohio, native spent three years on the bench at Ohio State, waiting his turn behind J.T. Barrett, who remains a good friend. A four-star prospect in high school, he said he lost his pocket presence because he wasn’t getting enough game reps. He questioned his abilities. He simply “forgot how to play football a little bit.”
“I didn’t know if I was ever going to play at this level,” Burrow said Wednesday. “Three years sitting on the bench, you start to question a lot of things.”
It’s safe to say he found the answers.
Burrow, who on Wednesday was recognized as the winner of the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, given annually to the nation’s top senior or fourth-year junior quarterback that best exemplifies character, scholastic and athletic achievement, became the first player in Southeastern Conference history to throw for 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in the same season. He led the Tigers to a 12-0 record, an SEC title and a berth in the College Football Playoff semifinals, where they’ll face No. 4 Oklahoma on Dec. 28 in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.
Growing up in Ohio, Burrow’s only ties to the state of Louisiana were through his favorite NFL team: the New Orleans Saints. He grew up idolizing Drew Brees, the league’s all-time passing yards leader. So it’s only fitting that while Brees adds to his career as the best quarterback in Saints history, Burrow will finish his college journey as the best LSU has ever had.
In just two seasons, he’s led the Tigers to a 23-3 record with nine wins over top-10 opponents, the most of any quarterback in school history. He’s set school records for passing yards (4,715), passing touchdowns (48), passing yards per game (362.7), completions (342) and total offense (5,004). He’s thrown for at least 300 yards in a school-record seven straight games.
His completion percentage (.779) and passer rating (201.5) are on pace to break NCAA records. He was named a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, and is likely to be LSU’s first winner since Billy Cannon in 1959.
And he almost didn’t end up in Baton Rouge.
“It was a time where I was kind of doubting myself, and my dream had always been to play in a national title game,” he said of his decision to transfer as a graduate student in 2018 after receiving his bachelor's degree from Ohio State in consumer and family financial services. “It wasn’t to get drafted and go to the NFL. I was deciding between some schools not of LSU’s caliber, and I thought, ‘Do I want to go there? Can I really play at a place like LSU in the SEC?’ And I said, screw that, I have faith in my abilities, faith in my preparation and my hard work, and that’s really what made the decision for me.”
Though Burrow might have doubted himself, his family never did. John Burrow, who played football at Mississippi, knew his nephew was something special in high school, where he became a sought-after recruit.
He had all the tools that made him a great quarterback — accuracy, touch, the ability to see the entire field — but it was determination as a young boy that caught his uncle’s attention.
“Even when he was little and we would go on vacations, we knew that if Joe lost to a cousin or lost to a brother, all that did was add energy to the next game,” John Burrow said. “He’d make sure that he’d carry that in his hip pocket.”
It’s that competitive spirit that stood out to John Unitas Jr., who oversees the selection committee for the award named after his late father.
“It’s his attitude,” Unitas Jr. said. “He’s a student of the game. You can see him on the sideline, as soon as he comes off — he’s not a high-five, low-five guy, like my father wasn’t. He’s just all about business, and he wants to win.”
One play in particular solidified that attitude to Unitas Jr. On a 7-yard touchdown pass that put LSU up 14-0 in the first quarter against No. 4 Georgia in the SEC championship game, Burrow started calmly jogging to the sideline as soon as he released the ball to a wide-open Terrace Marshall Jr., not even bothering to see if his receiver caught it.
“Reminds me of what my father #JohnnyUnitas would have done #NextPlay,” Unitas Jr. tweeted.
Collin Klein has seen the competitiveness, too. The 2012 Golden Arm Award winner and former Kansas State star, who now serves as quarterbacks coach for the Wildcats, was the keynote speaker for the award banquet Wednesday night.
“Everything you do as the quarterback is going to be evaluated and watched very carefully,” Klein said. “He plays hard. He competes his butt off, and that shows up on the tape. You can tell he’s a heck of a competitor.”
Better yet, in Klein’s eyes, he’s humble.
“What I’m able to see from afar, how he gives the credit to his teammates, it’s pretty cool,” Klein said.
Wednesday’s stop in Baltimore is just one of several on the awards circuit for Burrow, who will be in New York on Saturday night for the presentation of the Heisman Trophy. He’s the betting favorite for the award, given to the nation’s top college player.
He even got a shout-out from Ravens quarterback and 2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, who earlier this week said Burrow was his choice to take home the trophy.
The admiration is mutual.
“He’s unreal,” Burrow said of Jackson. “He’s doing exactly what he was doing in college. It’s incredible to watch. I see all the highlights on Twitter all the time.”
The pair might be competitors before too long. Earlier Wednesday, Burrow snapped photos near the Johnny Unitas statue outside M&T Bank Stadium. The next time he’s in Baltimore, it might be as a No. 1 overall pick, perhaps by the Cincinnati Bengals, who currently hold the top spot in the draft.
In the meantime, he’s content with some much-needed rest, enjoying the last few months of college life. He packed his Nintendo Switch with him during his travels to play the newest Pokémon game (He’s so good at Super Smash Bros., a Nintendo classic, that his friends have banned him from playing against them). He might even watch an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, one of his favorite childhood TV shows.
Then, it’s back to work to prepare for Oklahoma and a chance to play in the national title game. Waiting in New Orleans — the home of Burrow’s idol, and the thousands of Louisiana natives who have embraced him — could be his old team, Ohio State.
“It would be fun to play all my old friends on the same field,” he said.
How did this all happen so fast?
“I stayed true to who I was,” Burrow said. “I knew I put the work in to get to this.”