A WOMAN DECKED out in a purple-and-gold sequin dress, looking for all the world like a Mardi Gras disco ball, is trying to be stealthy. She nudges her companion, lest she miss this incredible stroke of good luck, to show her who's standing right there across the sidewalk. The friend, whose fandom is less flashy -- just an LSU No. 9 jersey for her -- looks up to find a mass of 30 or 40 people milling around a white canopy, mostly wearing No. 9 themselves. She doesn't even offer the courtesy of pretending not to stare.
Those are his parents! The two women nod to each other, then walk away, their celebrity sighting duly confirmed.
They're right, of course. There, among the dozens tailgating in the shadow of Tiger Stadium, are Jimmy and Robin Burrow -- Joe Burrow's parents, which is mostly how they're known in this town. Which is why they're celebrities in this town, the kind who attract a stream of gawkers to their tailgate. Baton Rouge has fallen hard.
Joe's crew isn't exactly taking great pains to obfuscate. Jimmy and Robin are wearing Burrow jerseys, his plain, hers a bedazzled version, the purple No. 9 sparkling when the sun hits right. Joe's oldest brother, Jamie, has a jersey on too, except the Cajun spirit got him and he sports one that says "Burreaux." A family friend from back home in Athens, Ohio, went with a purple and gold tee that proclaims, "We are EAUX-HI-EAUX."
It's the final frenzied hours before Burrow plays in Tiger Stadium for the last time, against Texas A&M, and what do you know, more lookie-loos "happen upon" his family's tailgate. A middle-aged woman hollers in Jimmy's direction, "The next Joe Burrow is with us! No. 7, right here!" Her No. 7 is a high schooler, her son presumably, with a mop of dirty brown hair and a Leonard Fournette jersey. Next-Joe-Burrow's family stops to chat up actual-Joe-Burrow's family, then they take a picture together for posterity. Everyone is desperate to capture this moment.
Jimmy is silver-haired and ruddy, his cheeks a forever shade of crimson, so he constantly looks tickled, like this is all still a hoot to him. Like he still can't believe this is what his son has done. He smiles and shrugs. It's all he has left to offer. What can he say? These are strange times.
These people, the Burrows, are close to Joe, and so they are close to the sun.
He still tries to visit the tailgate, Joe does. Even as his numbers soar silly high and he whack-a-moles LSU and SEC passing records. Even as the team barrels toward its first playoff berth. He comes by after games, though each week it devolves into a more complicated affair.
After LSU beat Arkansas in late November -- earning a spot in the SEC title game for the first time in eight years and becoming the first team in SEC history to claim a 4,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher all in the same season -- the team coordinated Joe's arrival for his postgame family reunion. It was an undertaking befitting a head of state, which, if we're being honest, Burrow is by now in the state of Louisiana.
Handlers hustled Burrow from deep inside Tiger Stadium into an unmarked police car, which shuttled down South Stadium Drive, then deposited him in front of his family's tailgate. It was a very official, mostly futile attempt to shield him from the onslaught.
"I've never seen a frenzy like this," LSU coach Ed Orgeron says. "Never in any school I've been in."
TWO DAYS AFTER his quarterback's final home game, Orgeron sits on a couch tucked in the northwest corner of Tiger Stadium and tries to make sense of what Burrow has done in -- and to -- Baton Rouge this season.
When the game ended that Nov. 30 night -- Texas A&M's soul well and truly crushed after Burrow and the Tigers offense did unmentionable things to the Aggies -- Burrow beelined for the delirious LSU student section. He blew kisses to the crowd like a jubilant beauty queen; he clasped his hands, raising them high above his head, waving them to and fro like a conquering prizefighter. There will be a Heisman won, a playoff game or two to come -- yet more work to be done, starting with Oklahoma, to hold on to this a little longer, college football's most raucous mutual admiration society.
"He can do what he wants," Orgeron jokes about his quarterback. Probably. He probably jokes.
Burrow himself joked later that night that he bum-rushed the students for a reason. He doesn't go to class -- he came to LSU as a graduate transfer by way of Ohio State, degree in hand, and now takes online courses toward his master's -- so this was his shot to thank them, these people who adore him but don't ever see him, don't really know him at all beyond the mythic vision they watch on Saturdays.
He doesn't really roam campus at all, holing up in his apartment, mostly emerging to make the five-minute drive to the football facility. That part of his fishbowl experience, at least, is familiar. Celebrities can't go out in public, not really, and that's what he is here: the state's brightest star. His parents, who travel to every game, home or away, do his grocery shopping for him when they land in Baton Rouge on Fridays. When LSU went on the road for two weeks, first to Alabama and then to Ole Miss, Jimmy and Robin weren't in town to restock, so he just ... went without groceries.
"Yeah, this is different," Orgeron says.
"I've never seen a frenzy like this." Ed Orgeron
There's a lot of that this fall: the old ladies who saw Burrow walk into a clothing store, on the hunt for a new suit, then followed him in; the fans who camp out in the parking lot for autographs, for who knows how many hours, scouting out the entrance to the practice facility, waiting for their mark -- Burrow -- like they're on a sting; the locals who've gotten wind that he frequents Brocato, a one-room salon that looks nothing at all like a salon and everything like a worn-in cottage, where Matt Brocato, the owner, sees to Burrow's hair once a month. When he needs a breather from the mayhem of the season, this is where he retreats to, Brocato, because it feels "old school ... like I'm in the '80s or '90s," Burrow says.
Brocato takes care to protect Burrow's privacy, even though virtually all his customers have asked for a heads-up when Burrow's on his way. "No way," he tells them. He's 61 -- hippie-bookish, with thick black glasses and a mess of brown hair -- and a Baton Rouge lifer. He was born 5 miles from Tiger Stadium but never once went to a game until he took on Burrow as a client.
"Right now, he owns the city," Brocato says. "He really does."
Oh, you've heard this one before? The one about the star football player who's a huge hit with the football-loving college town? Rohan Davey has heard it too. Like Burrow, he was a quarterback here who broke records. In 2001, Davey became the first passer ever to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season for the Tigers. He's seen prolific quarterbacks come through (Matt Mauck, JaMarcus Russell) and beloved stars (Tyrann Mathieu, Leonard Fournette) and championship-hopeful teams (2003, 2007, 2011), but he professes, as Orgeron professes, that this is different from all those other people and all those other times. He knew it on Nov. 22.
He emceed the Bengal Belles Senior Luncheon that Friday afternoon, and as he sat in the Raising Cane's River Center ballroom, he looked up as Burrow's name was announced. Two police officers walked in front, two trailed behind, with Burrow sandwiched in between. They stood at attention, watchdogs guarding how close the public could encroach.
Did Davey ever experience anything like that?
"No. Hell no," he says.
Mathieu? Fournette, even?
"No. Hell no," he says again. "Nowhere near."
In a neat trick, Burrow seems at once pretty unruffled by it all and keen to stoke this gumbo-soaked fervor. Clandestine operations to get him out of the stadium? Crowd control on his person? "Never in a million years thought I'd be doing that," he says.
He's sitting on a bench in the team's weight room, wearing a Looney Tunes sweatshirt, as he is wont to do. "Joe is ... definitely himself," says his former Ohio State teammate J.T. Barrett, as does nearly anyone who has ever spent any amount of time with Burrow.
Burrow has a tendency to rake his hands through his hair midsentence. He smiles a lot too, never too wide, mind you, so that you're never quite sure whether he's letting you in on the joke or you are the joke. Between his flair for odd fashion and perpetual half-smirk, he looks a little mischievous, which is appropriate for a guy who could pass for a grown-up Kevin McCallister. A grown-up Kevin McCallister after he has chucked a brick at Marv's face.
The first time his youth coach, Sam Smathers, laid eyes on him, Burrow walked -- strutted, according to Smathers -- up a hill wearing a pair of sunglasses. Burrow, the third-grader, suffered from some sensitivity to light at the time, but Smathers didn't know that. He knew only what he saw. "Hey, there's Joe Cool," he thought to himself that day.
Burrow shows flashes of that now too. Hey, there's Joe Cool, pageant-waving goodbye to departing, defeated Texas fans. Hey, there's Joe Cool, smiling coyly at the camera when asked if he has anything to say to Nebraska, the school where his father and older brothers played football but which didn't really give him a look. Twice. Hey, there's Joe Cool, handing the SEC title game ball off to Orgeron, then saying he'll keep the national championship game ball for himself.
Hey, there's Joe Cool, sunglasses on once more, cruising down the Tiger Walk.
His parents have met him there before every home game this year, waiting for him at the end, just outside the entrance to the locker room. Jimmy and Robin leave their tailgate early, knowing that as they navigate to the Tiger Walk, they'll be stopped five, 10, 15 times by fans along the way.
"They have fun out there," Burrow says, then smiles his half-smile. This is all still a hoot for him too, you see. The fans who not only love him but love his whole family by proxy. The grateful Louisianans who thank them all for coming to their state.
"My whole family's like, 'Well, thanks for resurrecting my career.'"
BEFORE HE WAS a Heisman winner, Joe Burrow was a quarterback without a home.
The May before last, Orgeron did his damnedest to sell Burrow on the prestige of playing quarterback in Baton Rouge. Burrow, at the time, was a newly minted free agent in the college football transfer market, having thrown all of 39 passes in his three years at Ohio State. Still, Orgeron's offer was one without much historical merit, the program mostly able to push out good but not exceptional quarterbacks. LSU's most recent undisputed star at the position, JaMarcus Russell, is now best known for his all-time flameout as a professional.
Burrow wasn't a proven commodity either -- not quite castoff, but not quite can't-miss wager. He came to Baton Rouge by way of Columbus, having bided his time behind a historically ridiculous assembly of quarterback talent at Ohio State -- Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, oh my. But by the time those guys cleared the decks, he still wasn't the clear choice to be starter -- Dwayne Haskins had logged precious minutes as a backup in 2017 while Burrow battled a broken hand -- so he decided to take his talents somewhere new.
Orgeron and Burrow convened over crawfish at Mike Anderson's, a seafood haunt that's been around since the 1970s and greets its patrons with a hulking deer, its antlers nearly scraping the ceiling, sitting in repose over a brick archway. That day, the two took the first tentative steps toward this partnership, the one that has upended everything in Baton Rouge.
"He fell in love with me," Burrow says. "And I fell in love with him."
A few days before the SEC championship win against Georgia (four touchdowns, 349 yards, 96.3 QBR and one Heisman-icing performance for Burrow), Orgeron stood on a podium in front of a roomful of media expounding on all the reasons he thinks Burrow is unlike any quarterback he's been around. "I think it's a combination of smarts," he said. "It's a combination of grits," he went on, likely -- in his exhilaration -- landing on some fusion of grit and guts. Or maybe he just meant grits.
Later, back on the couch in a quiet nook in Tiger Stadium, Orgeron the coach, Orgeron the native Louisianan, comes right out and says it. Or starts to.
"To me, he's been the most important ..." Like any coach fluent in coachspeak, Orgeron's inner diplomat kicks in, putting a muzzle on all that effusiveness. A bit. He smiles. "I guess I can't say that. One of the most important people in LSU history."
THERE IS A strange desperation in Baton Rouge these days.
These people have been waiting for so long for exactly this -- a Heisman-caliber (now crowned) quarterback steering a 21st-century offense -- that they all seem frantic to not just revel in this success but to remind themselves that it's a real thing and that it's happening here.
In the hours before kickoff against Texas A&M, former LSU players paced the sideline, their credentials around their necks listing their names, like ID-tag-toting guests at a reunion, which in a way, they were. Hi, my name is Joseph Addai.
Addai won a championship here 16 years ago, won a Super Bowl a few years after that with Indianapolis, yet he still finds himself daydreaming about what it would be like to play now, with a quarterback like this, in a system like this.
"I would've loved it. It's so different," Addai said to another LSU old-timer, the two stationed about 30 yards from where Burrow stood warming up. He said it quietly, shaking his head, like if he spoke it out loud, poof, it would vanish. It's a real thing, and it's happening here.
"It's cool as hell," JaMarcus Russell says. He stood outside a Tiger Stadium elevator on his way up to his seats for the Texas A&M game, one more LSU alum on hand to bear witness.
Here we are, at the end of 2019, and we've spent an entire fall in bizarro Baton Rouge: LSU is scarily dominant on offense. More, it's scarily modern. Is that the Tigers going ... no-huddle? (It is! On 67% of plays this season, compared with 34% the five seasons prior.) Is that the Tigers throwing ... on first down? (With gusto! On 61% of first downs, fourth most in the FBS and nearly twice as often as they did just two years ago, when they ranked 115th.) Is that the Tigers trotting out ... three-plus-wide-receiver sets? (Why, yes! On 708 plays, twice as many as last season.)
"Right now, he owns the city." Matt Brocato
This team bears so little resemblance to its ground-and-pound lineage that it feels almost futile to try to capture the distance between then and now.
Six months ago, in the dead heat of summer in Louisiana, Burrow vowed that this team would score 40, 50, 60 points a game. His bravado felt foolhardy, fantastical. At the very least, it was critically ahistorical. For one, Burrow's first season at LSU was mostly just ... fine. He threw for 16 touchdowns in all of 2018, a number he eclipsed in one month (one month!) this season. For another, you had to go back to 2013 to find an LSU team that even approached the right to be called a scoring machine, and even then, even with Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry lining up together, the Tigers cashed in at 35.8 points per game. Twenty-two teams outpaced them that season. That we now do expect 40, 50, 60 points a game, that we're now surprised when they don't hit those marks -- LSU has scored 40, 50, 60 points a game in all but three outings so far this season -- is a feat of sorcery.
Or at least meticulous planning. Planning from Orgeron, who pulled the plug on the old way. After Alabama blanked LSU 29-0 last season, Orgeron told his offensive coordinator, Steve Ensminger, they had to go to the spread. Planning from Ensminger, who told Orgeron that yes, of course he'd be willing to let someone new come in here and teach this team a new offense. Planning from Joe Brady, who was that someone new, by way of the New Orleans Saints, and who arrived this past offseason armed to the gills with these newfangled run-pass options and three-receiver sets and up-tempo play. And planning from Burrow, who executed it all in his first year in this particular system.
Those dominoes, incidentally, hit every other domino right on its sweet spot to produce this: historically great accuracy (Burrow's 77.9% pass completion rate is on pace to be the best mark in FBS history, a point higher than the previous record, set by Colt McCoy in 2008); gluttonous production (48 touchdown passes, an SEC record); and, you know, wins (13 of them to date).
Along the way, Burrow metamorphosed from fringe draft prospect to first-player-taken prospect, a rise that leaves people who study this kind of thing for a living flummoxed, stumped on naming a proper comparison. "His ascension has been ridiculous," says Jim Nagy, the Senior Bowl's executive director and a draft analyst. "It really is a little unprecedented. At the quarterback position, man, I'm struggling to come up with one."
The police escorts and the unmarked police cars and the mania that has settled around Burrow makes a certain kind of sense then. It feels like an actual physical relief to watch him and his offense operate, for the old players who missed out on this system and for the fan base that clamored for it year after year after year.
"I'm just so happy that it's finally here," Rohan Davey says. "Thank god."
JUST ABOUT A thousand miles away, in a breakfast and lunch diner in The Plains, Ohio, a pair of older men are hashing out the latest betting odds for Burrow to win the Heisman, pondering just how astronomical the quarterback's chances can balloon. (Spoiler: Burrow's Heisman win will be seismic. His margin of victory, 1,846 more points than Jalen Hurts, will go down as the largest gap in history.) They're sitting in the second-to-last booth by the wall, under a banner that reads "Gigi's Country Kitchen of Baton Rouge."
Travis Brand, the owner of Gigi's Country Kitchen, which is very much not in Baton Rouge, passes by and catches wind of the topic at hand. It's the topic at hand at a lot of diner booths here in The Plains, Burrow's hometown, and Athens, the town just a few streets over.
"If he said, 'I'd like to be a mayor down there,'" Brand says, "I think the mayor would say, 'Here, let me give you my salary.'"
Brand has seen it for himself, this Baton Rouge-Joe Burrow lovefest. That's where the banner came from, in fact. Gigi's has morphed into a semi-tourist trap these days, with Brand to thank for it. Over the swinging door that leads to the kitchen: an LSU license plate; "HERE WE GEAUX JEAUX 12 AND 0" spelled out on the Gigi's sign that lords over North Plains Road; and that custom Gigi's banner, a gift from some friends he made down in Louisiana. He went south for the Texas A&M game, and a few LSU fans who had seen and admired Brand's LSU-centric decor served as tailgating tour guides, upgraded his hotel room and bestowed him with this customized memento.
Gigi's is a five-minute drive from Burrow's childhood home, a two-story colonial with an LSU flag hanging on its front door, tucked away on a winding road. Inside, there's not all that much evidence that a Heisman-winning quarterback once lived here, not downstairs, anyway. Joe's LSU jersey is draped over a dining chair; a tea towel hangs in the kitchen, showing a map of the United States with a heart over the state of Ohio, another over Louisiana and the caption "It's really not that far ..." (The shrine -- yes, of course, there's one -- resides in the basement.) Jimmy sits down among these tokens and tries to explain what has happened to his son. What his son has made happen.
"Just to think that ..." he starts, then cuts himself off. "There's this one picture."
He pulls up his phone, then swipes until he finds the shot he's after, the one someone snapped of Joe and Jimmy on the field during the pregame senior presentation before the Texas A&M game. Joe's got that half-smile, his eyes trained on the camera. Jimmy can't seem to take his eyes off Joe. He's beaming at his son.
Everyone back home is a little lovesick, really: the Burrows' neighbors, the dozen who have planted LSU flags in their front yards; the especially zealous neighbor who made what looks to be a 6-foot banner -- it's so big the metal fencing over which it's draped is buckling under the weight; the locals who flocked to Little Professor Book Center. The shop, in nearby Athens, had to release an apology on Facebook: "Bad news folks, our magazine distributor contacted us today and let us know they are not able to provide us with extra copies of the Joe Burrow Sports Illustrated."
"People were rushing to the stores. 'Oh, Piggly Wiggly has 20 copies! Oh, that was 30 minutes ago. I know I'm too late.' It was pandemonium, people wanting this Sports Illustrated," Brand says.
There's a bizarre, unlikely marriage between Ohioans and Louisianans these days, even as the specter of a possible Ohio State-LSU national championship matchup looms. They're infatuated with the same man.
Back in Baton Rouge, Patrick Wilkerson, the owner of the boutique LSU clothing shop Bengals & Bandits, fields, oh, 30 calls a week from LSU fans asking if his store carries any Burrow-branded gear, which of course it does not, in compliance with NCAA restrictions. Wilkerson's theory is that it's Burrow's very otherness that works in his favor.
"I don't know that if he was from here if he would have been embraced as much," he says.
Burrow didn't just come to LSU, is what he's saying. He adopted the whole darn state.
So he does things like commission a Burreaux jersey one day, going full Cajun, and becomes a literal billboard for Louisiana appreciation. Really. The billboards went up the Tuesday after he wore the jersey. And he thanks an entire state for allowing him to become a native.
"Isn't that cool?" Orgeron says, the gravel in his voice turning to boulders he gets so choked up. "Isn't that something?"
"Oh, he knows how to capture them," Orgeron says.
JOE BURROW NEVER got the chance to capture Billy Cannon.
Burrow chose Louisiana two days before Cannon died on May 20, 2018, but his daughter, Bunnie, suspects he knew. She hopes he did. She would like to think he at least heard the name of the man who will now always be tied to him. Cannon won the Heisman 60 years ago, the only player from LSU to win it -- until Saturday night.
Bunnie wears a silver charm on her necklace with the imprint of Billy's fingerprint. He used to point that finger at her when she landed in trouble, and now it's her reminder to behave. Bunnie always looks for him, keeps an eye out for his No. 20, and found one when she arrived in New York on Friday. Her cab pulled to a stop in front of a building, No. 20 of some street she can't remember now, but its address big and bold, even from her seat in the taxi.
"It's so obvious everywhere I go," she says.
Billy Cannon's here, in New York too.
Bunnie and her mother, Dot, wrote a letter to Burrow because they wanted him to know that. He read it on the way to Manhattan. The private plane that shuttled Burrow and his family from Atlanta, for one set of awards, to New York, for more, sat only one person per row, so he read the letter by himself. Loneliness is a part of this story too. Burrow passed the letter to his mother, who sat across from him. She gave it to Jimmy, who sat behind him. Before Jimmy knew whom the letter was from or what it said, he looked at his son's face and his wife's face and understood it was one more thing they'd want to hold on to after all this is done.
Dot Cannon told Burrow that he reminded her of Billy in all sorts of ways. Dot goes to every home game, arriving two hours before kickoff to sit in the seat her husband used to occupy, and she watches. Burrow's strength and character make her think of Billy.
"And his little crooked smile," Bunnie says.
Billy Cannon never wanted to be this team's only Heisman winner. He won the award, then spent the rest of his 80 years waiting for someone to join him, would wonder with Bunnie at the start of every football season whether this was the year someone might. He was ready for someone new to take over.
She put these thoughts to paper, telling Burrow to take his friends and family with him on this journey. There were also some things she didn't say but she wants him to know. He'll always have to be on now. The luxury of his anonymity is gone. Whether Billy showed up to a pizza joint or a white-tablecloth restaurant, an airport in California or an airport in Montana, when he entered a room, people swarmed. He was always being watched, always seen.
"Everybody's going to want something from him," Bunnie says. "This is the pinnacle of every kid's dream, but there's a price to pay for it."
At 10:22 on Saturday night, a Heisman winner for less than two hours, Burrow walks into a dimly lit room and people swarm. He's come to the back of a rooftop bar of the Knickerbocker Hotel, a view of Times Square and the billboard that already coronates him visible below. His parents are here, his high school coaches. Orgeron arrives about 30 minutes after Burrow; Joe Brady does too. Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, is at the meat-carving station toward the back, and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards stops in also. "That's one of the richest men in Louisiana," one partygoer says, nodding to another man in another dark suit. "Shale oil."
All these people, who know Burrow or just want to, toast his success and their proximity to it, with champagne in flute glasses and beer in disposable cups with Burrow's number in purple.
Burrow comes in, and this roomful of people stops. They've been waiting. They break into applause while juggling their phones, lifting them up like torches to get a picture of the man at the center of this bedlam. He snakes his way through, shaking hands and stopping for photos, and the 50-foot journey from one end of the room to the other takes him nearly half an hour. He eventually sits, parking himself on a U-shaped sofa in the corner of the room. He looks happy and spent, like the emotion of his speech -- he took 30 seconds to gather himself before starting; he took 13 more before he was able to thank Coach Orgeron -- tapped him dry. It is hard to be a 23-year-old head of state.
Joe Burrow's NFL draft profile
Take a look at highlights from Joe Burrow's senior season at LSU, during which he won the Heisman Trophy and led the Tigers to a No. 1 ranking.
He'll stay here, mostly sequestered, for the better part of two hours, sipping at champagne, his girlfriend to his right and his mother to his left and a wall of people that inches inward.
There are distractions. When Orgeron walks in, he's met with an ovation too. Someone in a suit brings in Burrow's Heisman Trophy, his name and the school's name now engraved in gold plating, and for a while, that's a shiny toy for the crowd to focus its energy on. But they return, always, to Burrow, a moon controlling the tide. When he stands up to greet another well-wisher, the room actually feels as if it tilts sideways as the masses creep closer, taking more photos. When he briefly leaves the room, standing in the hallway just behind it, the crowd gravitates there too.
After about two hours, Burrow starts the slow process of leaving. He shakes more hands and takes more photos, until a handler steps in to carve a path forward.
"Excuse us, excuse us."
The handler leads the way, Robin following the trail he leaves open. She holds out her hand behind her and her son grabs it, making his way out of the room and these strange times.