CINCINNATI -- Head west on Third Street. Turn and go south on Central Avenue. Hang a right before Pete Rose Way.
This is the route Anthony Munoz takes to get to his usual parking spot at Paul Brown Stadium. Parking diagonally from the entrance is one of the perks of being the Cincinnati Bengals' lone player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not so long ago, when Munoz was running late, a group of fans from Indiana saved a spot for him and had food waiting at their tailgate.
That's not necessary these days. The Bengals have drifted from playoff contention to 2-14, the league's worst record in 2019, and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Their official attendance was the lowest since 1993. Getting in and out of games requires little time or effort. Who needs a parking spot reserved when one is vacant in the front row?
None of this brings Munoz any joy. He longs for the atmosphere he experienced as a player.
Enter former LSU quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow.
"The quarterback can come in here, can rally this town, rally this team and really put his footprint on this city," Munoz said.
It's a lot to ask of a 23-year-old who was unknown by most of the country before his record-setting, championship, senior season. Fans and pundits have lavished superlatives on Burrows, who grew up in Athens in southeast Ohio, a region of Appalachia without a strong football pedigree.
Nationally, the Bengals find themselves in the same situation. And Burrow, who was overlooked but brought success to another region of Ohio not known for it, could be the person to change it all.
"It would not surprise me if he goes to Cincinnati and they're really, really dang good," said Nathan White, Burrow's former offensive coordinator at Athens High School. "It's just so exciting to think about.
"I hate to say that and sound cocky or whatever. It's just that I've watched him do it. It's pretty strange how similar it is, from Athens to LSU and then maybe Cincinnati."
If the Bengals draft Burrow on April 23, calling him a "hometown kid" might be a bit of a stretch, even if he spent the majority of his childhood in Ohio.
Athens, with an estimated population of just under 25,000 as of 2018, is in no-man's-land in the southeastern region of the state -- 73 miles southeast of Columbus, 156 miles east of Cincinnati, 203 miles southwest of Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. The TV stations come in from West Virginia. The location and lack of population density affects the perception in multiple ways.
"There's a lack of respect for southeast Ohio football because we don't have the population to compete, typically, with the schools that are within the metropolitan areas of Ohio, let alone the private and parochial schools," says Ryan Adams, Burrow's former high school coach.
The small population also limits the talent pool at Athens High. But all it takes is a couple of hires at nearby Ohio University to change that.
For a while, it appeared Jimmy Burrow, Joe's father, was finished coaching college football. He had a 14-year career as an assistant at Washington State and Iowa State, a run that ended in 1994.
Seven years later, Nebraska coach Frank Solich asked Jimmy Burrow to be a graduate assistant at his alma mater. The arrangement put Burrow back in college football and allowed him to be around his two sons who played for the Cornhuskers -- Jamie, a linebacker, and Dan, a free safety.
One year after Nebraska fired Solich, he was hired to be Ohio's head coach and tapped Burrow to be his defensive coordinator. Burrow's youngest son, Joe, was in second grade. It didn't take long before the entire county started to realize the coach's kid was pretty good at sports and absolutely hated to lose.
"There's no doubt he's always been that way," said Ryan Luehrman, Burrow's close friend and former teammate. "In every single thing we played, there's no taking it lazy or just casually."
When Burrow got to middle school and started playing 3-on-3 basketball in physical education, Adams wouldn't allow him to score and put two of the worst kids on his team. And Burrow still won.
Adams almost lost his future star quarterback. When Burrow was in seventh grade, in 2010, his father was a candidate to go back to Iowa State to be an assistant under Paul Rhoads. If Rhoads made an offer, the family would return to Ames, where Joe was born.
Jimmy had barely pulled into the parking lot for one of Joe's basketball games when Rhoads made the call. Jimmy walked into the gym and went down the court to deliver the news to his son, who was warming up near the far baseline.
"Joe, we're staying in Athens," Jimmy said.
"Good," Joe said.
From that moment, the family decided it wasn't going anywhere until Joe was finished with high school. The Athens coaches were incredibly thankful two years later.
Athens lost its starting quarterback, Michael Germano, before the 2012 season because his father, Pete Germano, was leaving Ohio to coach at Fresno State. Burrow, who was a sophomore, was slotted to play receiver or safety. That changed quickly.
"The decision was pretty easy at that point," White says. "Joe was the next man up."
Athens had never won a postseason game since Ohio started the playoff system in 1972. That changed with Joe Burrow.
The Bulldogs made the playoffs in Burrow's sophomore season, in 2012. With Burrow under center, decades of futility in Athens seemed like a distant memory, even when the coaching staff looked at opposing teams on game day and saw the difference.
"I truly believe that our kids bought in and believed they could win because there was never a doubt with Joe," said White, who succeeded Adams as Athens' head coach. "He was our leader. I think in some ways, he was even a comfort zone and even helped our coaches believe that we could do it."
Burrow was still overlooked. Scholarship offers trickled in, but Nebraska showed no interest even though Burrow's dad and older brothers played there. Finally, Ohio State offered Burrow, and then-assistant Tom Herman made the trip to Athens to see him in person. Herman called Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and told him he found the next Alex Smith -- Meyer's former quarterback at Utah who went on to become the No. 1 overall pick in 2005. Burrow committed to the Buckeyes the summer before his senior year in 2014.
"It's good to finally get southeast Ohio some recognition," Burrow told reporters at an Elite 11 regional camp in Columbus in 2014. "Not many people come to Ohio State or big-time colleges from southeast Ohio."
Burrow and Athens were the talk of the region and state by his senior year. People from neighboring counties made the trek into Athens to watch Burrow lead a prolific offense. The Bulldogs set the state record with 861 total points in 2014 -- an average of 57.4 points per game.
Rusty Richards, the coach at rival Nelsonville-York High, said people wanted to see if Burrow and the Bulldogs lived up to the hype. By the time they walked out of the stadium, they knew.
"They'd tap you on the shoulder and say, 'This kid is for real -- and so is this offense,'" Richards said.
Burrow and the Bulldogs were undefeated entering the 2014 Division III state title game against Toledo Central Catholic, a program with alumni such as former Notre Dame and Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshone Kizer.
Central Catholic coach Greg Dempsey said teams were willing to sit back in zone coverage against Burrow, who took advantage. Dempsey's game plan for the championship was simple: hit Burrow as much as possible.
"We sent everything at him, and we got to him," Dempsey said. "And it never fazed him. He just looked past the blitz."
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.
Burrow completed 26 of 45 passes for 446 yards. His six touchdown passes tied a record for an Ohio state title game. It seemed enough for Athens to win the title until Central Catholic scored the game-winning touchdown with 15 seconds left. Athens lost 56-52.
"This is the worst day of my life," Burrow told reporters after the game.
Two signs posted on the metal paneling of Athens' weight room summarize that season. On the right, one commemorates the state record for points scored. On the left, a sign that Athens was runner-up in 2014, a reminder of how close Burrow's team came to winning it all.
Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard was a year older than Burrow when the quarterback arrived on the Ohio State campus in 2015. They met when Burrow stayed in Hubbard's dorm room during a campus visit. The first thing he learned about Burrow was his work ethic.
"Despite being third string as a freshman or whatever, he was always one of the guys who worked really hard -- like genuinely worked really hard," Hubbard says. "[He] just did it because he wanted the respect of his teammates."
Before the 2017 season, a preseason hand injury that required surgery derailed Burrow's shot of winning Ohio State's starting-quarterback competition. He decided to transfer from Ohio State to LSU after he lost the job to Dwayne Haskins, whom the Washington Redskins took in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft. In three years with the Buckeyes, Burrow threw 39 passes.
People around Athens started tuning in to LSU games as soon as Burrow won the starting job before the 2018 season. In 2019, Burrow's games were turning into local events.
Austin Downs, a 23-year-old athletic director at Trimble High School in Glouster, Ohio, said the family gatherings to watch Ohio State games on Saturdays were replaced by LSU watch parties.
In December, Burrow became the first LSU player to win the Heisman Trophy in 60 years. One month later, he threw for 463 yards and five touchdowns in a 42-25 victory over Clemson to give the Tigers the national championship. It capped a remarkable season in which he completed 76.3% of his passes for 5,761 yards and 60 touchdowns.
Adams, Burrow's high school coach, watched the game alone in his house. In his mind, Burrow's victory made up for the championship that eluded him in Athens five years earlier.
"It took a lot of the sting out for all of us," Adams says. "We wanted full validation for the sacrifices that were made during those years that these kids were in high school."
Starting from when he was a sophomore in high school, Burrow worked year-round without seeing his team achieve the ultimate goal. Now, Burrow had a championship trophy to hold. In the immediate aftermath, he was left all but speechless.
"I don't know what else to say," Burrow told reporters during the postgame news conference. "I mean, there's been so many people that have come into this, from people that have helped me along my journey from Ohio, Louisiana, everywhere."
Many expect Burrow, who declined to comment for this story, to be playing football in Ohio again. The Bengals are looking for a franchise quarterback to succeed Andy Dalton, who spent the past nine seasons in that role.
Burrow could provide an immediate boost for a franchise that suffered its worst season since 2002 and hasn't made the playoffs in four years. More importantly, however, Burrow could bring some excitement to a city that desperately needs it.
Munoz remembers all the people who weathered a wind chill of minus-59 degrees to watch the Bengals win the 1981 AFC Championship at Riverfront Stadium. It was a testament to how much people cared about the Bengals.
"You want that to come back to the city," said Munoz, who moved to Cincinnati after the 1981 season. "You want the fans to get excited. You want these guys [the players] to experience that."
The traits Burrow showed throughout his childhood in Athens were consistent with his time at LSU, especially his ability to handle pressure from defenses. In 2019, Burrow led all qualifying quarterbacks with an 82.6 QBR under pressure, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He was also the best in college football against the blitz, with a total QBR of 91.5.
And the same confidence he carried before games in high school in Athens was evident in Baton Rouge. Bengals offensive lineman Jonah Williams, who played at Alabama, said he remembers Burrow's confidence against the Crimson Tide before their game in 2018.
"I respect that whole emotion of saying like, 'I'm not scared of anybody -- me and my team are going to take on anyone,'" Williams says. "I like that."
Those intangibles are critical, especially when talking about taking a quarterback with the top overall pick. In the buildup to this year's draft, Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin has gushed about Burrow's on-field body of work. But the context behind Burrow's game tape at LSU is just as important.
"Transferring in is not easy," Tobin said at the NFL scouting combine in February. "I'm a [former] transfer quarterback. I know the pitfalls of that, and I know how hard it is to have a team buy into you once you get there.
"So, I know that firsthand. His story is such a great story of perseverance, dedication and hard work, believing in yourself and then ultimately winning at the highest level."
Weeks after LSU won the title, one downtown shop in Athens had an entire window display dedicated to the hometown hero: a silver, No. 9 balloon; newspaper pages pinned to a side wall; and shirts that ranged from purple and gold to a green-and-white one that said, "I'm up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County." That's a quote from Burrow's Heisman speech that inspired more than $500,000 in donations for a local food bank.
Even if he didn't intend for it to be that way, it was a way for Burrow to give back to the community that forged him. When Burrow and Athens made that playoff run in 2014, they went through private schools in bigger cities, including LeBron James' alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron.
"Hey, here comes little ol' Athens," Jimmy Burrow says. "Joe used all those things as motivation. It was really his whole career."
In 2010, when Joe Burrow was in eighth grade, a tornado swept through Athens and destroyed a significant portion of the high school stadium, including the press box. After Burrow's final year at LSU, the school board voted to rename the stadium after him.
Burrow knows that if he ends up with the Bengals, he'll be facing a significant challenge. As he has often said this offseason, the team with the first overall pick in the draft is in that position for a reason.
Adams, his former high school coach, is as fascinated as anyone to see how Burrow fares in the NFL. Adams needs only to look outside his office and into the middle school gym, where Burrow used to win those 3-on-3 basketball games, as an indicator of how successful he can be at the next level.
"I honestly believe Joe is going to be completely consumed with just trying to be the absolute best quarterback that he can be," Adams says. "Having said that, that will involve trying to elevate as many people around him as he can, because he knows that's where his success is going to be."