Before Joe Burrow led his team to a Super Bowl or even played an NFL regular-season snap, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback "won the team over" during an emotional meeting about racial injustice back in the summer of 2020.
The Bengals were holding a meeting at team headquarters around August, in the wake of George Floyd's murder by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the protests against racial injustice it had sparked across the nation. As defensive tackle D.J. Reader recalls, "a lot was going on at that time" around the country and players were discussing weighty issues in the meeting.
Burrow decided to address the team by telling a personal story about the racial injustice a Black teammate experienced during their high school basketball days growing up in Athens, Ohio. During one game, Burrow said, people in the stands yelled racial slurs at the friend. Burrow described feeling shaken and upset during the game, and what it felt like afterward as the two of them sat in the back of the team bus.
Burrow vowed to fight against such behavior for the rest of his life.
"He kind of broke down talking about it," Reader said. "He's a guy who stood there and he supported his friend as he should because you know it's not right. As a person it meant a lot to hear how he stood up for him. [Racism] is not something he's not just now learning."
Reader, who is Black, added that it was "good to hear from someone on the opposite side" speak on the struggle during the meeting, highlighting Burrow's inherent leadership. "He stands on what he says," Reader said.
"He won the team over real quick -- every leader has that moment," said a former Bengals staff member who attended the meeting.
Burrow was unavailable for immediate comment, but his father, Jim Burrow, said the story his son told about his high school friend is accurate, and that Joe told him about what happened that night after the game. Hearing racial slurs directed at Joe's friend and teammate was "disappointing for all of us" and "heartbreaking," Jim said.
"I think it opened his eyes that something like that could happen," Jim said of his son. "For us, just the normal core values we grew up with: Always show respect, treat people with respect no matter who they are, what their background is, and be willing to help others when you can."
Joe gravitated toward leadership on every team he joined dating back to youth sports, Jim said.
That process is playing out at the professional level. Joe Burrow's words to the team are impactful, if not plentiful, teammates say.
"When he does [speak], everybody listens," cornerback Mike Hilton said.