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Feb. 13, 2022, 6:10 p.m. ET
Feb. 13, 2022, 6:10 p.m. ETCredit…Andrew Spear for The New York Times
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has been the driver of an unlikely playoff run, which has reinvigorated Cincinnati’s long-suffering fans, rekindled old touchstones like the Ickey Shuffle and “Who Dey” chants and given this season’s Super Bowl a rare true underdog story.
But in Burrow’s hometown, Athens, Ohio, the ascent may have a more lasting impact.
The Bengals’ Super Bowl run has been a boon for the Athens County Food Pantry, which has been transformed by the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief fund. The fund has helped raise more than $1.5 million to help feed those struggling in southeast Ohio, the state’s poorest region.
“It speaks volumes that people got the message,” said Karin Bright, the president of the Athens County Food Pantry. “Maybe they didn’t realize the depth of the problem, but it’s made such an impact on the awareness of food insecurity in this area.”
More than $53,000 came in during the first week after the Bengals beat Kansas City in the A.F.C. title game. Many of those donations have been for $9 (Burrow’s uniform number), $31 (the number of years between the Bengals’ Super Bowl appearances) or $56 (this is the 56th edition of the game). Some have been in the hundreds and thousands of dollars.
The impetus for the giving dates back a little more than two years ago when Burrow, in his 2019 speech after winning the Heisman Trophy, delivered an emotional, eloquent nod to those struggling in the region where he was raised.
Though he grew up in relative privilege — the son of a college football coach and an elementary school principal — Burrow saw the poverty around him, which was evident in the trailers at the bottom of the hill by his high school.
“I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school,” Burrow said in his Heisman speech, choking up as he spoke. “You guys can be up here, too.”
Within weeks, an online fund-raising account had brought in more than $500,000. Shortly after the Bengals drafted Burrow with the top pick in 2020, he agreed to lend his name to the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund. Through a partnership with Appalachian Ohio, a philanthropic organization in the region, an endowment is helping to transform the mission of the food pantry, Bright said.
The food pantry’s annual budget was $80,000 before Burrow’s speech, the funds going largely to bags of groceries that would be distributed three days a week from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. If food ran out, people were asked to come back on the next distribution day.
“Now, we don’t run out,” Bright said. “We don’t tell people, ‘Sorry, come back next week.’”