Welcome to Joe-hio: How a Joe Burrow-led Super Bowl win would rival LeBron James’ 2016 NBA Finals
Joe Burrow grew up a huge LeBron James fan and was a vocal fan when the King returned to Cleveland and led a championship run in the 2016 NBA Finals.
Now, Burrow has James’ admiration. The NBA superstar congratulated Burrow after the second-year quarterback led the Bengals past the Chiefs in a 27-24 thriller in the AFC championship game.
Burrow called being tweeted by James “surreal,” and James doubled down by calling Burrow a generational talent.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 30, 2022
That link now prompts an interesting debate. If Burrow leads the Bengals to victory in Super Bowl 56 against the Rams on Sunday, would that be a more impressive accomplishment than when James rallied the Cavaliers from a 3-1 deficit against Golden State?
Michael Irvin fueled that debate on ESPN’s “First Take” this week when he said that edge goes to Burrow.
“I believe it’s more difficult to win the Super Bowl than any other sport,” Irvin said. “That absolutely outweighs that great task, the great accomplishment that LeBron had in Cleveland — When he rocked back and said ‘Cleveland this one’s for you!'” Irvin said. “Joe saying ‘Cincinnati, This one’s for you!’ It’s bigger than that.”
That might be part of the national conversation, but in Ohio that debate is gaining traction. Burrow’s crossover popularity as a high school Mr. Football, Ohio State ties and chance to be the first quarterback to win a Heisman Trophy, national championship and Super Bowl have put him in the same breath with James, at least for this playoff run.
Are those comparisons worth it? Let’s take a closer look:
Who are Ohio’s greatest athletes?
When it comes to Ohio athletes, most hypothetical Mount Rushmores would start with the combination of James, Jack Nickalus and Jesse Owens, who is technically an Alabama native but went to high school in Cleveland and ran track at Ohio State.
Burrow would also fall into that distinction knowing he was born in Ames, Iowa. Burrow, of course, played high school football in Athens, Ohio, and was named Mr. Football in 2014 after leading the Bulldogs to the Division II state championship game.
Burrow is a long way from making this list for career accomplishments. James has four NBA championships, Nicklaus won 18 major golf tournaments, and Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics.
That fourth spot is a wide-open debate among Cincinnati’s Pete Rose, legendary pitcher Cy Young, Hall of Fame outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin and NBA legends Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek. Our pick would be Rose among that group.
What are Ohio’s greatest sports moments?
Before entertaining that question you must first acknowledge Owens at the 1936 Olympics. Owens won four gold medals in Munich and struck an ideological blow to Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany. That’s a timeless moment in American sports history.
The James-Burrow debate would become more of a regional question in Ohio. James broke Cleveland’s 52-year pro sports championship drought when he led the Cavaliers past two-time defending champion Golden State in the 2016 NBA Finals. Cleveland rallied from a 3-1 deficit in improbable fashion, and James’ block of Golden State’s Andre Igoudala is on the short list of most-iconic plays in NBA history.
James also is an Ohio high school basketball legend, and he was an All-Ohio high school football player on top of that. James’ place in Ohio sports lore is secure, especially in Cleveland.
Does a Super Bowl run compare to NBA Finals?
Yes it does. James broke a drought that extended back to the Cleveland Browns winning the 1964 NFL championship. The Bengals and Cavaliers didn’t exist at the time.
No Ohio team has won a Super Bowl. Burrow has a chance to break that drought on Sunday and erase Cincinnati’s heart-breaking losses to San Francisco in Super Bowl 16 and Super Bowl 23.
The Rams might not be the Warriors, but Burrow already knocked out the two-time defending AFC champion Chiefs, led by Patrick Mahomes, in the AFC championship.
Is that more iconic than James? It will depend on how the game unfolds. If Burrow leads a last-minute drive that gives the Bengals their first Super Bowl championship, then yes, that accomplishment will at least be even money.
Cincinnati has not won a pro sports championship since the Reds swept Oakland in the 1990 World Series. Now, the Bengals have become the overnight trendy franchise, and there are a smattering of Browns fans rooting for Burrow too, maybe in part because of his ties to Ohio State. Burrow won over fans with his confident-but-cool demeanor, and he does not have a nickname preference.
“Just call me Joe,” Burrow said at his media availability Monday. “Whatever anybody wants to call me is OK by me.”
It also means something to bring this championship to the state of Ohio. He nearly led Athens High School to a state championship, and that experience still hits heading into Super Bowl 56.
“Being from Ohio and being the quarterback of the Bengals is something I’m really proud of,” Burrow said Monday. “Growing up there really weren’t a lot of Bengals in high school and middle school and growing up it was all Steelers and Browns and there were a few Bengals fans here and there that kind of got made fun of a little bit.
“As a team we’re excited to put a product on the field that the fans are proud of and that kind of gives them bragging rights,” he said. “They haven’t had that for a while. I’m excited to give that to them.”
How else can Burrow make history?
Burrow also has the unique opportunity to become the first quarterback to win a Heisman Trophy, national championship and a Super Bowl. Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel won the Heisman and national title at Florida in the same season in 1996. He has watched Burrow’s career take off in the last three years between college and the NFL.
Burrow passed for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns when he won the Heisman Trophy and led LSU to the College Football Playoff championship in 2019. It’s one of the greatest seasons in college football history.
“I remember when he sort of came out of nowhere in his year at LSU and just did unprecedented things; the success they had winning the national championship in an incredible way, and then the Heisman was unbelievable,” Wuerffel told Sporting News on Radio Row on Tuesday. “Then, to think he could go on and this quickly take a team and be in the Super Bowl and be on the brink of being the first person to ever win that trifecta just says so much about him and his confidence and his abilities. It’s an incredible story.”
Four quarterbacks born in Ohio have won the Super Bowl. Roger Staubach and Ben Roethlisberger won two Super Bowls each with Dallas and Pittsburgh, respectively. Len Dawson and Russell Wilson also are Ohio legends. But those quarterbacks are more-closely with their professional teams, and Roethlisberger is a villain of sorts given how much he dominated the Browns and Bengals.
Burrow is different. He’s Ohio at heart. But there is a lot more national love.
Burrow, James have Ohio tie that binds
Burrow has another state that holds him in high esteem, too. He transferred from Ohio State to LSU and led the Tigers to a national championship in 2019 with a record-breaking season that earned the Heisman Trophy. That was ironic given Burrow’s favorite NFL team as a kid.
“I was actually a Saints fan in Ohio because I was a big fan of Drew Brees,” Burrow said. “I was a Saints fan living in Ohio.”
Much like James was a Cowboys fan. That’s another tie that binds the superstars. James’ work with The I Promise School and Burrow’s Heisman speech that sparked six-figure donations to the Athens Food Pantry are examples of how those two give back to their Ohio roots.
James also won two NBA championships with Miami and his fourth with Los Angeles. Burrow, despite the Ohio love, has connections that extend all over, too. Those have been explored on Super Bowl week.
Joe Burrow has been asked specifically about his connections to Canada, Athens and Ames.
Add in LSU, Ohio State and Nebraska references during the playoffs.
— Charlie Goldsmith (@CharlieG__) February 9, 2022
That appreciation extends to Burrow’s philosophy on what he loves about playing quarterback.
“I’m from small-town rural Ohio, and I think what’s great about football is you can create relationships with people that you would have never had a relationship with otherwise, whether it’s a guy from Chicago or Alabama or Atlanta,” Burrow said. “Those relationships are rare and exciting for people who came from where I’m from. I would say that’s my favorite part.”
There is no question James is a larger global icon and always will be. Burrow, however, plays in a sport with the largest ratings in the United States. He is getting compared to seven-time champion Tom Brady and has the Bengals ahead of schedule.
That also is “surreal” in the moment.
Remember, Ohio also is a football-first state that houses the Pro Football Hall of Fame and rabid fan-bases in all corners. A win would solidify Burrow’s rise to national stardom, and it would extend to all corners of the state, even parts of Cleveland.
Would that resonate as much as LeBron holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy?
We’ll just have to wait and see if Burrow holds up the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night to find out.