Three days before he won the Heisman Trophy, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was in Baltimore to accept the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, given annually to the best fourth- or fifth-year passer in the country.
Burrow knew about Unitas because his father, Jim, idolized Unitas. Jim Burrow, a retired college coach who most recently was the defensive coordinator at Ohio, was a defensive back for the Green Bay Packers in 1976 and in the Canadian Football League from 1977-1981. Unitas played in the NFL from 1956-1973, and all but one of those years came with the Baltimore Colts.
Burrow was honored with the Golden Arm Award Dec. 11, and his father had an opportunity to have drinks with John Unitas Jr. the night before.
“My dad texted me … ‘That was incredible. That was so much fun,'” Burrow said on Glenn Clark Radio Dec. 11. “And then they gave me a signed picture from the ’58 championship game, and my dad was kind of blown away from that picture. I’m going to give that to him, so it’s been incredible.”
“It’s been awesome,” Burrow added. “My dad doesn’t get like that a lot except around his sports idols, so it’s been special.”
The award circuit was the culmination of a monster season for Burrow, who threw for 4,715 yards and 48 touchdowns, both single-season SEC records, on 77.9 percent passing in 2019. Burrow, an Athens, Ohio, native, began his college career at Ohio State, but struggled to see any playing time behind J.T. Barrett and Dwayne Haskins. He left as a graduate transfer after the 2017 season, landing at LSU in May 2018.
Burrow is now set to lead the Tigers (13-0) into the College Football Playoff, where they’ll face Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl Dec. 28 for the right to face the Clemson-Ohio State winner in the national championship. When did Burrow know that 2019 had a chance to be a special year?
“Last year in our fall camp scrimmages, the defense was just kicking our butt,” Burrow said. “We had an all-time great defense last year, and then this year was a little different — we were kind of kicking their butt every single day. We knew the kind of defense we had, so we were kind of like, ‘I think this season is going to be really special for us,’ because we were beating one of the best defenses in the country every single day.”
If Burrow’s path to this position was hardly linear, then the same can certainly be said about his head coach. Ed Orgeron began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Northwestern State (La.), eventually working his way up to the Ole Miss head coaching job (2005-2007). He was fired by Ole Miss after the Rebels went 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC.
Orgeron came on board with LSU as the defensive line coach in 2015. He served as the interim in 2016 after Les Miles was fired, becoming the full-time head coach in November 2016. For Orgeron, a Larose, La., native who grew up a Tigers fan, it had long been his dream to coach LSU. Orgeron is 38-9 as the Tigers’ head coach.
Orgeron has become a favorite among college football fans thanks in part to his thick Cajun accent.
“I’ll understand everything he’s saying during the week, but on Saturday when he gets fired up, maybe 60, 70 percent,” Burrow said. “I love Coach O. He’s a great coach. Intellectual coach, which not a lot of people give him credit for. If you don’t want to play for that guy, something’s wrong with you.”
“I do have to ask him to repeat phrases sometimes,” he added. “So I’m sure as you can tell, he’s not the best whisperer, so when he’s tries to whisper something, it’s almost like zero percent chance you can understand him, so when he whispers I have to ask him to say it again.”
In his final home game at LSU, Burrow — who many believe will be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft — left the fans in Baton Rouge, La., with a lasting impression. For Senior Day introductions, Burrow wore a jersey that read “BURREAUX” on the back — a nod to “Geaux Tigers.”
The video of Burrow’s entrance ahead of LSU’s game against Texas A&M went viral.
“I wanted to do something for this state and this university to kind of pay tribute to what they’ve done for me and my family, and that was the best way I could think to do it,” Burrow said. “I went to our equipment staff that Wednesday and I went, ‘Hey, I have this idea, you think you can get it done?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, we’ll get it done.’ It was super special for our entire program and state.”
To hear more from Burrow, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of LSU Athletics