Joe Burrow champions an underdog: Southeast Ohio

HILLSBORO, Ohio — Monday night, quarterback sensation Joe Burrow led LSU past Clemson for the college football national championship. But the native of southeast Ohio had already proved himself one of the biggest winners of all time, as far as his Athens County neighbors are concerned.

No one from Ohio is just from Ohio. They’re from northeast Ohio, southwest Ohio, central Ohio and so on. Ohio is multiple states rolled into one, from the green, rolling farmland of the southwest up to the flat industrial centers of the north, back down to the gray Appalachian foothills of the southeast.

People in southern Ohio care little about Cleveland’s pro sports teams, just as northern Ohioans are ambivalent about the Reds and Bengals in Cincinnati. The Ohio State Buckeyes, located in central Ohio, unite the state as much as anything, but nowhere near the way that all West Virginians, for instance, embrace their beloved Mountaineers in Morgantown.

Burrow and NBA star LeBron James are both from Ohio. But James is from Akron in Summit County in northeast Ohio. Burrow is from Athens County in southeast Ohio, not all that far away on a map, but a world apart economically and culturally. Burrow understands all this. When he won the Heisman Trophy last month, his moving acceptance speech got a lot of attention, deservedly, for his shout-out to kids in his home county and the poverty many of them face each day.

Burrow was very specific. He didn’t refer broadly to kids in Ohio, or even just southern Ohio. He said, “Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area, and the poverty rate is almost two times the national average. There’s so many people there that don’t have a lot. And 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. You guys can be up here, too.”

Almost immediately after Burrow’s remarks on Saturday, a fundraising campaign was launched and donations began pouring in, more than $500,000 and counting by Tuesday. Predictably, numerous cookie-cutter stories popped up across the national media landscape highlighting the poverty and drug problems that have long defined the area. Usually ignored in such quick-hit profiles are the many examples of progress and innovation to be found.

Still, the problems are real, and Americans are generous in spirit. We respond to stories of people and communities in need. A similar outpouring happened in southwest Ohio more than a decade ago, when the town of Wilmington, just 20 miles from Hillsboro, lost the shipping company DHL U.S. Express and at least 7,000 jobs. People were forced to put their homes up for sale — terrible timing in a crashing housing market, adding insult to injury — and move to greener pastures. The jobless rate skyrocketed.

The national media highlighted the disaster. Celebrities including Jay Leno, Rachael Ray, Nick Lachey and Glenn Beck came to Wilmington to draw attention to the region’s plight, and donations of money and food followed. It helped, for a while. Soon, though, the spotlight dimmed, and Wilmington was on its own again. Over the past couple of years the region has somewhat recovered, and Amazon Air is now using the former DHL air park, although it’s unclear whether its occupancy is long term, as it builds a new facility in nearby Cincinnati.

Will the current focus on southeast Ohio poverty, thanks to Burrow, represent another step in a lasting turnaround? Or will the attention — and donations — fade as fast as they came?

One big problem for the region, and a major contributor to its poverty and joblessness, is the spottiness of broadband Internet service, something most Americans take for granted these days. While money and food donations are helpful, they represent a bandage. Broadband Internet is part of the cure. Various government agencies have been working for years to expand broadband Internet in Appalachian Ohio, but it has been slow going. Late last year, the Appalachian Regional Commission announced a $2.5 million grant to bring broadband to six southeastern Ohio counties, including Athens. But it will take three years to install the necessary cable.

You guys can be up here, too,” Burrow said to thousands of kids in struggling communities back home. Inspiration matters a lot. So does real access to the 21st-century economy.

Like his basketball counterpart in northeast Ohio, Burrow will likely not end his commitment to where he’s from with one speech on the occasion of a major award. He led a football team that started the season as an underdog to a national title, but more than that, he proved himself a champion for his underdog community — something on which Ohioans in every corner of the state can agree.

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