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Tara Sullivan

In the fight against hunger, a little celebrity goes a long way. Thirty-one seconds of Joe Burrow’s Heisman speech made the perfect example.

Joe Burrow's emotional speech upon his winning the 2019 Heisman Trophy touched more people in his hometown than he could have imagined.Todd Van Emst/Pool Heisman Trust via AP

Joe Burrow is a win away from taking the Bengals to their second straight Super Bowl, leading his team Sunday into the cavernous, deafening confines of Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium determined to walk out, just as he did last year, with a win. By any analytical measure, that’s an impressive career start for a third-year quarterback, where the leap from college to the rigors of the NFL generally requires some longer period of adjustment.

It’s even more impressive for Burrow, whose first year ended in the 10th game when he tore the ACL and MCL and damaged the PCL in his left knee and who earned the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year a season ago.


Yet for all the memorable moments Burrow has packed onto the field since Cincinnati selected him first overall in 2020, there is an off-the-field one that might just resonate longer than the rest of them combined. It comes from the night he won the Heisman Trophy.

From 31 seconds tucked inside an emotional acceptance speech, 31 seconds that were neither planned nor scripted, 31 seconds that brought much-needed attention to the issue of food insecurity in Burrow’s home county in Ohio.

If you didn’t see it Dec. 14, 2019, Burrow won the famed award as college football’s most outstanding player, ahead of fellow finalists Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields, and Chase Young. As he delivered a nine-minute thank you speech, pausing more than once to gather his emotions and wipe his eyes in gratitude to all who’d helped him along his remarkable journey from high school standout to Ohio State backup to LSU Heisman winner, Burrow said this:

“Coming from Southeast Ohio, the poverty rate is almost twice the national average. There are so many people there who don’t have a lot, and I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County who go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here, too.”


Thirty-one seconds that came straight from Burrow’s heart and landed oh-so-softly in the hearts of so many across the country, prompting a flood of donations to the Athens County Food Pantry that not only changed the fortunes of the pantry, but planted the seeds for an ongoing relationship with Burrow, his foundation, and what the pantry can continue doing to help people in Athens and surrounding counties. Waves of fund-raising reached $650,000, part of which, along with state funding, would be invested in an endowment to ensure the pantry’s long-term financial viability.

It has since eclipsed $1.6 million and has become the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund.

“What that did for our pantry and what that’s allowing us to do with our pantry has made a monumental impact in our community,” said Karin Bright, president of the Athens County Food Pantry.

“Not just in the Athens County area, but it’s spread beyond as well,” she said. “We’ve started new programs, we’ve increased the number of people we can serve. We are no longer restricted to a weekly budget. It used to be first come, first serve, until we’d run out. That was hard. Now we’re not. Sometimes, we’re packing four times a week. We’re adding non-food items. We have added two weekend programs that we didn’t have before. We changed our mission statement to include food and support for our neighbors.”


And whose neighbors don’t sometimes need support? The most recent study by the Greater Boston Food Bank, in June of last year, estimated “that 32 percent — or 1.8 million adults — in the state experienced food insecurity in 2021.”

A policy event held this past week to address ways to end hunger in Massachusetts included this description of need: “As the costs for basic necessities rise, more Massachusetts residents living on the economic margins must choose between buying groceries and paying for housing, transportation, childcare, and other basic utilities. It’s a dilemma that plays out in hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts households every day. Hunger and access to proper nutrition remain pervasive, with nearly 1 in 3 adults experiencing food insecurity in Massachusetts in 2021.”

While Burrow continues to lend his support in Ohio through the food pantry, which is a direct provider to area residents, many of our local athletes have participated in awareness campaigns for the Greater Boston Food Bank, which operates as a warehouse, distributing food to more than 600 partners.

Patriots linebacker Mack Wilson supported GBFB in his social media earlier this season, Celtics star Jayson Tatum, Matthew Judon and Carl Davis of the Patriots, and Jake DeBrusk of the Bruins have all worked at charity events or helped with fund-raising. GBFB’s Chain of Giving event has included Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy, TD Garden president Amy Latimer, and Josh Kraft, president of Kraft Family Philanthropies. The Red Sox hold a Strike Out Hunger fund-raiser at Fenway that benefits GBFB.


The platforms they have can effect true change. In Burrow’s case, the scale of that change is still hard to believe.

“We had no idea he would address that,” Jimmy Burrow, Joe’s dad and vice president of his eponymous foundation said in an e-mail interview. “It’s amazing that Joe’s words had such an impact and they continue to make a difference in the Athens area.”

Said Joe’s mom, Robin, the fund’s secretary and treasurer, “We wanted Joe to understand that not everyone was as fortunate as he was growing up, but that didn’t define who that person was. I think he took that to heart and feels the need to help out other people when he can.”

That he has. Bright, who had taken over as president of the Athens Pantry about a year before Burrow’s Heisman night, was running errands and got home just in time to watch the hometown kid take home college football’s most storied treasure.

“When he pivoted into that 31 seconds, I looked at my husband. I had tears in my eyes, thinking, ‘This is what we do. This is who we are. These are the people we serve,’ ” she recalled. “I heard two messages. I heard him talk about how the kids here struggle. The other message I heard was the message of hope in there. I think sometimes that gets left behind with the focus on, ‘Oh the poverty, it’s so sad.’ There was hope, that you can be up there, too. The two messages were really critically important.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @Globe_Tara.