The moment only briefly belonged to Joe Burrow.
After winning the Heisman Trophy by a historic margin Saturday, the record-breaking LSU quarterback used his speech minutes after to tearfully remember others who are less fortunate, specifically highlighting the problem of hunger in his hometown of Athens, Ohio.
That kind gesture, and Burrow’s viral speech, sent ripples nationally, sparking an impromptu fundraiser that left the Athens County Food Pantry with more than $447,000 in donations as of Wednesday evening.
“Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area,” the 23-year-old Burrow said on the stage, wiping away tears after winning the award. “The poverty rate is almost two times the national average, and there’s so many people there that don’t have a lot.
“I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and in Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school,” he added, telling those kids, “and you guys can be up here, too.”
The speech spurred Will Drabold, an Athens resident, to create a fundraising page for the Athens County Food Pantry the next day on Facebook.
“I started this because, like everyone else from Athens, I cried during Joey’s speech and felt like there had to be a way to harness that,” Drabold, a graduate of Athens’ Ohio University, wrote on Facebook.
Then contributions poured in from around the country, particularly Ohio and Louisiana, where Burrow has led No. 1 Louisiana State into a Dec. 28 playoff game against No. 4 Oklahoma. A victory there would put the Tigers in the national championship game.
In the meantime, his hometown food pantry is suddenly in the national spotlight.
“We’re still trying to come to terms with the reality that this isn’t a dream,” Karin Bright, the food pantry president, told NPR. “It’s amazing.”
Burrow grew up in Athens, in southeast corner of the state. He initially played at Ohio State, but transferred to LSU in 2018 after graduating in three years with a degree in consumer and family financial services. At LSU, he has become a beloved star, the likely No. 1 pick in next spring’s NFL draft, as popular in the Bayou as he is in Ohio.
“It’s like Joe has become everybody’s next door neighbor,” Bright said, “the kid that everybody knows.”
Not surprisingly, people from Louisiana were eager to donate, too, with one caller, Bright said, telling her daughter, “Thank you for Joe, from Louisiana.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day, who was in New York for the Heisman presentation, said Burrow’s message came straight from the heart.
“Joe, although he thought that out, that was just him being himself … Talk about class. There’s not a classier guy out there,” Day told ESPN. “I was humbled to be in the room and just be a part of the journey.”
Joe’s dad, Jimmy, played at Nebraska, as well as in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers and in the Canadian Football League. He was a longtime assistant coach at Nebraska, Washington State, Iowa State, North Dakota State and Ohio, where he coached for 14 years until retiring last year. Now, he watches as Athens turns out in LSU colors on game days.
“There are no schools in Athens that are purple and gold, so there’s no confusion,” bartender Jennifer Cochran told The Post’s Chuck Culpepper last fall. “Everybody knows if you see purple and gold around here, they’re a Joey supporter.”
Athens is the poorest county in Ohio, with an Ohio Development Services Agency report indicating that more than 30 percent of the county’s population lives in poverty — a rate nearly three times the national average. The local pantry served more than 2,100 families last year. Athens Mayor Steve Patterson told the (Baton Rouge) Advocate that the town, which was founded in 1798, has seen its industrial base in the timber, oil extraction and coal businesses wither away. The top employer is Ohio University, with an enrollment of 23,000 students across all levels, followed by the hospital and Walmart.
“Hunger is a real problem in our county. We don’t have much in the way of industry. So economically, we struggle and we’re rural, so transportation makes it very difficult for people to get jobs and be able to get there,” Bright told NPR. “People are struggling and they do their best. But it’s really, really challenging here.”
Not having food can feel humiliating for families and for kids. Burrow’s message could help change that perception in Athens, while swelling donations past what the pantry typically gets in a year.
“For him to bring that up … this is a man who has not forgotten where he came from, and I don’t think he ever will,” Bright told NPR. “I think he will always be grateful for the support of this community. And I think he wants to let the world know that it’s a community that with some help, these kids can go further.”