Heisman Winner Spotlights Hunger In His Hometown, And Food Pantry Donations Pour In

Dec 16, 2019
Originally published on December 17, 2019 3:09 pm

When LSU quarterback Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, he used his acceptance speech not only to thank his teammates, his family and his coach — but also to highlight the struggles of people in his small hometown in Ohio.

"Coming from Southeast Ohio, it's a very impoverished area," Burrow said, in an emotional address during which he frequently brushed away tears. "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 continued. "And you guys can be up here too."

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A lot of people in Athens County watched that speech, and at least one of them had the idea to use the moment to support a good cause.

Athens resident Will Drabold quickly created a fundraising page for the Athens County Food Pantry on Sunday morning.

"Let's answer Joey's call to action by supporting a local nonprofit that serves food to more than 5,000 households in Athens County each year," Drabold wrote on Facebook.

Answer they did.

More than $250,000 has been collected for the local nonprofit organization in the past 48 hours, with donations from more than 7,300 people.

For the Athens County Food Pantry, the windfall has been remarkable. "We're still trying to come to terms with the reality that this isn't a dream," says Karin Bright, the food pantry's president. "It's amazing."

Many of the donations are coming from Ohio, but lots are coming from Louisiana, too. Bright described a call that her daughter received on the pantry's phone on Monday. The person donated and then said, "Thank you for Joe, from Louisiana."

Burrow grew up in Athens, where his father was the defensive coordinator for the football team at Ohio University. He attended Ohio State, hoping to eventually become the starting quarterback, but it didn't pan out. Burrow graduated in three years and transferred to LSU, where he thrived.

The 23-year-old quarterback's breakout performance this season has led No. 1 LSU to its first College Football Playoff berth. The Tigers will play Oklahoma on Dec. 28; if they win, they could meet No. 2 Ohio State in the championship on Jan. 13.

Burrow's huge success in Baton Rouge has meant that an Appalachian Ohio town that'd never had much interest in SEC football was suddenly awash in the Tigers' purple and gold.

"It's like Joe has become everybody's next-door neighbor, the kid that everybody knows," Bright said.

Now admiration for Burrow is metamorphosing into donations to the food pantry serving Ohio's poorest county, where some 20% of residents struggle with food insecurity.

"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 explains. "People are struggling and they do their best. But it's really, really challenging here."

She says her organization does what it can to ease the burden for area families. The food pantry served more than 2,100 families last year; some chose to get help every month, some just a few times a year.

"We are just overwhelmed with gratitude that so many people want to support the work that we're doing in Athens County," Bright says.

The donations are already more than the food pantry receives in an entire year, so it is getting advice from the Athens County Foundation on best practices for using large donations carefully.

Bright was among those in Athens County who were watching on TV when Burrow gave the shoutout to his hometown on Saturday.

She says her eyes began to tear as Burrow spoke about kids coming home to no food on the table, because she has worked with those families and knows the struggles they face.

"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," she says. "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."

It may already be working. Drabold, the Athens native who started the fundraiser, says that his wife is a special education teacher at a local elementary school. On Monday, students watched Burrow's speech and were told about the money raised for the food pantry.

"One of my wife's third-graders came up to my wife and said, 'I go to the food bank,' with her eyes beaming," Drabold writes. "She was proud to say that she did. She was proud!"

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Southeast Ohio is a region that doesn't usually attract much attention, but that changed on Saturday. Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow used his acceptance speech to highlight the struggles that many people face in his hometown. NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: When LSU quarterback Joe Burrow took the stage to accept the Heisman, lots of folks back home in Ohio were hanging on his every word.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BURROW: Coming from southeast Ohio, it's a very impoverished area, and there's so many people there that don't have a lot. And I'm up here for all of those kids in Athens and in Athens County that, you know, go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here, too.

WAMSLEY: One of the people watching was Will Drabold, who was a senior at Athens High School when Burrow was a freshman there.

WILL DRABOLD: When he started his sentence about southeastern Ohio, I sort of, like, jumped up, walked up to the TV and said, wow, wow, wow, because I had never seen anyone bring attention to the region as he did.

WAMSLEY: Drabold knew just what to do. He created a Facebook fundraising page where donations would go directly to the Athens County Food Pantry. Contributions poured in.

DRABOLD: For Joey to say I'm up here for the kids who go home and don't have a lot of food on the table who are hungry, it just - it shot a lightning bolt through the whole region and the people that live there.

WAMSLEY: More than $370,000 has been raised for the food pantry since Sunday from more than 10,000 donors. And while many of the donations were from Ohio, plenty came from LSU fans in Louisiana.

KARIN BRIGHT: My daughter just took a phone call on the pantry phone, and the person donated and said, thank you for Joe from Louisiana.

WAMSLEY: That's Karin Bright, president of the Athens County Food Pantry.

BRIGHT: Hunger is a real problem in our county. We don't have much in the way of industry here, so people are struggling. And they do their best, but it's really, really challenging here.

WAMSLEY: She says the donations since Burrow's speech are more than the food pantry usually gets in a year in a county where 20% of people face food insecurity. And the shoutout to southeast Ohio has inspired more than donations, says Drabold. His wife is a teacher at a local elementary school. Yesterday, the kids watched Burrow's speech and learned about the donations people were making.

DRABOLD: One of my wife's students came up to her and said, I get my food at the food pantry. She said that beaming.

WAMSLEY: With donations still coming in from Ohio, Louisiana and beyond, that lightning bolt of a speech could spark a brighter future for a generation.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.