“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.”

–Joe Burrow acceptinig the Heisman Trophy

ATHENS, Ohio (WCMH) — On Dec. 14, 2019, Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy. During his acceptance speech, he spent 31 seconds speaking about his hometown of Athens, Ohio, and the food insecurity the people in that community face every day.

“I didn’t really expect anything to happen,” Burrow shared years later, reflecting on that Heisman speech. “I was just saying what was on my mind and what was in my heart, and it turned into this big thing that has helped a lot of people.”

“This is a speech that will live on for years,” said Karin Bright, president of the Athens County Food Pantry. “The kid who cared enough about his community enough to actually tear up about it and share what he saw as something that needed to be said.”

Almost immediately after Burrow gave his Heisman speech, a fundraiser began for the Athens County Food Pantry – and the money poured in, roughly $650,000.

Months later, the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund came together.

Since then, Bright said the food pantry has been fortunate to go to what she calls “The Never Out Model.”

“Like every other pantry in the area, when you’ve given out what you had budgeted, you were done. We changed that,” Bright explained. “We make sure we always have food available.”

No one knew at the time just how critical that concept would become.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times really was very fitting,” Bright said with a sigh. “We hit this high! My gosh! What can we do with all of this! Boom!”

That’s when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Thanks to the extra funds from donations after Burrow’s speech, the food pantry was able to keep up with the extra need, even stepping in to help school districts all over the area whose students depend on school lunches.  

Meanwhile, attention towards the food pantry continues to increase as Burrow has increasing success on the football field. After the Bengals’ Wild Card win, fans started donating $31 to the food pantry in honor of Cincinnati’s first NFL playoff win in 31 years.

Plus, the last two years, Burrow has participated in the NFL’s “My Cause My Cleats” campaign, bagging even more donations by auctioning off his specialized cleats to benefit the Athens County Food Pantry.

Through all of his monetary efforts, there is still one more thing Burrow gave his community that is less tangible but just as important: the confidence that it’s okay to ask for help.

“Growing up, we knew kids that had to go to the food bank because they didn’t have a lot, but nobody really talked about it,” Burrow explained when talking about the “My Cause My Cleats” campaign this year. “I heard stories from teachers that said little kids were coming up to them when they heard [the Athens Food Pantry] and they were like, ‘Hey! My family goes to the food bank,’ they’re excited about it! It wasn’t the thing where they were trying to hide it.”

“It became safe to talk about, and we’ve had people come in here who it became a safe place to come and get food because, well, Joe Burrow talked about it, so, therefore, we can go ahead and get food,” Bright said with a smile. “Thirty-one seconds changed so much and we’re still talking about it. That will be the Heisman speech that will be remembered for generations to come.”