by Mike Templeton

I suppose it is possible to have not heard of Joe Burrow, but I’m not sure how his name could escape anyone. I don’t follow football, and I know he is perhaps THE college football phenomenon of the moment. Joe Burrow is the Heisman Trophy winner and all-around favorite for a stellar debut in the National Football League. Joe Burrow is also a young man from Athens, Ohio—a poor part of Ohio’s Appalachian Counties. He is the kind of success that puts Appalachians on the national stage, and the kind of young person the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition wants to celebrate. Beyond his athletic excellence, he used his moment in the spotlight to shine a light on poverty among Appalachian families—an issue of paramount importance to the UACC. 

When Joe Burrow accepted his Heisman Trophy, he steered the subject of success on the football field to his experiences growing up in a poor Appalachian part of Ohio. Joe said of his hometown, “it’s a very impoverished area and the poverty rate is almost two times the national average. There are 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.” It would have been easy, and even understandable if Joe Burrow had simply soaked up the spotlight in his moment of glory. But he could not let the moment pass without expressing his ties to where he comes from and the struggles that exist in Athens County. 

The current overall poverty rate in Athens County is 51.6 %. Half the people in Athens County live under the poverty level. More than 25 % of the children in Athens live in poverty. It is often the case that this type of poverty follows Appalachians even after they make their way to urban areas like Cincinnati. Research by the UACC shows that urban Appalachians still struggle disproportionately with poverty as compared to non-Appalachians. 

In the 20-county tri-state region that includes Cincinnati two-thirds of the poor are people of Appalachian heritage. If you want to be engaged in efforts to help this population contact Michael Maloney who coordinates research and advocacy efforts for UACC at [email protected].

While enormous progress has been made all over the Appalachian regions and in urban areas like Cincinnati, the rates of poverty among Appalachians, both urban and rural, remain significantly above the national average. Research in The Journal of Appalachian Studies shows that incomes among Appalachians across the rural-urban continuum still lag behind the national rates of income (Thorne, Deborah, et al. “Poverty and Income in Appalachia.” Journal of Appalachian Studies, vol. 10, no. 3, 2004, pp. 341–357). When someone of the status of Joe Burrow draws attention to the problem of poverty among Appalachians, it is a striking moment. His speech did more than offer inspiration. 

In the wake of Joe Burrow’s Heisman acceptance speech, a fundraiser was held for the Athens County Food Pantry. The goal was to raise $1000. At the time that I write this, the fundraiser has exceeded $500,000. The success of a hometown boy from Athens has produced something on the order of a miracle. And I do not want to diminish the inspiration Joe Borrows offers to young people from all over the Appalachian regions. Urban and rural Appalachian kids saw one of their own make it big and never lose sight of the struggles of the folks at home.  

Joe Burrow’s personal accomplishments need to be emphasized. He broke the record books in his performance against Clemson. Some of his completions seem to operate in excess of simple physics. He is now set to be drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. I’ll leave it to readers to form their own opinions on this topic. I suppose we can forgive him that he does not like Skyline Chili. Nobody’s perfect, after all. 

The success of Joe Burrow and his strong ties to his people and his home speaks directly to the work of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. The UACC and affiliate organizations work directly in communities to ameliorate the issues that come with poverty within the urban Appalachian community. When a figure like Joe Borrow steps up to speak on behalf of the problem of poverty in Appalachian communities and regions, his words become actions.

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Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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