ATHENS, Ohio (Reuters) – Every time quarterback Joe Burrow led the Cincinnati Bengals to a win in this year’s National Football League playoffs, several donations of $9 each poured in to the southeastern corner of Ohio to help feed families in need.
Donors were supporting the Appalachian region where Burrow grew up and where the poverty rate hovers at twice the U.S. average, choosing $9 in honor of his football jersey number.
Others gave $31 to reflect the number of years since the last Bengals playoff win, or $56 to signify the 56th Super Bowl, which Burrow will compete in on Sunday.
The money will help support the all-volunteer Athens County Food Pantry, which serves up to 400 families each month.
“The impact of those donations, even though they may sound small, is tremendously huge. They add up quickly,” said food pantry President Karin Bright.
Burrow spotlighted the needs in Athens County, about 150 miles east of the city where he now plays football, when he won the Heisman Trophy in 2019.
“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,” he said as he accepted the award for college football’s best player. “You guys can be up here, too.”
Those words sparked fundraisers that brought in a staggering $650,000 from around the world, more than six times the food pantry’s annual budget. That was a huge boost to an area where an estimated 20% of people experience food insecurity, the lack of access to enough affordable food.
Donations spiked again after recent Cincinnati wins. Nearly 1,400 people have contributed more than $98,000 since the Bengals defeated the Kansas City Chiefs on Jan. 30, according to the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio, which manages what is now a $1.5 million endowment from the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund.
“I’m a lifelong Bengal fan,” one donor wrote on the fund’s website. “Joe Burrow made me even prouder to be an Ohioan.”
Supporters of other teams gave too. Some Buffalo Bills fans said they contributed because they were happy to see the Bengals defeat their rival Chiefs.
Thanks to the outpouring of giving, the pantry is able to make sure meals are always available and provide more nutritious food, Bright said. It has expanded to offer laundry detergent, soap and other hygiene items.
Still, local leaders know they need to address the region’s underlying challenges, including the need for better job opportunities and training in an area with few large employers.
Athens County’s biggest employer is Ohio University, followed by Walmart, Bright said.
This year, part of the donations will help organizations tackle the root causes of poverty and food insecurity in the region.
Burrow’s parents still live in the area, where dad Jimmy Burrow coached college football and mom Robin works as principal of an elementary school.
Robin Burrow said her son “was always aware of other people’s needs,” recalling a time in his youth when he asked her for a quarter to give to a man who was appealing for money on the street.
Jimmy Burrow said he has been told that young kids who once might have been hesitant to admit they received food assistance now talk about their association with the football superstar.
“Now they’ve heard kids say ‘this is where Joe Burrow donates’ or … ‘hey I get food from the food pantry,” Jimmy Burrow said. “That’s cool. That means a lot to us.”
(Reporting by Eric Cox in Millfield, Ohio; Writing and additional reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Toby Davis)