Joe Burrow’s Final Playoff Loss Was in Excessive Faculty. He Nonetheless Thinks About It.

THE PLAINS, Ohio — When the ultimate lateral had failed, the final sort out had been secured and the clock had hit zero, Joe Burrow yanked off his gold Athens Excessive Faculty helmet and dropped to the Ohio Stadium turf. Throughout him, Toledo Central Catholic soccer gamers stormed onto the sector, celebrating a heart-thumping, roller-coaster journey of a state championship victory. The ultimate rating: Central Catholic 56, Athens 52.

Within the chaos, Central Catholic center linebacker Zach Sandwisch caught sight of Burrow.

For your entire evening, Sandwisch had relentlessly stalked Burrow, chasing him out of the pocket and pounding him repeatedly on blitzes — solely to look at Burrow shrug off hassle and coolly ship one downfield dart after one other.

“I look over, and it’s simply Joe sitting there,” mentioned Sandwisch, who walked over and bent down to speak to Burrow, a gesture that was captured in a photograph that the state athletic affiliation has used to advertise sportsmanship.

“I mentioned, ‘Hey, hold your head up,’” Sandwisch mentioned. “He performed his butt off, and I wished him to know that somebody seen that. It wasn’t him shedding. We simply got here out on prime. I instructed him there have been going to be greater alternatives in his life to showcase every little thing.”

That was greater than seven years in the past.

Sandwisch, who performed soccer at West Virginia College and is now an ironworker in Toledo, couldn’t have been extra prescient. Burrow gained a university nationwide championship and a Heisman Trophy as a quarterback at Louisiana State. Now, lower than two years after the Cincinnati Bengals made him the highest general decide within the N.F.L. draft, he has led the N.F.L. franchise to its first look in a Super Bowl for the reason that 1988 season. The Bengals will play the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.

That Division III state championship sport, held Dec. 4, 2014, showcased so lots of the qualities that Burrow has proven off on a much bigger stage — his cool confidence, decided toughness, slippery elusiveness, beautiful footwork and exact contact.

However that sport is notable for one more purpose. It was the final time Burrow misplaced a playoff sport.

He gained the Southeastern Convention championship sport and two Faculty Soccer Playoff video games in his closing season with Louisiana State. (The earlier season, his first as a starter after transferring from Ohio State, he gained a bowl sport.)

Torn knee ligaments ended his rookie N.F.L. season early, and he gained three playoff video games final month to succeed in the Tremendous Bowl.

On some stage, although, Burrow will not be but over that long-ago loss, which he known as on the time “the worst day of my life.” That emotion has softened solely barely since then.

“Oh man, I take into consideration that sport on a regular basis,” Burrow mentioned Wednesday at a information convention. “We had been so shut and taking part in a gaggle of associates our total childhood as much as that time. It was type of a end result of plenty of exhausting work and time that we put in collectively, and we simply didn’t get the job carried out.”

He added, “That state championship in highschool goes to be the one which eluded me.”

To know why the loss reduce so deeply, you will need to perceive how Burrow and his teammates noticed the sport: as a real-life “Hoosiers” with an ending gone mistaken, the place Jimmy Chitwood can’t get off the final shot.

The boys from Athens Excessive Faculty, which had by no means gained a playoff sport earlier than Burrow’s sophomore season, had been taking part in for all the faculties within the rural Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, the poorest area of the state, the place soccer gamers may solely dream of an opportunity in opposition to one of many state’s non-public faculty powerhouses.

When the group buses pulled away from the varsity that Thursday and turned proper onto State Highway 682 to start the journey to Columbus, individuals lined the facet of the highway with indicators encouraging the Bulldogs. The caravan took a large detour by way of the city of Glouster, the place rivals from Trimble Excessive Faculty greeted the group with firetrucks flashing their lights and well-wishers ringing cowbells.

“While you’re 17, you assume the world is that small — we’re Athens, you’re Trimble,” mentioned Tyler Bailey, a senior then who performed proper guard and who solutions to the nickname Catfish. “It’s virtually like I can relive it within the third individual, looking the window of that Greyhound bus.

“I bear in mind the gravity round our soccer group,” he continued. “As a highschool athlete, you discuss taking part in for the title on the entrance — what does that imply? It was the primary time I had a firsthand expertise of one thing that was greater than the collective group.”

Bailey, now an accountant in Cleveland, mentioned his second-place medal hangs by itself in his bed room closet in order that he sees it daily. “I’m not happy with a state runner-up medal in any respect,” he mentioned. “I’m happy with the individual that seems to be at that medal daily.”

Zacciah Saltzman, a junior receiver who caught eight passes within the sport, together with a 29-yard landing, mentioned he was nonetheless bitter in regards to the loss. In a sport that had innumerable pivot factors virtually right down to the ultimate play — missed additional factors, penalties, circus catches, balls glancing off fingertips and mano-a-mano matchups — the what-ifs inevitably linger.

“It bothers all of us — like, rattling, we had been proper there,” mentioned Saltzman, who performed at Georgetown and now works for a wealth administration firm in Columbus.

“I feel for Joe it’s going to be fascinating,” Saltzman mentioned. “He gained in school, he’s going to win within the N.F.L. and I understand how Joe is — that’s going to bug him. He’s going to look again at this, ‘Man, I misplaced the state championship.’”

It was clear final weekend how vivid — and in some instances, uncooked — the recollections remained for the grown-ups, too. On Saturday, Nathan White, then the offensive coordinator and now the pinnacle coach at Athens Excessive Faculty, sat in his classroom the place he teaches math and watched the sport tape of the title sport — explaining his play calls, the formations and why he regarded so drained after watching the sport as intently as he ever had. The subsequent day, Greg Dempsey, the coach at Central Catholic, went by way of an identical train 215 miles to the north — ensconced within the coaches’ workplace and coming again to the identical phrase White used to explain one flip after one other within the sport: gut-wrenching.

“Every part about that sport felt prefer it was 100 miles per hour,” White mentioned.

“It was a type of video games that bought higher because it went,” Dempsey mentioned. “Each play mattered.”

The previous boxing maxim — types make fights — held true that evening, starting when the groups walked wide-eyed into the previous horseshoe, Ohio State’s cavernous stadium, the place the state championship video games had been being held for the primary time in 25 years.

At one finish was Central Catholic, which drew gamers from throughout Toledo and was gunning for its third state title in a decade. About 90 gamers suited up and commenced to stretch. “It regarded like a Large Ten pregame,” White mentioned. On the different finish, Athens had simply over 40 gamers — most of them with bleached blond hair.

Earlier within the season, somebody had prompt that if the Bulldogs gained the regional closing — the place they had been stopped the earlier two seasons — they need to dye their hair blond. So days after the win, a salon in downtown Athens dyed the gamers’ hair for gratis. “It began out as a joke, however we needed to undergo with it,” mentioned Bryce Graves, a linebacker who now manages a bar in Dublin, Ohio, simply north of Columbus. “My hair was brief, so after I grew it out I had frosted ideas for a pair months.”

The hair wasn’t the one curiosity about Athens. Days earlier than, Burrow had been named the state’s Mr. Soccer and had a scholarship provide to Ohio State. And although Athens had rallied to beat the defending champion St. Vincent-St. Mary Excessive Faculty of Akron, 34-31, on a late Burrow-to-Saltzman cross within the semifinals, Burrow additionally had a viral second per week earlier — catching his personal deflected cross and working it in for a landing within the regional closing.

“That play was going across the locker room,” mentioned James Hudson III, a sophomore lineman at Central Catholic who now performs for the Cleveland Browns and reminds Burrow after they see one another that he sacked the quarterback within the fourth quarter of the sport. “I’m going, ‘Who is that this dude Joe Burrow?’”

He rapidly came upon.

On the third play of the sport, Central Catholic got here with an all-out blitz. As one lineman held Burrow across the leg, Sandwisch had a transparent shot to stage him. As a substitute, the hit bounced Burrow free, and he bolted out of the pocket for a 49-yard run to inside a pair toes of the aim line.

The chirping from the Central Catholic protection, which had began in warm-ups, ceased.

“You’re pondering, ‘All proper, Joe Burrow ain’t nothing,’” Marcus Winters, the Central Catholic quarterback, remembered pondering as he stood on the sideline. “He makes that play and now I may see why they had been speaking in regards to the hype.”

Then it was Central Catholic’s flip. The Combating Irish offense was the antithesis of Athens’s. After a pleasant return, Michael Warren, a sophomore who would later star on the College of Cincinnati, carried the ball for eight consecutive performs till he reached the tip zone, the primary of his three touchdowns.

The back-and-forth tone had been set.

By halftime, the groups had been successfully separated by a blocked additional level by Central Catholic.

As Athens Excessive Faculty retreated to its locker room — the Ohio State locker room — White conferred with Burrow about the right way to counter the relentless blitzing and man protection. There have been some sacks and shut misses on residence run throws, however Burrow had hung in and made some suave passes — back-shoulder fades, hitting Ryan Luehrman on a submit for a 54-yard landing and throwing an 8-yard scoring cross simply earlier than halftime to the opposite 6-foot-6 Luehrman twin, Adam.

To soccer coaches of a sure age, the latter rating conjured a picture that was unmistakable: Burrow flushed to his proper and firing excessive over a crowd behind the tip zone to a receiver making an outstretched catch.

“That’s the Catch,” Dempsey mentioned, shaking his head, referring to Joe Montana’s throw to Dwight Clark in January 1982 that despatched San Francisco to its first Tremendous Bowl. “He’s bought plenty of Joe Montana in him.”

Athens had an opportunity to grab management late within the third quarter, with a 31-28 lead and the ball, after thwarting a pretend punt and forcing a missed field-goal try. However Burrow made a uncommon mistake — throwing late over the center on the run.

Jeremiah Braswell, studying Burrow’s eyes, got here off his man and intercepted the cross. It was Burrow’s second decide of the season, and he didn’t have lengthy to stew on it: Tre’Von Wade bolted 40 yards for a landing on the following play to place Central Catholic forward, 35-31.

“They rise up two scores, you’re in hassle,” Dempsey mentioned. “Braswell saved our tail.”

It might not be the final time.

Burrow, at L.S.U. and with the Bengals, has been blessed with a smorgasbord of offensive expertise round him. It was no completely different in highschool with a number of gamers shifting on to play in school, together with the Luehrmans, Saltzman, slot receiver Heath Wiseman and Trae Williams, who performed each snap of the sport at cornerback and working again, and continued his profession at Northwestern. Burrow, the son of a defensive coordinator, grew up understanding what defenses had been attempting to remove and has lengthy acknowledged the place the best yards are available.

In order the sport headed into the fourth quarter, it was telling how Burrow responded to that interception: by spreading the ball round on the following drive, focusing on all 4 of his receivers, together with Wiseman for a 10-yard landing.

“Joe trusted all these guys indubitably, however he additionally trusted the scheme and the sport,” White mentioned. He added: “Trusting {that a} quarterback goes to belief the development and throw it to the man that’s open makes it a lot simpler to play name — particularly in large moments.”

There have been so many large moments that evening, with 10 second-half lead adjustments and a crowd of 10,713 energizing the previous stadium, that the nerves of everybody on the sector had been examined as the sport narrowed towards a conclusion.

“There have been instances I believed I couldn’t breathe with the strain,” mentioned Sam Vander Van, an Athens security who now coaches highschool soccer in Cleveland. “And also you look over at Joe and that is his second.”

Athens went forward for the ultimate time, 52-49, with 2 minutes 52 seconds left when Williams scored on a 2-yard run after Burrow had transformed a 13-yard cross on fourth-and-9.

That put the sport within the fingers of Winters, a beginning receiver and cornerback for Central Catholic till that season, when he changed DeShone Kizer, who had matriculated to Notre Dame, at quarterback. Winters must take his group the size of the sector in opposition to a protection that was now fortified by Burrow taking part in cornerback.

To that time, Winters had harm Athens, principally together with his legs — throwing solely 9 passes however scoring on 79- and 12-yard runs.

However dealing with fourth-and-8 from his personal 31, Winters made the throw of his life.

Sprinting out to his proper, he fired a cross to Braswell, who earlier had intercepted Burrow and had additionally made a fantastic over-the-shoulder, fourth-down catch for a landing. The ball was positioned in the one spot the place Braswell may catch it — out of bounds and away from two defenders, which allowed Braswell, dragging his toes simply contained in the sideline, to pluck the ball out of the air. It was good for 11 yards and a primary down.

“All of the moons and stars aligned,” Dempsey mentioned. “That’s a one-man comeback route, and there wasn’t any room for error.”

Six performs later, Central Catholic known as a timeout dealing with third-and-1 on the 8-yard line. There have been 24 seconds left.

The play was designed for Braswell to run to the flat and for Winters to attempt to freeze Williams, Athens’s greatest cornerback, with a pump pretend earlier than hitting Braswell within the far nook of the tip zone. As a substitute, the throw within the flat appeared open, so Braswell stayed there and Winters threw it — not realizing that Williams was leaping the route.

“My fingers went on my helmet as quickly as I threw it,” Winters mentioned, anticipating an interception. “That was the sport.”

However Williams dropped the ball.

“That’s the one all people talks about,” White mentioned. “He’s nonetheless heartbroken.”

It was a merciless flip for Williams, whose interception the earlier week had clinched a spot within the championship sport and who had rushed for five,435 yards and scored 102 touchdowns in his highschool profession. “I’d textual content him annually, telling him school soccer was cheated by not seeing him play working again,” White mentioned.

Given a reprieve, Dempsey knew his group was working out of time. With fourth-and-1 and treasured seconds left, he handed up a game-tying field-goal try and turned to a bread-and-butter play: Lion Queen Professional A 19Q, a play culled from an previous single-wing playbook.

“Lion” requires an unbalanced formation to the left. “Queen,” the working again, is lined as much as the left of the quarterback within the shotgun. “Professional” requires the X receiver (who’s on the road of scrimmage) on the left and the Z receiver (who’s off the road of scrimmage) to the fitting. “A” tells the fullback to line up as a wingback on the left. And “19Q” is a quarterback sweep to the left.

The caravan opened a crease in opposition to the outnumbered protection, and Winters turned up the sector, shrugged off a sort out and bounded into the tip zone with 15 seconds left. Winters, who transformed three fourth-down performs on the drive, didn’t notice till he watched movie of the sport — one thing he has carried out many instances — that there ought to have been a penalty on two of his blockers.

“I used to be like, rattling, individuals had been shifting earlier than the snap,” mentioned Winters, who turned a Division III all-American cornerback at Trine College. “It may have been a flag.”

Simply 9 seconds remained after a squib kick left Athens at its 24. Burrow hoped to get shut sufficient to heave a desperation cross into the tip zone for one of many 6-foot-6 Luehrman twins. However his first cross was incomplete, after which a hook-and-lateral play ended with Williams being tackled out of bounds.

The sport was over.

A short time later, the Athens gamers gathered close to midfield and had been offered their runner-up medals. Some gamers had been in tears. Others had their arms draped over one another’s shoulders. Burrow stood close to the again, wanting as if he would relatively be anyplace else on this planet.

When the ceremony concluded, his group showered, then headed to a lodge the place the gamers spent a fitful evening. The subsequent morning, they placed on their lettermen’s jackets and returned to Ohio Stadium to look at the Division II sport. They had been stopped by strangers who instructed them their matchup was one of many best video games they’d ever seen.

Because the years have handed, that sentiment attracts better appreciation from those that are nonetheless attempting to make peace with the way it ended — whether or not they are going to be watching the Tremendous Bowl on Sunday or taking part in in it. activities/soccer/bengals-joe-burrow-ohio.html Joe Burrow’s Final Playoff Loss Was in Excessive Faculty. He Nonetheless Thinks About It.

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