THE PLAINS, Ohio — When the final lateral had failed, the last tackle had been secured and the clock had hit zero, Joe Burrow yanked off his gold Athens High School helmet and dropped to the Ohio Stadium turf. All around him, Toledo Central Catholic football players stormed onto the field, celebrating a heart-thumping, roller-coaster ride of a state championship victory. The final score: Central Catholic 56, Athens 52.
In the chaos, Central Catholic middle linebacker Zach Sandwisch caught sight of Burrow.
For the entire night, Sandwisch had relentlessly stalked Burrow, chasing him out of the pocket and pounding him repeatedly on blitzes — only to watch Burrow shrug off trouble and coolly deliver one downfield dart after another.
“I look over, and it’s just Joe sitting there,” said Sandwisch, who walked over and bent down to talk to Burrow, a gesture that was captured in a photo that the state athletic association has used to promote sportsmanship.
Zach Sandwisch consoled Burrow, the Athens High School quarterback, after Toledo Central Catholic beat Athens in their 2014 state championship game in Columbus, Ohio.Credit…Jerry Snodgrass
“I said, ‘Hey, keep your head up,’” Sandwisch said. “He played his butt off, and I wanted him to know that someone noticed that. It wasn’t him losing. We just came out on top. I told him there were going to be bigger opportunities in his life to showcase everything.”
That was more than seven years ago.
Sandwisch, who played football at West Virginia University and is now an ironworker in Toledo, could not have been more prescient. Burrow won a college national championship and a Heisman Trophy as a quarterback at Louisiana State. Now, less than two years after the Cincinnati Bengals made him the top overall pick in the N.F.L. draft, he has led the N.F.L. franchise to its first appearance in a Super Bowl since the 1988 season. The Bengals will play the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.
That Division III state championship game, held Dec. 4, 2014, showcased so many of the qualities that Burrow has shown off on a bigger stage — his cool confidence, determined toughness, slippery elusiveness, exquisite footwork and precise touch.
But that game is notable for another reason. It was the last time Burrow lost a playoff game.
He won the Southeastern Conference championship game and two College Football Playoff games in his final season with Louisiana State. (The previous season, his first as a starter after transferring from Ohio State, he won a bowl game.)
Torn knee ligaments ended his rookie N.F.L. season early, and he won three playoff games last month to reach the Super Bowl.
On some level, though, Burrow is not yet over that long-ago loss, which he called at the time “the worst day of my life.” That emotion has softened only slightly since then.
“Oh man, I think about that game all the time,” Burrow said Wednesday at a news conference. “We were so close and playing a group of friends our entire childhood up to that point. It was kind of a culmination of a lot of hard work and time that we put in together, and we just didn’t get the job done.”
He added, “That state championship in high school is going to be the one that eluded me.”
To understand why the loss cut so deeply, it is important to understand how Burrow and his teammates saw the game: as a real-life “Hoosiers” with an ending gone wrong, where Jimmy Chitwood can’t get off the last shot.
The boys from Athens High School, which had never won a playoff game before Burrow’s sophomore season, were playing for all the schools in the rural Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, the poorest region of the state, where football players could only dream of a chance against one of the state’s private school powerhouses.
When the team buses pulled away from the school that Thursday and turned right onto State Road 682 to begin the trip to Columbus, people lined the side of the road with signs encouraging the Bulldogs. The caravan took a wide detour through the town of Glouster, where rivals from Trimble High School greeted the team with firetrucks flashing their lights and well-wishers ringing cowbells.
“When you’re 17, you think the world is that small — we’re Athens, you’re Trimble,” said Tyler Bailey, a senior then who played right guard and who answers to the nickname Catfish. “It’s almost like I can relive it in the third person, looking out the window of that Greyhound bus.
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“I remember the gravity around our football team,” he continued. “As a high school athlete, you talk about playing for the name on the front — what does that mean? It was the first time I had a firsthand experience of something that was bigger than the collective team.”
Bailey, now an accountant in Cleveland, said his second-place medal hangs by itself in his bedroom closet so that he sees it every day. “I’m not proud of a state runner-up medal at all,” he said. “I’m proud of the person that looks at that medal every day.”
Zacciah Saltzman, a junior receiver who caught eight passes in the game, including a 29-yard touchdown, said he was still sour about the loss. In a game that had innumerable pivot points almost down to the final play — missed extra points, penalties, circus catches, balls glancing off fingertips and mano-a-mano matchups — the what-ifs inevitably linger.
“It bothers all of us — like, damn, we were right there,” said Saltzman, who played at Georgetown and now works for a wealth management company in Columbus.
“I think for Joe it’s going to be interesting,” Saltzman said. “He won in college, he’s going to win in the N.F.L. and I know how Joe is — that’s going to bug him. He’s going to look back at this, ‘Man, I lost the state championship.’”
It was clear last weekend how vivid — and in some cases, raw — the memories remained for the grown-ups, too. On Saturday, Nathan White, then the offensive coordinator and now the head coach at Athens High School, sat in his classroom where he teaches math and watched the game tape of the title game — explaining his play calls, the formations and why he looked so drained after watching the game as intently as he ever had. The next day, Greg Dempsey, the coach at Central Catholic, went through a similar exercise 215 miles to the north — ensconced in the coaches’ office and coming back to the same word White used to describe one turn after another in the game: gut-wrenching.
“Everything about that game felt like it was 100 miles per hour,” White said.
“It was one of those games that got better as it went,” Dempsey said. “Every play mattered.”
The old boxing maxim — styles make fights — held true that night, beginning when the teams walked wide-eyed into the old horseshoe, Ohio State’s cavernous stadium, where the state championship games were being held for the first time in 25 years.
At one end was Central Catholic, which drew players from all over Toledo and was gunning for its third state title in a decade. About 90 players suited up and began to stretch. “It looked like a Big Ten pregame,” White said. At the other end, Athens had just over 40 players — most of them with bleached blond hair.
Earlier in the season, someone had suggested that if the Bulldogs won the regional final — where they were stopped the previous two seasons — they should dye their hair blond. So days after the win, a salon in downtown Athens dyed the players’ hair at no cost. “It started out as a joke, but we had to go through with it,” said Bryce Graves, a linebacker who now manages a bar in Dublin, Ohio, just north of Columbus. “My hair was short, so when I grew it out I had frosted tips for a couple months.”
The hair wasn’t the only curiosity about Athens. Days before, Burrow had been named the state’s Mr. Football and had a scholarship offer to Ohio State. And though Athens had rallied to beat the defending champion St. Vincent-St. Mary High School of Akron, 34-31, on a late Burrow-to-Saltzman pass in the semifinals, Burrow also had a viral moment a week earlier — catching his own deflected pass and running it in for a touchdown in the regional final.
“That play was going around the locker room,” said James Hudson III, a sophomore lineman at Central Catholic who now plays for the Cleveland Browns and reminds Burrow when they see each other that he sacked the quarterback in the fourth quarter of the game. “I’m going, ‘Who is this dude Joe Burrow?’”
He quickly found out.
On the third play of the game, Central Catholic came with an all-out blitz. As one lineman held Burrow around the leg, Sandwisch had a clear shot to level him. Instead, the hit bounced Burrow loose, and he bolted out of the pocket for a 49-yard run to within a couple feet of the goal line.
The chirping from the Central Catholic defense, which had started in warm-ups, ceased.
“You’re thinking, ‘All right, Joe Burrow ain’t nothing,’” Marcus Winters, the Central Catholic quarterback, remembered thinking as he stood on the sideline. “He makes that play and now I could see why they were talking about the hype.”
Then it was Central Catholic’s turn. The Fighting Irish offense was the antithesis of Athens’s. After a nice return, Michael Warren, a sophomore who would later star at the University of Cincinnati, carried the ball for eight consecutive plays until he reached the end zone, the first of his three touchdowns.
The back-and-forth tone had been set.
By halftime, the teams were effectively separated by a blocked extra point by Central Catholic.
As Athens High School retreated to its locker room — the Ohio State locker room — White conferred with Burrow about how to counter the relentless blitzing and man coverage. There were some sacks and close misses on home run throws, but Burrow had hung in and made some artful passes — back-shoulder fades, hitting Ryan Luehrman on a post for a 54-yard touchdown and throwing an 8-yard scoring pass just before halftime to the other 6-foot-6 Luehrman twin, Adam.
To football coaches of a certain age, the latter score conjured an image that was unmistakable: Burrow flushed to his right and firing high over a crowd in the back of the end zone to a receiver making an outstretched catch.
“That’s the Catch,” Dempsey said, shaking his head, referring to Joe Montana’s throw to Dwight Clark in January 1982 that sent San Francisco to its first Super Bowl. “He’s got a lot of Joe Montana in him.”
Athens had a chance to seize control late in the third quarter, with a 31-28 lead and the ball, after thwarting a fake punt and forcing a missed field-goal attempt. But Burrow made a rare mistake — throwing late over the middle on the run.
Jeremiah Braswell, reading Burrow’s eyes, came off his man and intercepted the pass. It was Burrow’s second pick of the season, and he did not have long to stew on it: Tre’Von Wade bolted 40 yards for a touchdown on the next play to put Central Catholic ahead, 35-31.
“They get up two scores, you’re in trouble,” Dempsey said. “Braswell saved our tail.”
It would not be the last time.
Burrow, at L.S.U. and with the Bengals, has been blessed with a smorgasbord of offensive talent around him. It was no different in high school with several players moving on to play in college, including the Luehrmans, Saltzman, slot receiver Heath Wiseman and Trae Williams, who played every snap of the game at cornerback and running back, and continued his career at Northwestern. Burrow, the son of a defensive coordinator, grew up understanding what defenses were trying to take away and has long recognized where the easiest yards are to be had.
So as the game headed into the fourth quarter, it was telling how Burrow responded to that interception: by spreading the ball around on the next drive, targeting all four of his receivers, including Wiseman for a 10-yard touchdown.
“Joe trusted all those guys without a doubt, but he also trusted the scheme and the game,” White said. He added: “Trusting that a quarterback is going to trust the progression and throw it to the guy that’s open makes it so much easier to play call — especially in big moments.”
There were so many big moments that night, with 10 second-half lead changes and a crowd of 10,713 energizing the old stadium, that the nerves of everyone on the field were tested as the game narrowed toward a conclusion.
“There were times I thought I couldn’t breathe with the pressure,” said Sam Vander Van, an Athens safety who now coaches high school football in Cleveland. “And you look over at Joe and this is his moment.”
Athens went ahead for the final time, 52-49, with 2 minutes 52 seconds left when Williams scored on a 2-yard run after Burrow had converted a 13-yard pass on fourth-and-9.
That put the game in the hands of Winters, a starting receiver and cornerback for Central Catholic until that season, when he replaced DeShone Kizer, who had matriculated to Notre Dame, at quarterback. Winters would have to take his team the length of the field against a defense that was now fortified by Burrow playing cornerback.
To that point, Winters had hurt Athens, mostly with his legs — throwing only nine passes but scoring on 79- and 12-yard runs.
But facing fourth-and-8 from his own 31, Winters made the throw of his life.
Sprinting out to his right, he fired a pass to Braswell, who earlier had intercepted Burrow and had also made a beautiful over-the-shoulder, fourth-down catch for a touchdown. The ball was placed in the only spot where Braswell could catch it — out of bounds and away from two defenders, which allowed Braswell, dragging his toes just inside the sideline, to pluck the ball out of the air. It was good for 11 yards and a first down.
“All the moons and stars aligned,” Dempsey said. “That’s a one-man comeback route, and there wasn’t any room for error.”
Six plays later, Central Catholic called a timeout facing third-and-1 at the 8-yard line. There were 24 seconds left.
The play was designed for Braswell to run to the flat and for Winters to try to freeze Williams, Athens’s best cornerback, with a pump fake before hitting Braswell in the far corner of the end zone. Instead, the throw in the flat appeared open, so Braswell stayed there and Winters threw it — not realizing that Williams was jumping the route.
“My hands went on my helmet as soon as I threw it,” Winters said, expecting an interception. “That was the game.”
But Williams dropped the ball.
“That’s the one everybody talks about,” White said. “He’s still heartbroken.”
It was a cruel turn for Williams, whose interception the previous week had clinched a place in the championship game and who had rushed for 5,435 yards and scored 102 touchdowns in his high school career. “I’d text him once a year, telling him college football was cheated by not seeing him play running back,” White said.
Given a reprieve, Dempsey knew his team was running out of time. With fourth-and-1 and precious seconds left, he passed up a game-tying field-goal attempt and turned to a bread-and-butter play: Lion Queen Pro A 19Q, a play culled from an old single-wing playbook.
“Lion” calls for an unbalanced formation to the left. “Queen,” the running back, is lined up to the left of the quarterback in the shotgun. “Pro” calls for the X receiver (who is on the line of scrimmage) on the left and the Z receiver (who is off the line of scrimmage) to the right. “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 against the outnumbered defense, and Winters turned up the field, shrugged off a tackle and bounded into the end zone with 15 seconds left. Winters, who converted three fourth-down plays on the drive, did not realize until he watched film of the game — something he has done many times — that there should have been a penalty on two of his blockers.
“I was like, damn, people were moving before the snap,” said Winters, who became a Division III all-American cornerback at Trine University. “It could have been a flag.”
Just nine seconds remained after a squib kick left Athens at its 24. Burrow was hoping to get close enough to heave a desperation pass into the end zone for one of the 6-foot-6 Luehrman twins. But his first pass was incomplete, and then a hook-and-lateral play ended with Williams being tackled out of bounds.
The game was over.
A short while later, the Athens players gathered near midfield and were presented their runner-up medals. Some players were in tears. Others had their arms draped over each other’s shoulders. Burrow stood near the back, looking as if he would rather be any place else in the world.
When the ceremony concluded, his team showered, then headed to a hotel where the players spent a fitful night. The next morning, they put on their lettermen’s jackets and returned to Ohio Stadium to watch the Division II game. They were stopped by strangers who told them their matchup was one of the greatest games they’d ever seen.
As the years have passed, that sentiment draws greater appreciation from those who are still trying to make peace with how it ended — whether they will be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday or playing in it.