LOS ANGELES, Calif. — I am not a fan of common clichés.
And many athletes revert back to them when pressed during an interview.
“We just have to do better,” was a frequent phrase uttered by former Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis at media interviews.
Another one heard at every press conference is “we just have to get back to the fundamentals.”
Or how about this one? “We need someone to make a big play.”
Blah blah blah.
So forgive me when I describe Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow with another cliché.
He’s a “down-to-earth guy.”
Burrow, in his second year in the NFL, will try to bring The Vince Lombardi Trophy to the Queen City for the first time in franchise history on Sunday — when the Bengals face off against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI at Sofi Stadium.
His stats are impressive, and his accomplishments in his first two years are raising eyebrows across the NFL.
Burrow, from The Plains just outside of Athens, has already set franchise records for most passing yards in a game (525) and most passing yards in a season (4,611).
He holds the Bengals records for most touchdowns in a season (34) and the highest passer rating in a season (108.3.)
But there’s more.
As I listened to him answer questions at Friday’s Media Day on the campus of UCLA, I was impressed with how grounded he is as a person.
He grew up in Southern Ohio and witnessed the poverty that prevailed around him.
“Growing up in rural Ohio you see a lot of things,” he said. “You see a lot of hungry people, and people who don’t have a lot. But you don’t realize it because it’s the environment. Now today I reflect back, and it sticks in your mind where you came from and appreciate what you have.”
Along the way, he faced adversities like everyone else, and he learned from them and used his trials as motivation.
He planned to pay football a Ohio State University, but quickly realized that was not going to work out in his favor.
So he transferred to Louisiana State University, where he won a National Championship.
“I learned two things at my time at Ohio State,” he said. “I had excellent coaches who helped me to develop, and I also faced adversity which helped me to mature. Without that experience, I would not be where I am today.”
After he won the Heisman Trophy and a National Championship at LSU, it was on to the NFL and a trip down U.S. Highway 32 from Athens to Cincinnati.
But 14 months ago, in his 10th game as the Bengals QB, he suffered a serious knee injury.
After reconstructive surgery and rehab, he feels better than ever.
His play on the field certainly backs that up.
The road to Sofi has been a whirlwind of a journey.
Burrow and the Bengals unexpectedly knocked off the No. 1 seed Tennessee Titans in the second round of the playoffs.
In the AFC championship, they shocked the NFL world by overcoming a 21-3 deficit in the second half to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in overtime, even after the Bengals lost the coin toss.
Since his injury, he has made a remarkable comeback.
He feels comfortable extending plays and scrambling for first downs.
“It’s night and day from the first half of the season,” Burrow said. “I wasn’t really able to do any of that the first half. I’ve really started to come into my own in that sense, making plays, extending plays. That’s something I’ve always been able to do, and I’m starting to finally feel like myself and be able to pull out of some of those tackles when defensive players have me wrapped up in the pocket, and I’m starting to be able to get out of those situations and make some plays.”
But he still attributes his success to the difficulties he faced during rehabilitation.
“I would not change anything I’ve gone through because it all has helped me to be a better player,” he explained. “I have faced adversity mentally and physically. I had to refine my throwing motion and throw the football five yards at a time to focus on my hips and motions. It made me have better velocity and accuracy. That is the positive that came out of that injury.”
In only his second year in the league, he will lead the Bengals to their biggest contest in 31 years — with a chance to bring back the state of Ohio’s first Super Bowl victory.
“We treat every game like it’s the Super Bowl,” he said. “That’s why we are here.”
Joe knows adversity and he knows success.
He has a plan for Sunday.
He and his teammates have a good chance to win the big game as long as they keep their priorities in order and focus on not getting bigger than the moment.
On Sunday, he could become the first quarterback in history to win the Heisman, a National Championship in college, and a Super Bowl.
He’s also the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year, and one of his top receivers, Ja’Marr Chase, is the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Burrow said he loves and appreciates his hometown roots and all he has experienced as a young quarterback at Ohio State, LSU and Cincinnati.
He is a down-to-earth guy, and if given the choice between Cincinnati’s famed chili or Louisiana’s gumbo, it’s a no brainer.
“Gumbo,” he said.