Joe Burrow waited in the tunnel outside LSU’s locker room wearing a customized jersey. Fans pulsed above him inside Tiger Stadium, anticipating the introduction of a man who has adopted this once-unfamiliar place as his home.
Earlier this week, Burrow thought of a new nameplate. He brought the idea to LSU’s equipment staff, and they created a jersey for his senior night presentation. It read “Burreaux” across the back, the quarterback’s personal ode to Louisiana.
Burrow jogged out of the tunnel as the ceremony began. He ran toward his family through a column of bowing cheerleaders. He handed his mother a flower and hugged his parents. The crowd almost burst.
While Burrow’s accomplishments spilled from the loudspeakers, he turned toward the stands. He pointed at the Louisiana spelling of his name, formed his hands into L’s and blew a kiss to the fans. They gave him a standing ovation.
On Saturday night, Burrow led LSU to an undefeated regular season with its 50-7 win over Texas A&M. The man who transferred from Ohio State has become one of the most famous student-athletes in school history, returned LSU to national championship contention and broke dozens of records in one, transformative year.
He has loved Louisiana, and the state has loved him back.
“It's been awesome not only for me,” Burrow said, “but for my family as well.”
Burrow’s arrival last year blended opportunity and community. He wanted a chance. LSU needed a quarterback. Since he became the starter, he has stood up after crushing hits, played through a separated shoulder and laughed after partial nudity. He has won over the fanbase, who now sees him as one of their own.
“Joe's meant a lot to Louisiana,” coach Ed Orgeron said. “The people in Louisiana have heart, man. And when they love you, they love you.”
This game, played without the neutrality of the postseason, provided LSU its final chance to praise Burrow. People held out their hands and crowded against the fences when he walked down Victory Hill, and Burrow bumped their fists. About 25 people asked for pictures with Burrow’s parents. They thanked the couple for sending their son.
“It makes you so proud of not only Joe,” said Burrow’s father, Jimmy, “but LSU in general.”
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow talks with media after LSU's 50-7 win vs. Texas A&M.
As Burrow found his spot in the corner of the end zone for warmups, dozens of fans pulled out their phones. Two women took a selfie with Burrow in the background. One man sent his photo of Burrow to a group text message. A child wearing a No. 9 jersey sat on his older brother’s shoulders for a glimpse of the quarterback. He said Burrow was bigger than he expected.
Burrow threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns against the Aggies. He broke the Southeastern Conference single-season passing yards records, which Tim Couch held since 1998. His last score tied the conference single-season passing touchdowns record. Burrow changed out of the custom jersey before the game, but could he have worn it against Texas A&M?
“If he wanted to,” Orgeron said. “He can do what he wants.”
Burrow completed his final pass early in the fourth quarter, then LSU called timeout to let the fans show their appreciation. Burrow removed his helmet and blew another kiss. He hugged teammates and coaches when he reached the sideline. The crowd rose into a standing ovation, pounding on the metal bleachers and chanting his name. Burrow rubbed his eyes.
“Saturday night in Death Valley, there's nothing like it,” Burrow said. “I'm going to miss it with all my heart. It's given everything to me, and I couldn't be more grateful."
For LSU, this was The Statement Game.
With that moment, Burrow completed his final home game. The Tigers will play Georgia for the SEC Championship next week, then maybe reach the College Football Playoff for the first time. Burrow will decide much of their fate, but no matter the postseason outcome, this man who came from Ohio looking for a chance has accepted Louisiana. He has eaten gumbo in the dining hall. He has gambled at a local casino. He wrote “Louisiana I love you” after beating Alabama, and he ate turkey necks when senior Rashard Lawrence’s father made them for the team.
“He's one of us now,” Lawrence said.
But before Burrow left the stadium and the postseason began, after his linemen ruffled his hair on TV and he signed autographs, Burrow ran toward the student section. He later joked he never saw any of them because he took online classes.
Most of the students had stayed the entire game. Burrow blew them another kiss, and they roared once again. Then Burrow bowed to them, this now legendary player appreciating their support, the mutual love between a community and player as clear as ever.
And when Burrow walked into the tunnel for the last time, the fans broke into one more chant: “Joe for Heisman.”