Joe Burrow Was Destined to Be a Cornhusker, but His Path Led Him To Lousiana and Eventually to the Super Bowl
By Michael Kelly
Yes, it would have been really cool if Joe Cool – aka Joe Burrow – had become a Husker, as he and his family long hoped. But things worked out very well for him anyway, and lots of Nebraskans rooted for him throughout the NFL playoffs and in the 2022 Super Bowl.
Burrow, after winning the Heisman Trophy and leading LSU to a national championship, surprised many by lifting the Cincinnati Bengals to an AFC championship two years after going 2-14. His head coach is another reason Nebraskans pulled for the Bengals – Zac Taylor, Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year as the Husker quarterback in 2006.
Joe never played for the Huskers, but the arc of his family story is truly a Nebraska tale.
“He grew up a Nebraska fan and always wanted to go to Nebraska,” dad Jimmy Burrow said in a Huskers Illustrated interview. “His brothers, Jamie and Dan, played there. I played there. And Joe’s mom, Robin, is from Nebraska. He learned to ride a bike at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.”
As a former longtime assistant coach, the elder Burrow said he totally understands the complications and nuances of fitting players into a college football program and has no hard feelings about Nebraska. On the contrary, he said, he supports NU and coach Scott Frost. “I put on my Husker jacket just the other day for a video for Tom Osborne’s 85th birthday.”
The fact is, few if any predicted that Joe would blossom into the Joe Burrow that he became. But apparently he sensed it, and now he’s shown he has the “it” factor – he’s it.
So where does generational talent like Burrow’s originate? He certainly worked hard on his game, but his fans also can thank generations of DNA from the Burrow, Ford, Parde and Poppe families for producing this specimen of athleticism, smarts and unflappability.
As with many Nebraska football stories, the Burrow connection goes back to – guess who? – Bob Devaney.
Jimmy grew up in Amory, Mississippi, where his father, assistant school superintendent James Burrow, helped hire Jim Walden as the Amory High football coach. Walden had played quarterback for Devaney at Wyoming in the late 1950s.
In the late ’60s, Devaney hired Walden away from Amory to be an assistant coach at Nebraska. Walden later called Jimmy Burrow – an Amory High alum and a walk-on at Ole Miss – and offered a scholarship. Jimmy became a scout team quarterback for the Huskers before switching to defensive back.
His athletic genes came not just from his dad, the starting point guard in the early 1950s at Mississippi State, but also from Jimmy’s mom. As Dot Ford, she once scored 82 points in a Mississippi high school basketball game. (When Jimmy scored 45, she teased that he needed only 27 more to match her.)
Besides playing tough defense for the Huskers, Jimmy was a sure-handed, sure-footed punt returner and ran one back for a 67-yard touchdown against Minnesota. But his biggest play came in the Sugar Bowl after the 1974 season.
The No. 8-ranked Huskers trailed No. 18 Florida 10-0 midway through the third quarter, and the Gators drove to the half-yard line. On fourth down, a running back swept left – and Burrow nailed him at the 1. “Nebraska holds ’em!” exuded ABC’s Keith Jackson. “Jim Burrow, No. 2, got his man!” Added commentator Barry Switzer: “Boy, that was a great play.”
It was the turning point of the game. The Huskers, handing off to Tony Davis and Monte Anthony, drove 99 yards to score and then made two field goals to win 13-10.
A year later, the Green Bay Packers drafted Burrow in the eighth round. After a year in the NFL, he played five seasons in the Canadian Football League, mainly for the Montreal Alouettes. He intercepted 17 passes, played in three Grey Cup championship games, winning one, and was named All-CFL. Then he got into coaching.
Joe’s mother grew up as Robin Parde on a farm near the southeast Nebraska town of Cook, population 300. The second of four children and the only girl, she did typical farm-kid chores. “We had cows and pigs,” she said. “I walked beans and helped with baling hay, driving a tractor a little.”
With butchering on the farm, she said, “You learn the hard lessons of life pretty quickly – life is short and you need to make the most of it.”
Her father, Wayne Parde, 77, once owned a quarter-section of land and rented more, but says he now lives on the acreage where Robin and her brothers grew up. When he took a phone call for this article at the beginning of March, it was calving season and he was watching his cows.
His family came from Germany in 1890, settling around Sterling, Nebraska. Wayne grew up close to the village of Burr, and he knew the parents of Dean Steinkuhler, Husker All-America offensive lineman and 1983 Outland Trophy winner from Burr.
Wayne himself played football and basketball in high school and hopes his 6-foot-2 height contributed to the stature of his famous grandson, 6-4. He attended Husker games when Jimmy played in the ’70s. “He was really small (listed at 165 pounds), but he was quick and he enjoyed hitting people.”
Earlier, Wayne married Marianne Poppe, and they lived in Lincoln when Robin and her brother, Ross, were born. Robin, her dad said, grew up in Cook, always wanting to help people, even inviting a troubled friend to stay for a while with the Pardes.
In a class of 21 at Nemaha Valley High School, Robin played volleyball and basketball and ran track. The town of Tecumseh, population 1,700, sits to the south of Cook, and a merged high school today is called Johnson County Central.
At Northwest Missouri State, Robin earned a degree in fashion merchandising, which led to management jobs in women’s clothing stores. She was working in Ames, Iowa, when she met Jimmy, then coaching at Ames High.
He previously had coached under Walden at Washington State and Iowa State, and at Ames coached sons from his first marriage, future Huskers Jamie and Dan. Getting his feet back into college coaching, Jimmy joined the Nebraska staff as a graduate assistant under Frank Solich in 2001 and 2002. (That’s when, at Memorial Stadium, 5-year-old Joey first showed off his wheels.)
Jimmy then served as assistant coach for two years at North Dakota State before joining Solich at Ohio University in Athens, serving as defensive coordinator for the next 14 years.
After that move, Robin changed careers – earning an education degree at Ohio U. and teaching for eight years. She is now in her sixth year as principal of a K-6 school. Jimmy isn’t the only coach in the family. “I love coaching the teachers,” she said, “and building our relationships with students.”
People noticed Joey’s athletic talent early. Grandpa Parde said he could punt as a toddler. “When he was a little-bitty,” Robin added, “he tried and tried to do everything perfectly.” Dr. Tom Heiser, a Husker teammate of Jimmy’s, recalled little Joey diving over a couch at the Heiser home in Lincoln and catching Nerf footballs.
Joey excelled in baseball and basketball, but his football talent became apparent by his sophomore season in high school. Jimmy took him on an unofficial visit to Lincoln, where he posed with Athletic Director Tom Osborne and hoped he would become a Nebraska Cornhusker.
“That was absolutely our 100% dream for him from the time he was born,” Robin said. “Even before he was born.”
Husker fans know the story. Head coach Bo Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck weren’t sure of his arm strength and didn’t offer a scholarship. Twice named “Mr Football” in Ohio, Joe first committed to Ohio State in May 2014, the end of his junior year, and “100%” recommitted as a senior in January 2015.
Mike Riley had been hired as NU head coach, and Jimmy remembered: “Riley called on his first day and offered, but it was too late.”
Joe earned a college degree in three years but had broken a hand. Those years were difficult. Robin would drive 70 miles from The Plains, Ohio, to Columbus on weekends to trade out his laundry, deliver a meal for him and his buddies and take him out for ice cream.
In the spring of 2018, after not winning the starting quarterback job at Ohio State under Urban Meyer, Joe announced he would transfer. His eyes again turned to Lincoln – and this part of the Joe Burrow-Nebraska story will long be debated.
Frost had become the Husker head coach and recruited Adrian Martinez. When asked why he didn’t take Burrow, Frost replied: “You think he’s better than what we’ve got?”
So Burrow narrowed his choices to Cincinnati and LSU, and on a trip to Louisiana took a liking to crawfish, gumbo and jambalaya.
In 2018, freshman Martinez and junior Burrow posted strikingly similar stats.
Martinez completed 64.6% of his passes for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns and ran for 629 yards and eight touchdowns. Burrow completed 57.8% for 2,894 yards and 16 touchdowns and ran for 399 yards and seven touchdowns. (Total yards were virtually the same – 3,293 for Burrow, 3,246 for Martinez.)
“The numbers don’t lie,” wrote Sam McKewon, now sports editor of the Omaha World-Herald. “Passing on Burrow and sticking with Martinez seemed like not only a good decision, but the right one. … You’ll take Martinez’s statistics heading into his true sophomore year over Burrow’s heading into his senior year.”
Their startling differences in 2019, McKewon wrote, don’t change the original decision. Yes, startling. Burrow played one of the greatest college seasons ever, some say the best, with 60 touchdown passes and – well, you know the rest. Joe Burreaux was the toast of Cajun Country. Geaux, Tigers.
In Nebraska, the debate may never end.
“Man, was I wrong about Joe Burrow,” World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel wrote this January. “I was in the camp that said it was OK for Scott Frost to pass on the grad transfer in 2018. … Burrow is extraordinary, a generational talent. So good he would have made a huge difference in that season. That will go down as one of the great misses in Nebraska history. Says one who missed.”
Joe Cool was drafted No. 1 overall by Cincinnati but suffered a severe knee injury just past mid-season in 2020. He had surgery, rehabbed and returned for 2021.
With no Bengals game last Labor Day weekend, Jimmy and Robin of The Plains (pop. 2,946), Ohio, traveled to Nebraska for a tradition that, because of his decades of coaching jobs, he had missed – an annual picnic north of Lincoln with Husker teammates and their families at the farm home of Bob Martin and wife, Sheri.
“It started with teammates, but our families are now grown and our grandkids come,” said Martin, who grew up in David City (pop. 2,800), made All-American at Nebraska and played for the New York Jets. “Last year we had 75 people.”
Naturally, some of the conversation related to their teammate and his now-famous son. Martin and Heiser once watched Joe play in a high school playoff game that was streamed online.
Heiser remembered Jimmy’s big tackle at the goal line in the Sugar Bowl. “Without that play, we wouldn’t have had a chance to win. He was a competitor.” As for Joe not getting to play for Nebraska: “Very disappointing. He would have flourished here.”
Rik Bonness, an Omaha attorney who was an All-America center for the Huskers, for years has given an inspirational speech to various groups that uses the 1974 Sugar Bowl comeback victory as a metaphor: When it looks like you might lose, make a stand – and start your own 99-yard drive.
Sure, Jimmy remembered his big play. (You can find a video online.) But his proudest moment, he said, was when he received a Blackshirt practice jersey, given to members of the first-team defense.
No one at the picnic could have predicted how far the once-lowly Bengals would go in 2021. It was just good to be around old friends and catch up. For Robin, it meant a trip back home.
The past four seasons have been a whirlwind. A highlight was not just the Heisman Trophy, but Joe’s speech that night in New York, where he choked up talking about the poverty in southeast Ohio. A friend back home started a GoFundMe page for a local pantry, which soon turned into the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund.
“His speech was just unbelievable, so authentic,” proud mom Robin said. “He spoke from his heart.”
Joe’s personality also comes through on “NFL Mic’d Up” videos. At one game he extended his hand to the referee and said, “What’s your name again? I don’t want to just call your Mister Ref the whole game.”
Between plays in the Super Bowl, Joe, 25, turned to LA Rams defensive back Eric Weddle, 37, who had returned from two years’ retirement, and said, “Hey Eric. I’m Joe … I loved watching you growing up.” And to defensive lineman Von Miller: “Hey Von. Hey Von. (It’s) Joe. Nice to meet you, brother.”
At another game, he urged the defense to stop the opponent near the end of a game. “Put the ball in my hands!”
It’s not an act. Friendly or intense, it’s just Joe.
Like all of us, he inherits traits from forebears. The athletic side, Robin said, comes mostly from the Burrows. How is he like his mom, the school principal? “I would say he takes after me in the way he is very level-headed and thoughtful about his decisions. I can see that his leadership style is similar to mine.”
Joe also has created excitement. Louisiana had fun with its Joe “Burreaux.” In the run-up to the Super Bowl (a game the Bengals lost in the last minute and a half), southern Ohio towns Hillsboro and Springboro changed their welcome signs to “Hillsburrow” and “SpringBurrow.”
At Ohio State in 2017, Joe met his girlfriend, Olivia Holzmacher, now a data analyst for a Fortune 500 company in Cincinnati. A former high school volleyball player in the Cincinnati suburb of Mason, she cheers at Joe’s games alongside his parents.
Lots of relatives on both sides of his family traveled to the Super Bowl, and Grandpa Parde said Joe provided game tickets for aunts, uncles, cousins and more. Not attending was one of his biggest fans – Wayne’s wife, Marianne, who died of a heart attack last May.
At the Harvest Bowl in Tecumseh, where just about everyone goes for a meal or for bowling on one of the eight lanes, she was often greeted as “Grandma Heisman.”
Wayne, who has attended a number of Joe’s games in recent years, said he’s enjoyed farm life. For years he also had a construction company with six or seven employees. He wore out his shoulders and knees, he said, and has had some replacement surgeries.
Work ethic? It’s a family given, part of the DNA. Grandpa Parde, the patriarch of the Nebraska branch of Joe Burrow’s family, still works his acreage, and he’s enjoying his ride aboard what he calls “the Joe train.”
Though his grandson didn’t become a Husker, it’s been a very cool ride with Joe Cool – from the Harvest Bowl to the Super Bowl.
Mike Kelly retired in 2018 after 48 years at the Omaha World-Herald, including 1981-91 as sports editor and sports columnist.