- ESPN Staff Writer
- Previously a college football writer for The Dallas Morning News
- University of North Texas graduate
- Covers the Big 12
- Joined ESPN.com in 2011
- Graduate of Washington & Lee University
CLEVELAND — NBA star Donovan Mitchell was just getting settled in his new digs in Cleveland when a direct message on Instagram caught his eye.
It was a note from Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow welcoming Mitchell to Cleveland. Since the two didn’t follow each other on Instagram at the time, Mitchell isn’t even sure how he saw the message. But he knew how he felt when he did.
“For me to get that, it was a great welcome to the city and it shows how much Cleveland loves their sports,” Mitchell, who was traded from Utah last month, told ESPN. “He was a Cleveland fan growing up, and to still reach out even though he’s in Cincinnati, still reaching out, I’m excited to be a part of that. I think that was pretty dope.”
The city of Cleveland, which is three hours north of Burrow’s adopted hometown of Athens, Ohio, has had a big influence on Burrow’s sports and music interests. The southeast Ohio native grew up a massive Cavs fan and has a photo of himself wearing an ill-fitting LeBron James jersey that went viral to prove it. He’s become good friends with Grammy-winning musician Kid Cudi, the Cleveland rapper whose music Burrow grew up listening to. And in high school, Burrow even had a brief stint as a fan of the Cleveland Browns — the team he’ll face on “Monday Night Football” (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN2).
The game represents Burrow’s dual loyalty. The man shaped by Cleveland is now building his legacy with the city’s intrastate rival.
Of all the things Burrow has accomplished in his career, there is one thing that has eluded him — a victory over the Browns. Cincinnati lost both meetings in 2020, and Burrow’s lone appearance against Cleveland in 2021 was a 41-16 Week 9 shellacking.
“You can bet he’s aware of it and wants to change that,” Jimmy Burrow, Joe’s father, said. “It’s one of those things that he’ll hopefully check off his to-do list.”
MITCHELL WAS WELL acquainted with Burrow’s exploits by the time the Utah Jazz traded the three-time All-Star to Cleveland on Sept. 1. He watched Burrow — in his second season — lead the Bengals to Super Bowl LVI, where they lost to the Los Angeles Rams 23-20 on Feb. 13.
“I’ve never met him, but just from the outside looking in, he just seems like a confident guy,” Mitchell told ESPN. “To do what he did last year, it’s truly impressive, and I got a lot of respect for him.”
And yes, he has seen that Burrow photo — the one with a teenage Burrow wearing a LeBron Cavs No. 23 jersey.
In 2014, James announced he was returning to the Cavaliers after a four-year stint with the Miami Heat. Ryan Luehrman, Burrow’s longtime friend, remembers being at Athens High when they found out. Burrow immediately raced home, found his old LeBron jersey and took a mirror selfie with a simple caption: “He’s back.” The message that went to his friend group on Snapchat eventually found its way back on social media, where it circulated.
“I started seeing it on Twitter,” Luehrman said. “I was like, ‘What the hell? I haven’t seen that picture in forever, who got that?’ Now people post it all the time. I find it pretty funny.”
Throughout college stints at Ohio State and LSU, Burrow had a fondness for a red Matthew Dellavedova shirt, a one-time Cavs cult hero.
“He hustles,” Burrow said in 2016 while Burrow was at Ohio State. “He gets on the floor. My kind of guy.”
And then as Burrow started to make a name for himself in the second of two seasons at LSU, the admiration started to get reciprocated. Following Burrow’s whirlwind 2019 season that included a national championship and a Heisman Trophy, Dellavedova sent Burrow an electronic photo frame that featured some of the quarterback’s best moments, from touchdowns to Burrow’s final entrance at LSU’s Tiger Stadium and his Heisman Trophy speech.
Things went to another level last year. As Burrow led the Bengals in their best playoff run in three decades, he captured national attention. After Cincinnati beat Kansas City in the AFC championship game, James referred to Burrow as a generational talent, like himself. In a Tweet, the Los Angeles Lakers star said “Joe B is the absolute TRUTH! We all saw and knew it.”
When the Bengals beat Kansas City, it showed why the Bengals tabbed Burrow to transform the franchise. In the span of three years, the Bengals went from the league’s worst team to AFC champions. But the reaction from people like James is what left Burrow speechless.
“The situation that I’m in socially, doesn’t really feel real to me,” Burrow said in his postgame news conference after the AFC championship game. “In my head, I’m just the same old guy. Kid Cudi reached out to me yesterday, you’ve got LeBron tweeting at me. That part is surreal. The football part, not so much, but that stuff is crazy.”
BURROW WAS 11 years old when Scott Mescudi — aka Kid Cudi — dropped his debut mixtape that kick-started his rap career. In a YouTube interview with audio company Bose last month, Burrow recalled being in sixth grade when he first got a hold of Kid Cudi’s music.
“My friend Marcus came up to me, he was like, ‘I gotta show you this dude’s music — Kid Coodie,'” Burrow said. “We started listening to it, and from then on, I was hooked.”
Kid Cudi grew up in Shaker Heights, roughly 10 miles east of Cleveland. Oladipo Omishore, one of the rapper’s longtime producers who goes by the name Dot Da Genius, has toured with the artist from the beginning.
Omishore told ESPN that the connection between Kid Cudi and Cleveland was evident during his Moon Man’s Landing festival in the city in September. And the bond between Burrow and his favorite artist was equally apparent.
“You can tell they’re cut from the same cloth,” the producer said. “Like they both have the same je ne sais quoi that kind of makes them an X-factor in their respective fields.”
Before every game, Burrow listens to Kid Cudi’s “New York City Rage Fest,” a 117-second song that features no words, a lot of synth and a driving drum beat. Burrow and Kid Cudi have established a personal relationship, so much so that Kid Cudi texted Burrow for his game-worn jersey after the Bengals’ AFC title game win.
Four days later, Kid Cudi tweeted out the photo of the white uniform filled with grass stains. On the top of Burrow’s No. 9 was his signature. At the bottom was a two-word message: “Ohio Love.”
Kid Cudi said he wasn’t much of a sports fan. But he made it a point to sit down and watch Cincinnati beat Kansas City.
“I’m invested in this because this is somebody I know,” the artist, whose latest album “Entergalactic” features a song dedicated to Burrow, said. “It’s like for the first time I’ve ever had. I’ve never had, like, a friend play on a team where I’m like, ‘Oh, I gotta root for them.'”
After the Bengals lost in Super Bowl LVI, Kid Cudi performed at the team’s afterparty, with Burrow curating the setlist. Omishore watched as Burrow and several teammates stood on stage while Kid Cudi performed.
“It’s a genuine relationship,” Omishore said. “Like Cudi really looks at Joe Burrow like family now. And I can tell it’s vice versa. They both hold each other in really high [regard].”
THE BURROW FAMILY home in southeast Ohio was situated between three AFC North rivals. Athens is less than 215 miles from Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, which led to mixed allegiances at Athens High.
Burrow idolized former New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. When New Orleans selected USC star running back Reggie Bush second overall in the 2006 draft, Burrow had a new NFL team to root for.
Then around high school, his allegiance switched.
“I liked the Saints for a while and then I became kind of a Browns fan eventually for a couple years,” Burrow said at the 2020 scouting combine.
Luehrman said Burrow’s Cleveland fandom was unique even among their circle.
“Our friend group, nobody was really friends with Cleveland,” Luehrman said.
Last year, Luehrman was part of a dozen of Burrow’s friends who bought tickets to see the Bengals play the Browns in Cleveland on the final week of the regular season. When they made the purchase, they expected Burrow to be leading Cincinnati in a game that could seal the team’s playoff fate. Instead, with the AFC North clinched a week early and the starters not playing, Burrow didn’t even travel.
“We texted [him] about it, like, ‘Thanks dude, really, really fun watching you play with everybody,” said Luehrman.
Over the years, Cleveland has given Burrow plenty of reasons to celebrate, except for the one he’ll be looking for Monday night.
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