Joe Burrow strode into Arrowhead Stadium two Sundays ago for the A.F.C. championship game clad in a black turtleneck, rimless sunglasses, a blinding diamond pendant — and a Sherpa jacket, decked with hearts, that would soon become an internet curiosity.
The coat was designed not in the fashion houses of Milan or Paris or New York but rather on an iPad in that sartorial hotbed of southeast Ohio, by the younger brother of one of Burrow’s oldest and closest friends. Micah Saltzman, 21, sends him samples from every collection of his clothing line, Live2Love, but he didn’t know Burrow would be sporting the jacket until photos began ricocheting across social media.
“Once he wore it,” Saltzman said, “it obviously blew up.”
A friend of the rapper Post Malone contacted him. So did Four Pockets Full, the record label founded by Lil Baby, another rapper. Sales, Saltzman said, have increased by about 300 percent.
Such is the influence wielded by Burrow, who, in helping the Bengals shed their forebears’ reputation for bungling and advance to the Super Bowl, has surpassed the celebrity status conferred by quarterback stardom and emerged from these playoffs with crossover appeal that extends beyond football.
He loves listening to rap and watching SpongeBob, playing Super Smash Bros. and smoking victory cigars, throwing deep touchdown passes and then reveling in the spoils of his triumphs.
The way Burrow threads those varying elements of his personality has cast him as a phenomenon beyond his spirals. He comes across as self-assured, not cocky, when asked about those diamonds or that luxurious streetwear. Self-aware, too, in sharing elements of hip-hop culture with teammates and the world.
If the predominant historical debates in other sports center on the Greatest of All Time title, the N.F.L.’s mythmaking machine likes nothing more than a star at the glamour position who transcends race, ethnicity, culture and class. As the era of white stars like Tom Brady and Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers closes, several Black quarterbacks — from Patrick Mahomes to Lamar Jackson to Kyler Murray — are primed to dominate for years.
In that respect, the sociology professor Jeffrey Montez de Oca said, Burrow represents a bridge between eras much as Joe Namath did, when he came to span the N.F.L. establishment and 1960s counterculture. Winning the Super Bowl — as Mahomes and Rodgers have done — would elevate Burrow’s profile even further.
“There’s this tradition of white athletic excellence at a time when the quarterback position is changing, becoming more Black,” said de Oca, the founding director of the Center for the Critical Study of Sport at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. “The coolness of Joe Burrow is connected to a Black aesthetic, unlike Tom Brady, who’s such a white quarterback. When you have a white quarterback like Burrow who can code switch, that makes him an especially effective face of the N.F.L.”
Brady has morphed into a brand sophisticate, with a supermodel wife and a growing wellness empire, but he began his career as a naïve, goofy — if hyper-driven — Everyman. Even if Burrow arrived in the N.F.L. as far more accomplished than Brady, having won the Heisman Trophy and a national title at Louisiana State and been selected No. 1 overall in the draft, teammates and longtime friends say he is eminently relatable.
For years, Burrow has demonstrated an intuitive understanding of his surroundings and an ability to connect with them. Before his final home game at L.S.U. in 2019, he expressed his appreciation and gratitude for the state that embraced him after his transfer from Ohio State by wearing a “Burreaux” jersey, nodding to the Cajunified spelling of his last name. When he won the Heisman a few weeks later, in his speech he acknowledged the populace back home in rural Ohio facing food insecurity — not because he sought support but because, friends said, he is proud of where he grew up.
“He can walk between so many different groups,” said Zacciah Saltzman, Micah’s older brother. “He’s a clean-cut guy, so old white guys are like, ‘We love this guy.’ Then he pulls up with his chains and his shades, and the younger guys — Black, white, whatever — they can get behind that. He’s a pretty adaptable guy without having to adapt. Who he is attracts the masses.”
Asked last week to quantify that magnetism, Bengals teammates and coaches offered different explanations. Calling him “definitely a baller,” the center Trey Hopkins mentioned both Burrow’s competitiveness and his alacrity in getting up after being hit.
“It’s a nonverbal way of communicating — ‘Hey, I’m in this fight with you,’” Hopkins said.
Dan Pitcher, the Bengals’ quarterbacks coach, cited Burrow’s unabashed comfort in who he is. The left tackle Jonah Williams said Burrow seems unaffected by external opinions and conveys a certain authenticity in his leadership.
Watching him from afar, the Hall of Fame outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. — a son of the Big Red Machine who played nearly a decade in Cincinnati with his hometown team — said he gleaned a similar impression. Few athletes signified cool more than Griffey, who, with his gorgeous left-handed swing and omnipresent backward hat, electrified a generation of baseball fans.
“It’s all subjective to the audience, but being yourself is the most important thing,” Griffey said in a telephone interview. “People know when people are fake.”
As with Burrow, fame came fast. Griffey reached the major leagues with Seattle at 19, and within a month, he had a candy bar in his name. At the time, he said, wearing his cap backward was considered disrespectful in baseball.
“I was a kid,” Griffey said “I still put my hat on backwards. It wasn’t like I was trying to be different. I just wanted to be me.”
So, too, does Burrow. For a glimpse into his ethos, consider Burrow’s favorite professional athlete. He has repeatedly gushed over the scrappy guard Matthew Dellavedova, the defensive star of the 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers, who dove on the basketball court with such vigor that he got floor burns.
Burrow once said that he got fired up by seeing Dellavedova, after scurrying for a loose ball, punch someone in the face. He posted a photo of himself on Twitter wearing a Dellavedova T-shirt.
“He’s not loud, he’s not flashy, but he just has this John Travolta coolness about him,” Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton said of Burrow. “He just has this aura that you want to be around him.”
Back in southeast Ohio, legend has it that Burrow, not long after arriving in third grade, walked up a hill to the football field wearing mirrored sunglasses. An assistant told the head coach: Here comes your quarterback. Burrow said last week that he had wanted to be a running back or a receiver, but later realized that playing quarterback enabled him to have the most impact on a game — and a team.
Zacciah Saltzman and others credited Burrow’s social acumen — what the offensive coordinator Brian Callahan called “incredible emotional intelligence” — to his experiences growing up in Appalachia, a region rife with poverty and addiction problems.
“He never talked down to anyone,” Adam Luehrman, an Athens High teammate and a close friend, said. “You know you have those typical jocks in high school? Not Joe. He’d talk to anyone. That’s how you grew up: You didn’t think anybody was below you, beneath you or above you.”
His high school teammates recalled a game from Burrow’s junior year when opposing players taunted their running back, Trae Williams, who is Black, with racial slurs. Burrow, Zacciah Saltzman said, was in tears on the bus, wanting to fight the other team.
“I’m from a small town in rural Ohio and I think what’s great about football is you can create relationships with people that you never would have had a relationship with otherwise,” Burrow said Monday, adding, “Those relationships are rare and exciting for people that come from where I’m from, and I would say that’s my favorite part.”
Burrow left Ohio State after three seasons, unable to beat out Dwayne Haskins for the Buckeyes’ starting job, leaving the Midwest for its cultural antipode, the Cajun country of Louisiana. Callahan marveled at how Burrow navigated that shift, calling it the “most impressive thing” he has done.
“Being able to fit in and then be able to win over that team in a very short period of time tells you everything you need to know about his ability to relate to people,” Callahan said. “I think that’s the biggest thing: He knows. It’s innate. It’s part of who he is.”
That matters to Burrow. But he did not set out to become a fashion icon, saying again and again that his wardrobe choices bear no special meaning. If he likes something, he gets it. And he liked a pair of Cartier sunglasses so much that he wore them to a postgame news conference.
Now, Luehrman said, he cannot walk around the Ohio University campus in Athens, or downtown’s main drag of Court Street, without spotting someone — even those he knows to be Browns or Steelers fans — in a Burrow jersey or those glasses (or the $10 knockoffs Bengals Coach Zac Taylor said his sons have). Or both.
“I think if you look up cool in the dictionary,” Rams receiver Odell Beckham Jr., like Burrow a former L.S.U. star, said, “there’s a picture of him in some Cartier shades.”
And a Sherpa jacket designed in Ohio.