The life and still-impactful legacy of Brandon Burlsworth
Former Arkansas offensive lineman Brandon Burlsworth was on his way to his Harrison, Ark., home from Fayetteville, where he received an SEC West title ring along with the rest of the 1998 Razorbacks on April 28, 1999. Every Wednesday, he returned to take his mom, Barbara, to church. The drive was supposed to take about 90 minutes.
He never made it.
The 22-year-old Burlsworth, who had been drafted by the Colts 11 days earlier after earning first-team All-America honors as a fifth-year senior, was involved in a head-on crash with a tractor-trailer about 15 miles outside Harrison and was killed. He was in the prime of his life and football career, and then he was gone.
In another sense, though, Burlsworth lives on some 17 years later through the trophy that bears his name, a legacy that has left an immeasurable impact and, now, a feature film: "Greater," which chronicles Burlsworth’s life. It premiered last month and is set to be released nationwide late this summer during the lead-up to college football season.
Brandon Burlsworth measured 6-foot-3 1/4, 308 pounds at the 1999 NFL Combine. There was a time not that long before when he was a 6-foot, 160-pound high school freshman, a "big, gangly kid" who "wasn’t very coordinated" and, quite simply, "wasn’t very good" at football, according to his coach at Harrison High School, Tommy Tice.
"He had no natural talent," Tice said, bluntly.
As anyone who knew him will tell you, talent never mattered to Burlsworth.
Burlsworth’s brother, Marty, was 16 years older and served as somewhat a father figure for Brandon while the latter was growing up. He also served as Brandon’s biggest fan and, eventually, as his agent leading up to and after the 1999 NFL Draft.
"As he got older, got up into high school and started growing, something just clicked with him," Marty said. "A dedication and a work ethic just turned on. … He made the most of what he had."
Added Tice, "One of his goals his senior year was to beat me to work every day. And I get to work at 6 o’clock every day. And every day his senior year he’d be propped up against the outside door going into my office, waiting for me to get to work. And if I didn’t get there at 6 o’clock, all he’d say was, ‘Sleep in, coach?"
Through hard work, Burlsworth developed enough to earn a chance.
"As a sophomore, he didn’t play hardly at all — played a little bit of JV," Tice said. "When he became a junior, he alternated at right tackle because we didn’t have a very good player at right tackle, so we split time between Brandon and another young man. It was basically out of necessity because neither one of them was very good.
"But as a senior, with his tremendous work ethic and tremendous attitude, he made himself into a player."
Burlsworth started on offense, defense and special teams in his final year at Harrison, which won its third straight district title that season in 4A, the third-highest high school classification in Arkansas.
"He really emerged as a player his senior year, when he made the all-state team in Arkansas," Tice said. "But up to that point there was no indication, no indicators at all (of his future success), except the fact he was gonna be there every day."
Arkansas, as you probably know, doesn’t have an NFL team.
"Around this state, it’s Razorbacks," Marty Burlsworth said recently. "Every kid growing up, that’s what they wanna do. If you get a chance to play for the Hogs, ‘Oh my gosh.’ "
That was certainly true for Brandon Burlsworth.
"We had offers from Division II," Marty said. "He had offers from two smaller schools in the state, and we really respected the coaches, respected their efforts. But … once he arrived on that (Arkansas) campus for a visit and got a good, close-up look at those Razorback players, there was just no turning back."
Explained Tice, "We were having a meeting in my office and I was trying to get him to take this scholarship to (Arkansas) Tech. He wasn’t saying much, but you could tell he wasn’t very happy about what I was saying. And he looked up at me and he said, ‘Coach, you always told me it didn’t matter what anybody else thought, it only mattered what I thought.’
"And that’s when I picked up the phone, because he had me trapped. ‘Well what do you want to do?’" Tice asked.
"I want to be a Razorback," Burlsworth responded.
"So I picked up the phone," Tice said, "and I called (then-Arkansas coach) Danny Ford, and I told him — I’d sent him some tape on Brandon — and I told him ‘Coach, I want you to look at him one more time.’ And he did. He called back and said, ‘Tommy, we don’t have any scholarships at this time, but if he’ll come, we’ll put him on what they call the ‘preferred’ walk-on list and give him the opportunity to be part of the team and see what happens.’ "
"The rest of it’s history."
Wide receiver Anthony Lucas was Burlsworth’s suitemate when the two arrived at Arkansas as freshmen in 1994. What does Lucas remember about impressions of his shy roommate?
"All the coaches, all the players were like, ‘The kid would never play a down of football at University of Arkansas.’ That was basically it. … He took that and just ran with it and was motivating himself."
Grant Garrett was a member of the same recruiting class and became close with Burlsworth, as the two played alongside each other on the scout team, Garrett at center and Burlsworth at right guard.
When they first met, at the Arkansas high school state all-star game, Garrett had a similar reaction to that of the Razorbacks’ coaches when he found out Burlsworth was headed to Fayetteville to play college ball.
"I thought, ‘This guy will never play a down,’" Garrett said, laughing.
But Garrett, a scholarship player, saw firsthand the development from his walk-on teammate.
"Brandon was extremely focused and extremely determined," Garrett said. "And he didn’t have a social life, so to speak. We’d all go out, drink beer, watch football games, party, dance, drink, all those things college kids do. Brandon would never do any of that. He’d go to coach and go, ‘Coach, what do I gotta do to play?’"
One of the things he was told he needed to do initially: gain weight. So he ate a lot, gaining about 50 pounds … which wasn’t exactly what the coaches had in mind. So after going from undersized to big-but-not-correctly-sized, Burlsworth was given a regimented diet and lost those 50 pounds over the next few months, becoming a fixture in the weight room while making his teammates take notice.
"He did everything to a tee," Garrett said. "… He would never take his helmet off in practice. He was the first one there, he was the last one to leave. He worked out harder in the weight room than just about anybody else. He went to the whistle every time. He did textbook stuff."
And through his progression — along with some attrition through injuries and departures — Burlsworth once again earned himself a shot.
"His first game he got in was his redshirt freshman year," Marty recalled. "… Coach had told them the third series they were going in — he didn’t play them the game before. (Arkansas was) playing South Carolina in Fayetteville. Third series comes up and they punt us to the 5-yard line, so we’ve got our backs up against the end zone. And he goes ahead and puts them in there, and they drive 95 yards for a touchdown, that second unit, those freshman players.
"So that was just a great time."
Thanks in large part to his indefatigable work ethic, Burlsworth became a respected leader among his teammates.
"He went from nothing to something," Lucas said of the way Burlsworth earned that respect. "He just accomplished a whole lot. He was well-respected because of the way he carried himself — he carried himself extremely well off the field as well as on the field. Guys notice that in him, and everybody becomes, ‘I wanna be like Brandon.’"
But the Razorbacks were having less success on the field. They went 4-7 in 1996 and again in 1997, leading to Ford’s firing. In search of a re-energizing, the Arkansas leadership brought in Houston Nutt as Ford’s replacement prior to the 1998 season.
Expectations were still relatively low for the ’98 team, but as Nutt watched film, he saw some potential.
"When we first watched film, we just felt they had so many times when they had some things go against them," Nutt said.
As for Burlsworth’s tape, "Nothing really stood out — you saw some potential, but it wasn’t really like an All-American feeling. You didn’t go in there and, ‘Oh, he’s an All-American.’"
But Burlsworth’s mentality made an impact on the new coach immediately.
"After one of the first (team) meetings, he got me alone by myself as I was getting ready to walk back to my office, he said, ‘Can I talk to you for a minute? … I just want you to know that this group will really work hard for you,’ " Nutt recalls. "This is a tough group — we’ve been through a lot. But I just hope you don’t use the word ‘rebuild.’ And so it really kind of sent me a message early on … He had a real heartbeat, he loved his teammates, and he wanted to win so bad, he would do anything — work ethic, attitude — he would do anything for his team."
And soon enough, that mentality had manifested a slogan.
"Coach Nutt stressed to us, he wanted everybody to ‘Do it the Burls way,’" Lucas said. "He always would say that."
And that year, they did.
Arkansas, unranked in the preseason, started 8-0, including a stunning 42-6 win over then-No. 22 Alabama in Week 3 that made the nation take notice.
"Alabama week," Nutt recalled. "This is where you learn about Brandon Burlsworth."
Nutt said that, after the coaches’ Wednesday night meeting ended about 9:30 p.m., they made their way out of the office. Not far away from the Arkansas coaches’ rooms is the 50-yard indoor practice field, and the coaches could hear a shuffling sound, like shoes on turf.
"I said, ‘Who in the world is in this thing in the dark?’" Nutt said. "And I look there and there’s Brandon Burlsworth. I go over there and I said, ‘Brandon, what in the world are you doing?’
"’Didn’t have a real good day today, Coach. I just want to make sure I got everything, just stepping through these plays.’
"I mean, it was really in the pitch dark, in his workout gear — shorts, tee-shirt and his turf shoes — and going through each play, with kind of dummies set up as the defense of Alabama. … And that turned it. To me, it started on that Wednesday night."
Added Lucas, "That year, a lot of things changed. Brandon just touched those guys. We started going to bible study, we started doing a lot of things together. And it was just amazing the effect he had on us."
Arkansas’s first loss that year came in heartbreaking fashion. Leading then-No. 1 Tennessee 24-22 with about two minutes to play, the Razorbacks were trying to pick up a first down to run out the clock. But quarterback Clint Stoerner, after taking a snap from under center and making a play-action fake, tripped over the foot of Burlsworth (who was in pass protection) and stumbled, losing the ball as he tried to brace himself.
The Volunteers recovered and scored five plays later to pull out a miraculous 28-24 victory. Tennessee went on to win the national championship, the first in the Bowl Championship Series era.
"He told Clint it wasn’t his fault," Lucas said of Burlsworth and the fumble. "He took the blame for that."
Arkansas finished 9-2 in the regular season before losing to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, earning a No. 16 ranking in the final Associated Press poll.
And Burlsworth, who had become the first Arkansas player to complete his master’s degree prior to playing in his final game, was named a consensus All-American at guard.
"When I would talk to him," Marty recalled, "until he got way on up in his senior year, he said ‘you think about the next level, I’ll take care of what we’ve got going on right here,’ " Marty said. "… When he was during season, it was all focus on that next opponent."
After Burlsworth’s remarkable career had culminated in an All-American senior season, the NFL beckoned. He performed well at the combine, recording a 4.88 40-yard dash that led all offensive linemen, and on April 17, 1999, the Indianapolis Colts — who had selected Peyton Manning with the first overall pick the year before — called Burlsworth’s name in the third round at No. 63 overall.
Speaking of a conversation with then-Colts general manager Bill Polian, Marty said, "Bill Polian said, ‘We drafted him, we already have him starting, and we’re excited about building the team around him for years to come.’"
The following weekend, Burlsworth attended the team’s rookie minicamp and did nothing but improve on his prospects to start for a team building around talented youngsters such as Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison.
"When Brandon showed up at the rookie camp, he was even better than I thought he’d be," then-Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd told the team’s official website in a recent reflection. "I couldn’t stop talking to my wife about how impressive he was and what a bright future he had."
That was the last time Burlsworth would step foot on a football field.
"He was never late hardly to anything, and you never worried about him making a mistake. He was supposed to be in by 4," Marty said of the fateful day just a week and a half after the draft.
He never arrived. According to the police report, Burlsworth’s car drifted slightly over the center line on U.S. 412, clipped the front fender of a tractor-trailer and then, while he was presumably trying to regain control, crossed the center line again and hit another tractor-trailer.
When he hadn’t arrived by 4, Marty received a concerned call from his mom and headed over to her house. When he arrived, he saw the back of a white car that he at first thought was Brandon’s.
As it turned out, it was a police car, with officers there to deliver the incomprehensible news.
"It totally seemed like it was unreal," Marty said. "’This didn’t happen. How could this happen?’ It didn’t seem right, didn’t make sense. At times it still doesn’t make sense — never will make sense how that could happen, because he just did everything so right."
Not long after, the word started spreading to Burlsworth’s ex-teammates and coaches.
"I was sitting in my room watching TV and somebody knocked at my door," Lucas said. "It was (backup quarterback) Jared McBride — he was another guy we would hang out with. And the way he was talking, I knew something was wrong. … He said, ‘I don’t know if you heard, but Burlsworth was killed today in a car accident.’
"And when he said that, my heart dropped."
For Garrett, the news came in the form of an unexpected phone call.
"I just was walking by the phone when it rang, and I picked the phone up. It was our trainer," Garrett recalled. "He said, ‘Brandon’s been in a car accident and he’s been killed.’
"It just — it didn’t even seem real. One of those surreal moments, I guess. I just didn’t wanna believe it."
Tice had actually been stuck in the line of traffic behind the accident, completely unaware that the incident ahead had taken Burlsworth’s life. He said he waited in the backup for about an hour before making it home.
"When I got home, the phone rang. I had seen this little car but didn’t recognize it — there wasn’t a whole lot left of it. But when I got home, I got a call and the caller told me Brandon was dead. I said, ‘There’s no way.’"
Nutt spoke for all who knew Burlsworth when he said, "It was just devastating."
After Burlsworth’s death, news crews descended on Harrison, which has just 13,000 residents. Family and friends bore the brunt of the media onslaught, of course, while also trying to mourn. It was a dark time.
But from the darkness emerged a light.
"His foundation we established in June 1999," Marty explained. "For the first year, we didn’t really do anything other than try to get ourselves together and regroup to see what we would do. It’s so painful — you’re like, ‘He did all that, and that’s it?’
"So he and I had talked a lot going into the draft and after his college career was over about maybe doing some football camps or having kids at NFL games and that type of thing. So we established this foundation to make those dreams come true."
The Brandon Burlsworth Foundation, among other initiatives, provides underprivileged kids with tickets to Razorbacks and Colts games, with the purpose of sharing the message that Burlsworth was able to overcome repeatedly being told that he wasn’t good enough.
"Yes, you are good enough," Marty said the kids are told. "Don’t let anyone keep you down — it only matters what you think."
Perhaps more prominent are the camps put on by the foundation each year for high schoolers in Arkansas. Tice runs the camps — at the request of Burlsworth’s mother, Barbara — and they are staffed primarily by Burlsworth’s former teammates.
"We put two of those camps on each year: one in Harrison, and the next day we go to Little Rock to put another one on," Tice said. "And one of the unique things about those camps is a lot of the coaches at the camps are his old teammates. They always come, they always work, they don’t receive any pay. They foot their own bill to come work in the camps, spend the night in Little Rock, (and) they get up and work the next day."
Among the regular coaches are Stoerner, Lucas and Garrett, who said, "We all kind of pitch in and try to help Marty work the camp. These underprivileged kids usually wouldn’t have a very good shot at going to one of these things."
More recently, Marty has connected with Wal-Mart to implement a program called "Eyes for Champions" that plays on Burlsworth’s trademark horned-rim glasses and provides both exams and glasses for kids who lack sufficient vision insurance.
"That is primarily in the state of Arkansas, but we’re looking into going into other states, where we provide exams and eyeglasses for children who are underinsured, uninsured, they don’t qualify for state-funded programs," Marty said. "… These kids are falling behind in school, and it gets into other issues — self-esteem, a lot of that — so we’re so proud of this program. It’s a game-changer, a life-changer for these kids.
He added, "As far as relevance and what it does for these kids, it probably is more important than any other (program)."
It’s been 17 years since his death, and these days, Brandon Burlsworth’s name comes up most often in relation to his namesake trophy.
The Burlsworth Trophy is presented annually to the nation’s most outstanding college football player who started his career as a walk-on. It has been awarded since 2010, when it was devised by Brian Reindl, the writer and producer of "Greater."
Reindl reached out to David Bazzel, a former Arkansas linebacker and team captain and a current Little Rock media personality who was involved in the creation of the Frank Broyles Award, which is awarded to the top assistant coach in the country each year. Bazzel was fully on board, as was Marty given what the award would represent.
"David looked at it and said, ‘It makes perfect sense,’" Marty recalled. "’These are guys that have worked their way up, not been given a lot of credit, been discounted that they didn’t have the ability to make it at the Division I level.’
"And so the trophy was born."
The selection committee includes not only former Burlsworth coaches Tice, Ford and Mudd but also prominent names such as Broyles, ex-Alabama coach Gene Stallings and former Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos coach Dan Reeves.
Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield was the recipient of the 2015 award, which was presented by Houston Nutt.
There are only two numbers that have been retired at Arkansas.
No. 12 was worn by Clyde Scott, a running back (and Olympic silver medalist) who is still considered one of the Razorbacks’ greatest athletes, and was deactivated after his playing career concluded in 1948.
No. 77 was worn by Brandon Burlsworth. It was retired shortly after his death, with Nutt reaching out to Broyles, the Arkansas athletic director at the time, to arrange the jersey retirement.
"I know Brandon would be super proud of that," Marty said.
Burlsworth’s locker also was encased in glass, and although the Razorbacks have since built a new football facility, the stall remains in the Arkansas locker room, a never-changing symbol of his work ethic and the impact he made — and continues to make — on both the program and countless others.
"His name lives on," Lucas said. "I could say it spreads all over the state, but I think it’s all over the world right now because of that Burlsworth Trophy and because of what his brother Marty and his mom and all his family has done to keep him alive."
And that’s exactly as it should be, according to those who knew him best.
"There’s no perfect people in this world," said Tice, who had been close to Burlsworth for half of his former player’s 22 years by the time of his death.
"But he’s as close as we’ll ever find in my lifetime, I’ll tell you that."