Arkansas All-American Walk-On Burlsworth Now the Subject of Film

By Don Wade

Black horn-rimmed glasses. Those were offensive lineman Brandon Burlsworth’s trademark, and they were prominent even behind the facemask of his Arkansas Razorbacks helmet.

“Greater,” a film about Arkansas offensive lineman Brandon Burlsworth, opens Aug. 26. Chris Severio plays Burlsworth (No. 77), who was killed in a car accident days after being drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1999.  

(Submitted)

Predictably, trash-talking opponents laughed at him and called him names. He was, with various modifiers, Clark Kent. Or Kurt Rambis, the funny-looking center for the Los Angeles Lakers. Or Drew Carey, the comedian.

Today, those glasses remain the symbol of the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation – brandonburlsworth.org. Brandon’s older brother Marty started the foundation after Brandon’s death in 1999.

If you followed the SEC back then, you may remember the Brandon Burlsworth story. Walk-on player from Harrison, Ark., considered a long shot to get real playing time. Became a two-time All-SEC selection and a first-team All-American as a senior in 1998. His No. 77 is one of just two numbers retired in the history of Arkansas football.

Less than two weeks after he was chosen in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts, Brandon was driving home to go to church with his mother. He never got there, dying in a car accident at age 22.

On Aug. 26, the movie about his life, “Greater,” opens nationwide. It’s a family-friendly film carrying a PG rating and, ultimately, an inspirational message despite the tragedy no one in the Burlsworth family – or his football families at Arkansas or in Indianapolis – could have imagined.

Although he had only participated in a Colts’ mini-clinic before the accident, Burlsworth left such an impression that the team wore a decal with his Colts number, 66, on their helmets that season and they honored him and the family at a game.

“He was the kind of guy that we would have plugged in our offensive line for 10-plus years,” said then-Colts general manager Bill Polian. “Brandon was the kind of guy you win with.”

Marty Burlsworth, 55, and who was 38 when Brandon died, says they were approached by Hollywood about making a film around Brandon’s story many years ago. The family respectfully declined.

“We just never felt comfortable with the literary license or whatever,” said Marty, who to a degree was both brother and father; their father had long ago divorced from their mother, Barbara, and Leo Burlsworth died of cancer while Brandon was in college.

As for this film, “Greater” has been more than a decade in the making – a labor of love for first-time Arkansas producer Brian Reindl. His screenplay grew out of the book “Through the Eyes of a Champion: The Brandon Burlsworth Story,” by Jeff Kinley.

David Hunt, the movie’s director, also assisted with the screenplay. Most important to Marty and the Burlsworth family: “They kept us in the loop.”

Marty says the finished product doesn’t get everything “exact,” such as speeding up the time of events and taking conversations that happened over the phone and making them into face-to-face exchanges, but that’s not a criticism – just a nod to the difference between a book and a screenplay.

He lauds Chris Severio for his measured portrayal of Brandon, and veteran actor Neal McDonough, he says, does a “tremendous job” as Marty Burlsworth.

Earlier this year in an interview with Christian Examiner, Reindl said: “The film is as much about Marty’s journey as it is about Brandon’s. He goes through something we all face when we experience tragedy and trials: Which voices do we listen to? The voices of faith, hope and trust … or the voices of doubt, disbelief and despair?”

The film promotes Burlsworth as the greatest walk-on in the history of college football and there is an award – the Brandon Burlsworth Trophy, which Marty oversees – that is given annually to college football’s best player who began his career as a walk-on. Brandon also earned his master’s degree at Arkansas before his playing career was done – the first Razorback to do so.

“The idea wasn’t to be the greatest walk-on,” Marty explained, “it was to get a scholarship.”

But with no scholarship offer coming from Arkansas, Brandon bypassed offers from smaller schools and accepted the invitation to be a “preferred” walk-on at Arkansas. Not that it got him very far initially. The film covers the issues he had with his weight and his incredible work ethic that earned him a chance.

While the film might not give Burlsworth enough credit for what talent he did have – no one goes from walk-on to All-American without some ability – he did always seem to have a knack for doing what seemed impossible.

Perhaps Marty’s favorite play from Brandon’s college career is one that occurred in the same game as the play he would most like to forget. In November 1998, the Razorbacks were 8-0, ranked 10th in the country, and playing at No. 1 Tennessee.

The Vols blocked a kick in that game and the football was picked up by linebacker Al Wilson, who started racing down the right sideline – a good 40 yards down the sideline.

“Out of nowhere, Brandon knocks him out of bounds,” Marty said. “There he is, 300 pounds, and he just runs down this linebacker. He just kicked it in, ‘No, this is not happening.’”

Although the Razorbacks led 21-3 at one point and were up 24-22 with less than two minutes to go, the game turned on an even crazier play that also involved Burlsworth. As quarterback Clint Stoerner accepted the snap and backed away from the center his foot got tangled up with Burlsworth, who was to his right and was backing up, trying to hold his block. When Stoerner fell the ball came out and Tennessee recovered.

The play became known as the “Stumble and Fumble,” and Tennessee would go on to score the winning touchdown and eventually win the national championship at the end of the season.

That game was, in a way, a symbol for the highest highs, the lowest lows and the unforeseen.

What Marty thinks about now, though, is that even when Brandon was in college and then after he was drafted by the Colts, he had all these ideas for how he wanted to help people. Starting the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation shortly after his death, even as the grief was overwhelming, just set those plans into motion sooner.

Now, at Arkansas and Indianapolis “Burls’ Kids” attend games for free. The Foundation also has operated the Eyes of a Champion program in cooperation with Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club optical departments to provide free vision exams and glasses to low-income, uninsured children in Arkansas; the program is now going nationwide.

Marty won’t predict how the Razorbacks will finish in the SEC this season, but he will say that he believes “Greater” is the kind of film that people will want to see more than once because there are layers of life lessons. He believes by sheer word of mouth, the movie will develop a dedicated following.

“He loved football,” Marty said. “But he had his priorities right. His faith, his family and his football, in that order.

“He’d be very humbled that parents would want to bring their kids to see this movie.”