Marty Burlsworth has a unique sense for when his little brother, the late Arkansas Razorback legend Brandon Burlsworth, is looking over his shoulder. He’ll feel it on the Arkansas autumnal breeze, or he’ll see something that reminds him No. 77 is there, though just out of reach, right where peripheral vision blurs into imagination and memory.
“It may seem odd to some people. I can be driving down the road, look at the dash, and it says 77 degrees,” he said. “I’ll notice the cell phone says 77 percent battery. Things like that.”
Not all of Brandon’s calling cards are that conspicuous. Some come to his brother more as a curious thought, dropped in from who-knows-where.
“Just two or three years ago, I told my mother he’d probably have one more year to play,” Burlsworth remembered. “She said, ‘He’d have played this long?’ I said, ‘Yeah, because he’s within striking distance of the all-time record for longevity for an offensive lineman.’ She said, ‘Yeah, he’d have played.’
“I really think he’d have been in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I don’t think I’m stretching at all to say barring injury, and he wasn’t prone to injury, he would have worn one of those gold jackets one day as a member of the hall of fame.”
There isn’t a team of mules big enough to have dragged Marty Burlsworth away from that ceremony, either. He’d walked every step of his brother’s journey with him, right up to the lip of the grave. He’d had his doubts about the young lineman growing up — everyone did, at one time or another — but he was also man enough to admit when he was wrong. And how wrong were they all, now converted believers, about the headstrong young athlete with the bulky glasses.
“Did I think he would grow into the ability and develop the ability that he did? No, not at all,” Burlsworth said. “Did I think he would stick to it and run through a brick wall and do everything in his power to make it at the Division I level? Yes, I knew that would be the case. But as far as him making the heights that he did, no, I did not see that.”
It’s been more than two decades since Brandon Burlsworth died in a head-on collision while driving to Harrison from Fayetteville. The 22-year-old, drafted 11 days earlier by the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, was headed home to take his mother to church. All of Razorback nation mourned along with the shell-shocked residents of his Boone County hometown; after everything he’d overcome to reach all-America status, it seemed impossible even death itself had the power to stop him.
“Well, when he died, it was extremely hard-hitting,” said Tommy Tice, the longtime head football coach at Harrison High School who coached Burlsworth. “He had come back here so many times from being at the university and had grown into, around here, rock star status. So, it hit really, really hard.
“I remember, of course, just a cloud of gloom fell over the entire community. And everywhere you’d go, every marquee in town had some positive statement about him. It was an utter shock for the entire town.”
Those who remember the story of Burlsworth’s college career, his final shining season on the Hill and the gut-punch of his untimely death will never forget the bespeckled underdog who went from flabby walk-on to rookie starter in the NFL. But for those who knew him, trained and played alongside him or were witness to his character, “The Burls Way” goes to the bone. Every one of them has a story about Brandon Burlsworth, it seems, from his work ethic to his strict, obsessive habits to his immense faith and sense of fair play.
“I remember going to the cafeteria after one practice during two-a-days and Brandon’s sitting with his buddies, all the lineman,” said Houston Nutt, who coached Burlsworth in his senior year at Fayetteville. “And I notice he picks up his tray and goes and sits with a freshman walk-on who’s sitting by himself. It was a little thing, but there was a special place in his heart for walk-ons.
“It’s just hard to explain the goodness of this guy. You know, he never said a foul word. He didn’t have a devious bone in his body. He’d be out of that field, and he’d ask his teammates, ‘How bad do we want it? How bad do we want it!? It’s third and 8. How bad do we want it?!’”
It’s left to conjecture now how many times Burlsworth himself had to echo that catch phrase inside his own mind to achieve the things that he did. But the facts of his life suggest it was nearly constant. Far from an athletic prodigy, his love for football was rivaled only by the number of people who didn’t see it in him, who missed the raw greatness that lay below the surface. But Brandon Burlsworth, they’ll tell you, made you believe.
“When he came to us as a 10th grader, he was not a good athlete,” Tice said. “The thing that you learned very quickly about him was the fact that he was going to be there. You couldn’t run him off. He was going to show up every day. But the quality of work he put in during that day wasn’t going to be anything that you thought would lead anywhere.
“The middle of his junior year, we had a problem at right offensive tackle. And just to be honest, we had a really good team. We were 11-2, got beat in the semifinals by Lake Hamilton, who won the state championship. Brandon split time from the middle of the year on with another young man at right tackle. Well, we ran the ball to our left. That’s about as bluntly as I could put it; we did not run it behind Brandon then.”
Burlsworth’s senior year at Harrison was a triumph, especially considering where he started out, but he was still only lightly recruited coming out of high school. Single-minded in his determination to be a Hog, he walked on at Fayetteville, a massive physical specimen in every wrong sense of the term.
“It’s hard to explain to folks who weren’t there, but the transformation of his body was just…,” said Chad Abernathy, a college teammate who after all this time still struggles to put the Burlsworth mystique satisfactorily into words. “For a kid that age to lose that much weight and then, to pack that much muscle on and become that athletic. I mean, it wasn’t that he was just terrible and had two left feet. But it was, you know, he looked like a piece of chewed bubble gum when he first got to college.
“The percentages are low of folks that get here, anyway. But the percentage of people who get here that look like that and then turn into what he looked like and what he could do physically? It’s a small percentage of people in the world who can do that.”
The excess weight and technical gaffes of his first months on the team proved fleeting hindrances, for the body after all is ruled by the mind, and the mind is the servant of the spirit. Burlsworth brought all three into harmony in a career that decorated him twice as a first-team all-SEC lineman, an all-conference academic honor roll recipient from 1995 to 1998, and the first Razorback to complete a master’s degree before playing his last collegiate game.
The Razorback faithful adored the gentle giant right down to the thick black glasses he wore in games, donning replica specs to show their fandom. Those closest to him know without a doubt his athletic and personal success would have continued in the pros, where after mini-camp he was projected to start the Colts’ 1999 season.
“Just think about this,” Tice said. “Between when he played his last collegiate game against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl and the NFL combine, he improved his body in just that time to where he’s now the fastest offensive lineman, he’s one of the strongest offensive linemen. He just never quit working. He never took a day off. A lot of young men today who are in a walk-on situation are already truly blessed with great athletic ability. Brandon was not blessed with great athletic ability. What he got, he worked into it.”
It was not to be, of course, and even as the whole state grieved his untimely passing, the people who knew and loved him most understood how fleeting a thing notoriety can be. Driven to do something meaningful and lasting with his legacy, Marty and his wife Vickie formed the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation just two months after his death.
“When the accident happened, it just totally floored our family. It was devastating,” said Vickie, executive director of the foundation. “We had so many people around the time of the accident who wanted to donate money, and we didn’t know what to do with all of that money. So, that was where the foundation started out.”
The foundation launched Burls Kids, a program that purchases 30 tickets to a Razorback home game every year, complete with associated hoopla, distributed to underprivileged kids in Arkansas. From that, programs have expanded to include several awards such as the Burlsworth Trophy, recognizing the nation’s outstanding collegiate walk-on, the Brandon Burlsworth Award, presented solely at Harrison High School, and the Burlsworth Character Award, by which 16,000 high schools nationwide recognize a player in their program who demonstrates outstanding sportsmanship and perseverance.
There’s also a yearly football camp where coaches promulgate the Burlsworth legacy into a new generation of athletes, passing down his story year after year.
“I’ve helped every year, but the year my son was born,” Abernathy said. “It’s kids third grade through ninth grade. We try to give them a little nugget, a little pearl that they can try to take out of it just to try to implement him in there. We take a few minutes there to explain what Brandon did. And then we talk about it in our drills and explain to them some of the stuff of what he did and some of the things that they can do too, if they want to be good in football or school or just life in general.
“The culture today is to blame everybody else for what’s wrong with you and why you’re not making it and that’s unfortunate. Everybody’s going to run into roadblocks and stuff where people will tell you, you can’t do it. Brandon’s story shows you what you can do if you put the blinders on, focus on yourself and take some good coaching and mentoring and work hard.”
Another impactful program of the foundation is Eyes of a Champion, by which eye care and eyeglasses are provided to low-income youth through a partnership with Walmart/Sam’s Club and a growing number of eye doctors.
“On average, the Eyes program provides 1,000 exams and 1,000 free pairs of glasses through optometrists in the state of Arkansas every year,” said Matt Jones, a Blytheville optometrist who sits on the foundation board. “We have some doctors in eastern Oklahoma, Louisiana and a few in North Texas. We’ve started to creep out there just a little, and I want to get more states involved as well.”
In 2016, a movie on Brandon Burlsworth’s life hit theaters. Greater introduced a whole new generation to the inspiring tale, an audience well outside the boundaries of Arkansas and Hogs lore. It was a nice shot of publicity and has helped the foundation serve even more people than it did before.
“It’s funny; I work for CBS, and I go to New York or I will be in the DFW airport and there will be Razorback fans and sometimes, even Alabama, Auburn, LSU fans. And they’ll bring up Brandon Burlsworth,” Nutt said in his signature Tommy-gun staccato.
“I tell them, you think about the ‘Burls Way ‘and it’s one of unselfishness. You get up, you buckle up both chinstraps, and you may have a bad day. But it’s the next play. It’s caring about your teammates, which he did. And Marty and Vickie have done just an awesome job with Brandon’s legacy.”
In the final analysis, the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation is less about eyeglasses, movie screens and a college football landscape that’s changed exponentially since the naïve, idealistic boy from Harrison walked awestruck into Reynolds Razorback Stadium for the first time. At its core, the tale it continues to tell is of the life and continuing times of a family desperate to make sense of the unfathomable. To turn the Burls Way inward and heal themselves through service.
“What Marty and I say when we speak across the country was, that first year was horrible,” Vickie said. “The movie talks about how it was for the first weekend. But to us, that was probably the first year. The first year was devastating and we didn’t probably handle it well. But there was a point where we said we’re going to either sink or swim. We’re not dealing with this well and my family is in trouble and our marriage is in trouble, but we can take this and let it destroy us or we can take it and make good with it.”
On the day of Brandon’s funeral, guests and congregants packed the school gym only to leave, as all funeral crowds do, the family standing alone at the end, wondering why, wondering what was next. The record shows, clearly, they’ve found that way home in the countless lives the foundation and the story continue to touch.
“Brandon did a lot of good in a short life. Our family did not want that to be over,” Marty said. “Selfishly, the thing for me was, aside from being able to help kids and help people and show this good example, I just couldn’t stand the thought of him being forgotten as a brother.
“I just couldn’t stand the thought of maybe he wouldn’t be remembered. I wanted him to be remembered for his faith, for his hard work, for the inspiration that he provides people of all ages.”