Brandon Burlsworth (above) during his brief career with the Indianpolis Colts. (Photo by Marty Burlsworth)
I’ve interviewed both Brandon Burlsworths, the real one and the one who portrays him in the recently released movie about his extraordinary life.
I like both Brandons.
I covered Brandon’s career and met him several times while I was a sports writer for the Commercial-Appeal. I interviewed Chris Severio by telephone. I have never met him in person.
Brandon overcame great odds and the doubts of many to become a first-team All-American and a third-round pick in the 1999 NFL draft.
Chris Severio, the faux football player from Denham Springs, Louisiana, overcame obstacles of his own as he walked in Brandon’s shoes in filming Greater, Brandon’s inspirational story about his remarkable but tragically brief life that ended in a car wreck just a few weeks after the Indianapolis Colts drafted him. This is Mr. Severio’s first major role.
Last month, as Mr. Severio watched the Flood of 2016 destroy his hometown east of Baton Rouge, he found himself living Brandon’s example, channeling Brandon’s dogged determination.
As Mr. Severio was preparing for a trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, to promote the movie on ESPN, water from the Amite River wiped out the home he shared with his ailing mother.
“I don’t believe my mom would have made it out of the house if I hadn’t been living with her,” said Severio, who carried her through waist-deep water to a rescue boat. Then he bulled his way the length of a football field to the house where his great-uncle lived.
“By the time I got back in the water to get my uncle, water was up to my chest. About halfway to his house, I thought I was about to get swept away. But I was able to get to him and get him out.
“When I was filming the movie, I kept hearing that I had to do things the Burls way,” Mr. Severio told me for a column I wrote for my newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “Since the flooding, I really understand what that means. It means you don’t quit, you keep moving forward.
“So I’m doing it the Burls way.”
Mr. Severio also rose to the challenge of doing it the Burls way on the screen.
“Portraying Brandon was one of the hardest things I had to do,” Mr. Severio said. “Brandon’s brother Marty and his mother Barbara were very involved in the film and were on the set most days. I was given an opportunity to do something not just for myself, but to give something back to a family that they could be proud of.”
Mr. Severio sounds like a guy that Brandon Burlsworth would have been proud to have depict him in a movie, as a selfless, hard-working, humble, self-deprecating character.
Those were the characteristics that set Brandon apart, that made him the finest role model for an athlete I’ve personally witnessed in 37 years as a sports writer and columnist.
He set the bar high as a top-notch student, a fiercely competitive athlete and a devout Christian. He was a big, sweet kid who never met a stranger, who always respected his elders as a “yessir” or “no ma’am” type of guy, someone universally loved and respected.
His legendary work ethic accelerated his development. He approached life as if he didn’t have a minute to waste.
Those of us in the media who took notice of the chubby walk-on who bulldozed his way to become arguably the greatest walk-on ever knew his story was the stuff that makes for great movies.
Seventeen years after Brandon’s death, Brandon’s inspirational story finally has debuted on the big screen nationwide.
Hey Hollywood, what took you so long?
Maybe Brandon’s improbable story was a little far-fetched, even for Hollywood’s vast imagination. It was the sort of story, perhaps, that demanded the understanding and touch of one of his fellow Arkansans to write.
How could one person be so determined? So quirky, so unfailing kind (while so tough on the turf), so well liked?
I watched him from afar on the field, and I saw him up close in the locker room. Brandon was funny, humble, quietly confident and always polite.
Everyone who knows his story understands that Brandon wasn’t the cream of the high school crop of football players.
At Harrison High, Brandon began his career as a 165-pound weakling who was more of a practice dummy than a player. He didn’t start full time until his senior year. The Razorbacks didn’t come calling.
Other players of Brandon’s caliber would have jumped at one of the guaranteed scholarship offers that smaller schools tossed Brandon’s way. But he refused all comers, opting instead to follow his childhood dream and accept the invitation to walk on at the University of Arkansas. Brandon never doubted the outcome of his future, he once told me.
“I never worried about being a walk-on because I knew in my freshman year that I’d get a scholarship,” Brandon said. “I learned so much as a freshman.”
The summer that Brandon lived in a rent house with teammates, fellow lineman Jeremiah Washburn witnessed Brandon’s round-the-clock dedication.
“We’d be settling in for the night,” Mr. Washburn once told me, “and Burls would say, `Let’s go outside and work on pass sets.’ Burls would be out in this tiny front yard in his underwear wearing no shirt working on his footwork.”
Former Arkansas offensive line coach Mike Markuson saw the same thing. “Sometimes we’d come out of our office at 10:30 at night, and there would be Brandon alone, working out,” Mr. Markuson told me. “He’d be practicing pass blocking or doing agility drills in the dark. We never asked him to do this. He was a guy who banged his own drum.”
Offensive linemen, in general, are a different breed. They usually are the most intelligent players on a squad. They are creatures of habit. They often have entertaining quirks.
In covering Brandon, I learned he picked out a parking spot as a freshman outside the Broyles Complex, and parked there daily without fail. He walked the same path from the dorm to the Broyles Complex. Before practice every day, he sat on the same spot on the same table while a trainer taped his ankles.
One time when the Razorbacks broke out their special red game pants to play Memphis, everyone in the locker room was excited but Brandon. He was a guy who liked to prepare, and he didn’t have time to prepare for different-colored pants.
Unlike most upperclassmen that moved to apartments, Brandon lived in the dormitory every year, and his dorm room was as basic as the occupant – a bed, a chair, a TV and bare walls.
Brandon hated change, which is why it was big deal for him to get glasses before his senior season. He chose the ugliest and cheapest frames he could find, the now-famous black-rimmed specs with thick Coke-bottle lenses.
“Auburn laughed a lot at me, so did Ole Miss,” Brandon told me. “I heard a lot of `Hey, Drew Carey,’ or `Hey, Clark Kent.’ They don’t keep laughing for very long.”
Brandon was so focused that he never really took the time to assess how good he had become. When his brother Marty said to Brandon in his junior year that he may have a chance in the NFL, Brandon quickly replied, “I don’t know, I’ve gotta focus on the season.”
The last time I saw Brandon was after his final college game, a 45-31 loss to Michigan in the 1999 Citrus Bowl. I remember afterwards in an empty Razorbacks’ locker room that he took a little longer to dress, as if he wanted to live his dream just a few more minutes.
“I wish I had another year to play,” he said to me, picking up his duffel bag. “All I ever wanted to do was play for the Razorbacks. I love this coaching staff. I love these players.”
In the spring, the Colts drafted Brandon in the third round. In his first minicamp, the Colts’ coaching staff and linemen fell in love with Brandon. Offensive line coach Howard Mudd, enchanted with Brandon’s discipline, told him to quit calling him “sir.”
Then less than two weeks after the start of his NFL career, Brandon’s car collided with a truck as he drove home to Harrison to take his mother to Wednesday night church.
Brandon was 22 years old.
Houston Nutt, whose first season as Arkansas’ coach was Brandon’s last year, feels luck to this day that he got to coach Brandon for one season.
“Brandon was always prepared,” Mr. Nutt said. “He was prepared for the classroom. He was prepared for practice and games. He was prepared for death. He not only did everything, but it always did it the right way.”
The day after the wreck, Mr. Markuson told me what I still consider the perfect description of Brandon.
“Brandon was the All-American boy, the neighbor kid down the street who was apple pie and football,” Mr. Markuson said in a reverent tone.
An entire state mourned.
And across the state line in Memphis, so did I.