NWA: ‘Greater: The Brandon Burlsworth Story’
The story of University of Arkansas at Fayetteville Razorback legend Brandon Burlsworth is expected to hit the big screen next fall.
Longtime University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (UAF) Hogs fans and visionaries who benefit from a foundation raised in his honor know well the story of Brandon Burlsworth. And as any good underdog story goes, it’s one of tenacity and triumph.
Like many Arkansas boys, Burlsworth played for his high school football team, the Harrison Golden Goblins. He “called the Hogs” and had dreams of donning a Razorback-red uniform, but when he graduated, he hadn’t managed to garner a single scholarship to a Division 1 college.
Despite the odds, his dreams came true when he landed a walk-on spot on the UAF football team during open tryouts. Not only did Burlsworth make the team and earn a scholarship, he went on to become the team captain. He was named All-Southeastern Conference offensive guard two years in a row, received All-Conference honors and was named to the first-team All-American.
Off the field, Burlsworth became the first UAF football player to earn a master’s degree before playing his last game as a Razorback. By all accounts Burlsworth was greater than great. The Indianapolis Colts thought so and chose him with the 63rd pick overall in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft.
Eleven days after he was drafted, Burlsworth’s story turned tragic.
It was April 28. Burlsworth was headed home to Harrison to attend a Wednesday night church service with his mother when his white Subaru Impreza, the car his parents gave him when he left for college, collided with a semitrailer. He was killed.
Capturing his legacy
“Someone needs to make a movie about that guy” is almost immediately what real estate investor-turned-writer/producer Brian Reindl of Fayetteville said he thought after he heard the news that Burlsworth had died. He wasn’t the only one.
Marty Burlsworth, Burlsworth’s older brother and agent, said after the accident he and his family were approached by several people from Hollywood who wanted to make a movie about him, but the family had their reservations. “We just really didn’t know what they would do with it,” Marty said.
A few years later when Reindl, a fellow UAF graduate living in Fayetteville who had seen Burlsworth play a number of times, went to Harrison to meet with the family and talk about his idea for the movie, they had a change of heart. “We felt good about him,” Marty said. “We knew he would do a good job telling the story the way it should be told.”
“I told them I was a walk-on filmmaker, just like Brandon was a walk-on football player,” Reindl said. “And true to that, I’ve got a lot of passion and heart.”
Reindl worked on the project for eight years. “I never could get satisfied with the screenplay,” he said. “I wanted to tell his story as powerfully as I could. Brandon was known as this great guy, this great role model of this Christian kid,” Reindl said. “I told the family I didn’t want to make a Christian movie, but I wasn’t going to shy away from who Brandon was at all. I wasn’t going to try to make a movie that was preachy. But again, I wasn’t going to shy away from who he was. It’s his life and that was preachy enough, and they liked that.”
From getting the screenplay just right to figuring out how to finance the project, being a walk-on filmmaker presented its challenges. “The whole project was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. I didn’t want to do something that wouldn’t do Brandon justice,” Reindl said.
In the end, Reindl said he decided to finance the movie himself and set his goal to make something that would affect at least one person’s life and that would make Brandon proud.
Aside from telling one of Arkansas’ greatest underdog stories, Reindl said, “This movie grapples with big life questions: Why would something like this happen to someone so good? Why would God take him at the most cruel moment? Why do bad things happen to good people?”
The Burlsworth family had to deal with that and then came to the conclusion that God does have a purpose.
“The whole first week of filming was all based around the funeral. Just sitting behind the monitor and watching the scenes, I cried every day,” Reindl said.
Despite shedding a few tears, Reindl said, he thinks people will laugh a lot and leave the theater thinking about life. And Hog fans watching the film, which was shot exclusively in Arkansas, will be in heaven. “We intentionally put a lot of things in the movie for Razorback fans,” Reindl said.
There are cameo appearances by former coaches, players, Burlsworth’s friends and family, as well as the Harrison High School football team. “Razorback fans are going to, hopefully, want to jump out of their seats and run out onto the football field.”
When “Greater: The Brandon Burlsworth Story” hits the box office next fall, it will be 15 years since Brandon’s life was cut short.
Just months after his death, Brandon Burlsworth’s family established the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation to carry on his legacy.
“A lot of what we do is stuff he and I had talked about and ideas Brandon had seen other professional athletes do,” Marty Burlsworth said. Burlsworth is Brandon’s older brother and chairman/CEO of the foundation. “We just decided after his accident, that everything he had worked for and all he did to get where he was … it would have been a shame for it to be over and nothing more to come out of it.”
The foundation’s signature program, Burls Kids, puts 30 underprivileged children in the stands at each Razorback home game and tops off the experience with a Burls Kids t-shirt and pair of black-rim glasses like Brandon used to wear.
“He always had [empathy] for kids who didn’t have as much as he did,” Burlsworth said. “Going to games was something he experienced, and he knew there were kids out there who would not have that experience without help.”
Eyes of a Champion
During the school year, The Burlsworth Foundation teams up with Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club optical departments to offer free eye exams and glasses to uninsured children of low-income families with the Eyes of a Champion program.
Another program Brandon envisioned was directing football camps to help improve kids’ skills on the field and encourage them to develop good character. Each year, The Burlsworth Foundation puts on football camps in Harrison and Little Rock, where former UAF Razorback stars coach the kids.
“Brandon was a hard worker, and he believed in himself. That’s what we try to do with the foundation, to show that [ethic] to the kids,” Marty said. “Maybe they come from a home or situation where they may be the only ones who believes in them, where they’re not hearing a lot of good things like, ‘you can do this and we believe in you.’” We show them that Brandon had some of that going on, too. Not everybody is going to be a great football player or great student in the classroom, but he believed in himself and they can do the same, if they apply themselves and put God first.”
Burlsworth Awards and Trophy
In addition to the thousands of dollars in scholarships the foundation awards each year for both athletics and academics, the annual Burlsworth Trophy was established in 2010 to recognize the most outstanding athlete who began his career as a walk-on. Reindl conceptualized the Burlsworth Trophy while working to develop the screenplay for “Greater.”
The Burlsworth Trophy Ceremony, sponsored by the Springdale Rotary Club, will be held Dec. 9, at the Holiday Inn Northwest Arkansas Convention Center. Tickets are $50 and benefit The Brandon Burlsworth Foundation. For more information, visit burlsworthtrophy.com or brandonburlsworth.org.