By Lisa Fischer // Photos Courtesy of Brandon Burlsworth Foundation
Brandon Burlsworth made his mark on collegiate football in a big way. Literally. The boy was almost 6-foot-4 and tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds. His heart weighed a good part of that. He was a gentle giant with an instinct to win. Burlsworth tragically lost his life in a car accident April 28, 1999, going from Fayetteville to a Wednesday night church service in his hometown of Harrison. His car hit two different 18-wheelers on a road he had traveled a thousand times before.
Burlsworth made his mark on the Arkansas Razorbacks and even on the Indianapolis Colts, who had drafted him 11 days before the tragic accident. He had been picked to start in the NFL as a rookie. He’s been called “the greatest walk-on to ever play college football.” He left a legacy that writers and even filmmakers have pursued. The movie about his life, Greater, was released in 2016, but thanks to homebound families during the COVID-19 crisis, it picked up momentum during a Netflix drop in April.
Marty Burlsworth, Brandon’s older brother by 17 years, is portrayed in the movie for his paternal guidance. Both in actuality and in the movie, he kidded with his younger brother, encouraged him to succeed and served as the point man in protecting Brandon’s memory. Marty is the one who just two months after Brandon’s death incorporated a charity, the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation, because he wanted to preserve Brandon’s desire to help less fortunate athletes. The website says, “Our Christian organization’s mission is to support the physical and spiritual needs of children, in particular those who have limited opportunities.”
Marty says, “He talked about that before his accident. Brandon had said, ‘We need to have kids at games.’ He wanted to have camps for less fortunate kids. The program has evolved, and Brandon would be so proud to have it the way it is today.”
Burls Kids is the program where youngsters can attend both Razorbacks and Colts games as guests of the foundation. The group also conducts camps and awards ceremonies. Former coach Houston Nutt, Brandon’s coach, reportedly coined the phrase “Do it the Burls Way,” which means do it the right way, even when no one is looking. It is the motto of the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation.
The Greater movie has brought much attention to the foundation and to the Burlsworth family. Marty says, “It’s a football movie, but it’s not necessarily about football. His story was put together to appeal to all audiences. Number one, it’s about faith. Number two, it’s about work ethic. It also shows that Brandon was known for overcoming great obstacles and his ‘never quit’ attitude. That covers all of us. Music. Football. Anything. There are blessings [in the movie], I believe, for everyone.”
Brandon was the kid who “lived the example and didn’t do a lot of talking.” That’s how Marty sums up his younger brother. He adds, “Brandon would wear his Razorback t-shirt underneath his pads in the Colts locker room.” That shows his devotion to his team. The movie depicts Brandon receiving an offer from a smaller school in the state, but his life’s desire was to play lineman for the Arkansas Razorbacks. So he did everything asked of him and more to achieve that lofty goal. That tenacity is modeled to the kids who attend the football camps and attend as guests to the football games. “These kids are trying to survive, and we are trying to take that pain away even for just one day and give them hope. We show them a college campus; they get to see a Razorback game for the first time. And we show that they can attend college as well.”
The Burlsworth Foundation distributes almost 30 tickets to the Fayetteville games and 10 tickets to home games for the Colts. The attendees are given replica No. 77 jerseys and glasses like Brandon wore. They are the ones that made people think he was a Drew Carey look-alike.
Marty remembers some of the athletes who have attended the Burls Kids’ camps. He says, “One kid ended up attending Arkansas playing lineman for the Hogs. Another, I remember, [was a cheerleader] for the Razorbacks.” The foundation began its work in 2000, just a year after Brandon’s death.
Another charitable aspect to the Burlsworth Foundation is tied to the University of Arkansas. It’s the Burlsworth Trophy that is awarded to an athlete for his successes and achievements as “the most outstanding” player who began like Brandon did, as a walk-on.
Summing up a person’s life into a 2-hour and 10-minute movie is a daunting task. But it is something the Burlsworths wanted. Marty says, “It helped with the grief actually. We had a choice [after his death] to sink or swim. We knew we had to continue to use his life as a role model. We wanted his life to have an impact.” If website hits and online searches for “Brandon Burlsworth” mean anything, Marty knows he is doing it “the Burls Way.”