The story of Brandon Burlsworth, the unequipped walk-on who wouldn't quit, finally reaches the big screen
Others had pitched Marty and Barbara Burlsworth on a movie. After John Ed Bradley's story appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1999, the calls came. When they buy a person's story, they call it buying that person's "life rights." But Marty, the protective older brother, and Barbara, the grieving mother, wouldn't sell. Brandon Burlsworth's life had meant so much to so many, and these people wanted Marty and Barbara to trust them to tell his story. If they took liberties with the story, so be it.
No deal. Brandon did everything the right way to such an extreme that within the Arkansas football program, fanatical devotion to the correct course of action became known as doing things "the Burls Way." He wouldn't have wanted anyone taking too many liberties.
In 2005, a real estate developer named Brian Reindl approached the Burslworths. He'd never made a movie, but he wanted to make one about Brandon. Reindl was a lifelong Arkansas football fan. He had cheered the offensive guard in the horn-rimmed glasses who had started his career as a walk-on no one thought would ever play and ended it as an All-America. Reindl's heart had sunk when he learned that Brandon, who had been picked in the third round of the 1999 NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts, had died in a car crash while driving from Fayetteville to his tiny hometown of Harrison, Ark., on April 28, 1999.
Reindl didn't have a reel he could show the Burlsworths, but Reindl's wife, Missy, offered what turned out to be the ultimate endorsement. "When he says he's going to do something," Marty Burlsworth remembered Missy saying of her husband, "he does it." That sounded an awful lot like Brandon. "I knew that language real well," Marty said.
On Friday, an 11-year odyssey to bring Brandon Burlsworth's story to the big screen will reach its conclusion when Greater opens in 400 theaters in 20 states. "You will laugh and cry," said Chris Severio, the actor who plays Brandon. Judging by the trailer, you will indeed do both.
I've always found Burlsworth's story to be so inspirational because I've lived part of it, and I understand better than most how extraordinary his football accomplishments were. Burlsworth was two years and nine days older than me. He had been a pretty good high school offensive lineman who was either dumb or crazy enough to walk on at an SEC school as a 17-year-old. So had I. The difference is he became an All-America selection and an NFL draft pick whereas I quickly realized the only way I'd get my name on the cover of Sports Illustrated is if I wrote the story.
Walk-on offensive linemen don't typically last long at that level. They're usually too small, too slow or too weak to compete with the freaks that populate the first-team defensive line. As a 240-pound freshman at Florida, I was all three. This is how I wound up never seeing the field and then leaving the team to write for the student paper, which didn't let players on the teams cover sports.
Burlsworth was too small (260 pounds) when he finished high school. He put on weight before enrolling at Arkansas, but it was a bad 40 or so pounds that he eventually had to melt before rebuilding his body. "They told him you've got to be big to play in the SEC," Marty Burlsworth said. "He got big, all right." Brandon's technique was horrible. He also wasn't strong enough.
Burlsworth overcame all that because he refused to believe anyone who told him he couldn't. He must have woken up so sore some days, but he still went back and outworked everyone. He had to. He was blessed with speed for his size. He ran a 5.0-second 40-yard dash during a visit to Division II Henderson State with all that bad weight on him. This is why Arkansas recruited him to walk on. Five years later, at a slightly-more-sculpted 308 pounds, he outran all his fellow offensive linemen with a 4.88-second 40 at the NFL combine.
But despite his speed, Burlsworth didn't seem coordinated enough to play in the SEC at first. Long after everyone else finished practicing, he would stay and perfect his footwork. By the time he was done at Arkansas, he moved like a sewing machine. He also had two degrees. To go from where Burlsworth started to where he finished required a rare combination of guts, determination and pain tolerance.
That's why I can't wait for others to see his story. That's why Marty Burlsworth and Reindl kept working to get this film to the screen. There was a point six or seven years ago when the project seemed dead. Reindl had spent a huge sum on professional screenwriters, and they had delivered dreck. "It was like they had taken bits and pieces out of several different sports movies over the years, pieced it together and thought that would ride," Marty Burlsworth said. "That was frustrating." So Reindl and director David Hunt wrote the script themselves, consulting with the Burlsworths along the way.
Meanwhile, Marty helped keep his brother's memory alive with the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation. The Burls Kids program brings underprivileged children to Arkansas football games. "It gives them a good day," Marty said, "because a lot of these kids haven't had a good day." The foundation awards the Burlsworth Trophy, which goes annually to the best college football player who began his career as a walk-on. Meanwhile, the foundation teams with Wal-Mart for the Eyes of a Champion program, which provides free vision care and glasses to low-income children.
About those glasses. Brandon Burlsworth could have worn contacts when he played. He could have at least switched to the Eric Dickerson-style Rec Specs. But big brother Marty said Brandon never wanted to switch. He didn't mind looking like Drew Carey when he played. The glasses worked, and he wanted to keep it simple. It was all part of the Burls Way.
Now, thanks to a filmmaker as tenacious as his subject, the nation can learn about Burlsworth, who was described so well by his high school coach in that beautiful story Bradley wrote in 1999. "Brandon Burlsworth probably represents more good things in this world than I thought existed," Tommy Tice told Bradley. "I loved that big rascal, but we all loved him. You know what he leaves behind? I think I have it figured out. Brandon leaves behind a way of doing things that we can all point to and say, 'Once upon a time we actually knew somebody like that.'"