Twenty-One Years Later, Brandon Burlsworth Legacy Endures For Retired Indianapolis Colts Coach
Howard Mudd was planning a mentoring conference call with coaches last week when one texted how he recently saw an actor play the retired Indianapolis Colts offensive line coach in the 2016 movie Greater.
The life story of the late Brandon Burlsworth, made available for streaming on Netflix two weeks ago, chronicles the right guard’s rise from walk-on obscurity to an Arkansas All-American selected by the Colts in the third round of the 1999 NFL draft.
Burlsworth, 22, died 10 days after his selection on April 28, 1999, in a car crash in Arkansas. Although he never played a down in the NFL, he had impressed Mudd enough during mini-camp that the Colts were projecting the newcomer as a starter.
Near the end of Greater (see official trailer here), the actor playing Mudd is shown breaking up a scuffle between the intense Burlsworth and outraged defensive tackle Ellis Johnson. Burlsworth was reminding the veteran Johnson about how he plays to the whistle. The coach intervenes and eventually insists that the “Sir, yes, sir” Burlsworth call him “Howard.” How accurate was the movie’s depiction of Mudd’s affinity for Burlsworth?
Twenty-one years later, Mudd recalls his brief interaction with Burlsworth and how the player’s legacy is still honored to this day.
“It may have understated how I really felt,” said Mudd, 78, who retired as a Colts senior consultant last year and is living in Phoenix.
Each year after the NFL season, the scouting department provided coaches with players to review.
“I always had someone that I would see that I would really like and I would compare everyone else that year to that person,” Mudd said. “This particular year, we were looking for somebody to play guard at our place. One of the first two or three players I looked at, these guys wanted me to look at this Burlsworth guy from Arkansas. I absolutely loved what I saw on video. I liked his intensity. I liked the way his body moved. The scout people said he was kind of an interesting story.
“So I started looking at the guy and, boy oh boy, I fell in love with him. Intensity, you could see it in college film. He did things to the end of the whistle. And he was always working, from the beginning to the end. His body, he had good bend and his size was appropriate. I was like, ‘Holy cow, I really like this guy.’”
As fate would have it, Arkansas coaches later asked to visit the Colts complex to see how NFL coaches did their jobs. Mudd consented with one caveat.
“‘OK, I’ll talk to ya, but in exchange for that, I want you to tell me about this player that you have,’” Mudd said. “So they gave the straight dope from their perspective and said that this guy has an incredible work ethic. And don’t tell him he can’t. Whatever you tell him he can’t, he’s going to strive to do. He was highly regarded by his teammates, all of the markers you look for when looking for something bad, they were all glowing.
“I was really interested in this guy who had these horn-rimmed grasses who looked like (comedian) Drew Carey.”
After reaffirming his value at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine, Burlsworth was chosen two picks into the third round, 63rd overall.
“Typically at that time people didn’t draft guards or centers in the first or second round,” Mudd said. “We jumped all over it. (President) Bill (Polian) really liked him. All of your checkmarks, we were in concert about our opinion of him.”
As Greater portrayed, Mudd did have to break up Burlsworth and Johnson after a play. The “old school” Mudd laughs about how the movie version had the coach telling Johnson to go get some water.
“It probably didn’t come out that way,” the coach said. “There was probably some course language that came out.”
Truth be told, Mudd loved how Burlsworth handled himself.
“He jumped in there and took to the techniques that I like to teach. He was made for it,” he said. “Ellis jumped into his face and I kept thinking to myself, ‘This is exactly what we want.’ We didn’t have soft mini-camps then. We did one-on-one pass rush, and that’s when Brandon jumped out at me.”
The movie shows how Burlsworth was ever devout in his Christian faith and always respectful. Mudd tried to convince his new player that “Sir” wasn’t necessary.
“'My name isn’t sir. My dad named me Howard,'" Mudd told him. "I was messing with him because I wanted him to relax. Pro football, you’re more in the adult world. You’ve got to realize that you’re there. It doesn’t mean you’re not respectful of authority or age, but we’re on a first-name basis.”
Mudd still recalls his final conversation with Burlsworth.
“In the old locker room, they were getting ready to leave and go home,” he said. “I walked up to him and he was like, ‘Hey coach, how are you?’ ‘I’m doing well. Listen, I want to tell you something.’ ‘Sir, yes, sir.’ I was kind of shaking my finger at him. I said, ‘Between now and the time you come back for training camp, I want you to get your mind ready to be a starter,’ I call it running through the goal posts the first day of the season. I’m thinking about what his coaches said, ‘Don’t tell him he can’t.’ And he said, ‘Yes, sir!’
“And the other thing is I want you to learn my first name is Howard.’ ‘Sir, yes, sir!’ That’s the last thing I said to him.”
Mudd will never forget how he got the news on that fateful Wednesday evening in 1999.
“I’m in downtown Indianapolis and the television is on,” he said. “There’s Drew Carey and I wasn’t necessarily a Drew Carey fan, but I hollered at my wife, ‘Shirley, Shirley, Shirley, come here quick! That’s what he looks like, that player I’m telling you about. That’s exactly what he looks like.’ We were amused. I was then excited and still am.
“I don’t know, maybe within an hour after I said that to Shirley, maybe it was only 15 minutes, I get a call from a media person down in Arkansas. He said, ‘Are you aware that Brandon Burlsworth was just killed in an automobile accident?’ ‘Oh my goodness.’ I called the appropriate people, Bill (Polian) and (head coach Jim) Mora.”
Mudd was advised of the circumstances of Burlsworth’s crash.
“He was on his way home from Fayetteville across the state on this road that’s kind of a treacherous road, really curvy and lots of trucks on it,” he said. “He wanted to go to church with his mom rather than go to the Citrus Bowl ring ceremony.”
Mudd was among a Colts contingent to attend Burlsworth’s funeral. He’ll never forget that, either, especially some words from Arkansas coach Houston Nutt.
Nutt shared stories of how hard Burlsworth worked, how the player was often the first person at the facility before coaches would arrive. One time after a Saturday loss, Burlsworth was in there on Sunday working to perfect his techniques.
“He worked hard and was prepared for everything in his life,” Mudd said, paraphrasing Nutt’s eulogy. “Then the next thing, and it still kind of chokes me, (Nutt) said, ‘He was even prepared for this.’
“That stunned me. It was about how he was deeply devout.”
Although it's been out for four years, Greater was recently dubbed the No. 1 sports movie to stream during the coronavirus quarantine.
Mudd has no doubt that Burlsworth would have been a Colts mainstay.
“I remember us thinking we found our right guard,” he said. “And we had another guy who was a free agent who took to the techniques and he could block Ellis, too, and that pissed Ellis off. It was Jeff Saturday.”
Saturday became a six-time Pro Bowl center in his 14-year career was inducted into the Colts Ring of Honor in 2015.
Burlsworth is of course remembered elsewhere, with national annual awards bestowed upon high school players exhibiting character and sportsmanship as well as college’s top walk-on receiving the Burlsworth Trophy. The Brandon Burlsworth Foundation, among other things, provides spectacles to children. His No. 77 became just the second number to be retired at Arkansas and his Razorbacks locker is encased in glass and serves as a reminder to all who follow him of his greatness and the example of what it takes to succeed.
“There was no doubt in my mind he had what we wanted,” Mudd said. “There was no doubt in my mind eventually he was going to be a starter. More than that, I thought he had a mental toughness that he wasn’t going to crap his pants just because he got to run through the goal posts. That’s a big deal, because a lot of young players, I call it ‘getting into the valley of darkness,’ and they eventually come out of it. But Brandon was going to find a way to make it happen.”
All these years later, the old-school, tough-as-nails retired coach fondly recalls the guy with those black, horn-rimmed glasses.
“To get the guy and he is everything that you wanted him to be, it was pretty remarkable,” Mudd said. “There is something tragically wrong about this kind of thing. And yet, not on a spiritual level but on a motivational level, players maybe can be inspired by seeing the movie or hearing the story about how this is what this guy did in his short life.
“I don’t think about what could have been. I think about the tragedy, what didn’t happen. I’ll talk to coaches in mentoring and I’ll say, ‘Let me tell you about a guy.’ Burlsworth will come to my mind. ‘When you see something, embrace it.’”