He never loafed. He never cursed. He never complained.
Everything was "Yes sir" and "No sir." He was a man of routine
who resisted change as if it were an affliction without a cure,
who believed you stuck with what got you there. "How bad do you
want it?" Brandon Burlsworth asked his Arkansas teammates every
time the offense came within 20 yards of the end zone. "O.K.,
guys," and now his voice got as loud as he ever let it, "how bad
do you want it?"
He knew, as they say, only one speed. If at practice a coach
made the mistake of lining up against Burlsworth to demonstrate
something, the coach got punished. "First you felt his forearm,
then the back of your head hitting the ground," says Tommy Tice,
his coach at Harrison (Ark.) High.
Four years after he walked on at Arkansas in the fall of 1994,
Burlsworth was one of the most dominant interior linemen in the
country, a Football News All-America at guard, "the best to play
the offensive line in Arkansas history," says Mike Bender, a
former lineman who played on the Razorbacks' 1964 national
championship team and, as an assistant in Fayetteville, coached
Burlsworth from '95 to '97. "There has never been one like
Brandon Burlsworth, and there never will be again."
"If God ever made the perfect person, it was that guy," says
Razorbacks defensive lineman Sacha Lancaster. Which is why
Burlsworth's death on April 28, only 11 days after the
Indianapolis Colts took him in the third round of the NFL draft,
left people in Arkansas in shock and asking questions that will
remain unanswered. Burlsworth allowed so little room for error
that the car crash that claimed his life seems inconceivable. He
was driving east from Fayetteville to Harrison when he drifted
over the center line, clipped the fender of an oncoming
semitruck and then swerved into the path of another
tractor-trailer rig, which hit his car head-on and threw it back
168 feet. Burlsworth, 22, died on a piece of road he'd traveled
a thousand times. He was 15 miles from home, where he had
planned to go to church and have a quiet dinner with his mother.
June 27, 1999
"Brandon just didn't make mistakes," says Don Decker, the
Arkansas strength and conditioning coach, "and this is why the
accident is so hard to accept. When I heard the news, I thought,
Well, it had to be someone else's fault, because Brandon was
definitely driving 55, and he had his seat belt on."
Burlsworth seemed destined for big things in the NFL. The Colts
wanted him to start immediately. Team president Bill Polian
says, "Brandon promised to be one of those players we point to
and say, 'This is how it's done.'" At the NFL scouting combine
in February he ran 40 yards in 4.88 seconds, best among
offensive linemen, and bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times. He
weighed in at 308 pounds and measured just shy of 6'4", yet he
could stuff a basketball with two hands from a standing start.
As awesome as he was physically, however, it was in private
interviews that NFL scouts and coaches really fell for him.
Polite almost to a fault, Burlsworth seemed too good to be true.
Some called him a throwback, but he was better than that. He was
"He always did everything exactly right," says Arkansas coach
Houston Nutt, "and I've never known anyone to work as hard. At
the end of last season he said, 'Coach, I want to thank you for
the best year of my life in football.' I said, 'Brandon, you
made it happen.' He said, 'No, it was my teammates and coaches.
Y'all made it.'"
When Burlsworth began his senior year at Harrison High, in 1993,
he stood only six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. A couple of
small colleges showed interest in him, but he was one of those
homegrown kids whose loyalty to the university in Fayetteville
forbade him to pursue any fate but one in Razorback red.
Louis Campbell, then an assistant at Arkansas, made the
hour-and-a-half drive to Harrison only because Tice kept
hounding the Razorbacks coaches about his "big rascal," as Tice
liked to call Burlsworth. Campbell met the player in Tice's
office, and Burlsworth, as was his way, had little to say beyond
the usual courtesies. "We sat there for about 30 minutes looking
at each other and not saying a whole lot," says Campbell, now
Arkansas's director of football operations. "I was thinking, 'If
you want to come, come. But there ain't no way you're ever going
to play.' What I couldn't see was what was brewing inside of
Brandon. A lot of kids, about 35 a year, walk on here, but most
quit in the first year. Some make it to the second. How many
stay four years and start? I can think of only two or three in
the last 10 years."
By the spring of '94 Burlsworth had put on 30 pounds and grown
nearly three inches. He made a return visit to Fayetteville, and
coaches were impressed by his growth but told him he needed to
gain still more weight if he expected to play major college
football. By summer's end he weighed 311 pounds. "You had to be
careful what you told Brandon," says Tice. "You'd better be real
specific and tell him just how much you wanted him to gain.
Brandon believed that whatever his coach told him was right,
whatever his mother told him was right and whatever his preacher
told him was right. At Arkansas the coaches told him one day
that his legs could be stronger: 'Brandon, you could work on
that a little.' Well, he ends up squatting 700 pounds."
Burlsworth was so focused on becoming a better player that he
seemed willing to make any sacrifice, and his behavior bordered
on the obsessive-compulsive. Until late in his senior year at
Arkansas he didn't date, fearing that a romantic relationship
would interfere with football. He refused to move into an
off-campus apartment because he liked his dorm's proximity to
the stadium and to his classes. Besides, he figured, the dorm
had been fine for him when he was an unknown, so why should that
change now that he was the most recognized athlete on campus?
During his five years in Fayetteville, Burlsworth always parked
his car, a '93 Subaru, in the same spot in a parking lot by the
stadium. In his room his bed was always made except for when he
slept in it. He so liked things in their place that friends say
you could drive him half crazy by moving a pencil an inch on his
desk. Every night he copied his notes from the day's classes,
practicing perfect penmanship, whiting out mistakes and writing
over them. He maintained a 3.4 grade point average and earned a
bachelor's degree in marketing management and a master's in
business administration in his years at Arkansas.
His haircut was never any length but short. Unlike others of his
generation, he didn't abide tattoos, body piercing or facial
hair. His clothes were always clean and neatly pressed. A style
of glasses last popular in 1958 suited him best; people said
they made him look like Drew Carey. Walking to class or the
cafeteria, he never strayed from the sidewalk, never cut across
the grass even when he was running late. "If you told the team
to keep things neat around the locker room," says Nutt, "you'd
catch Brandon picking up gum wrappers and Coke cans all over the
Burlsworth carried his single-mindedness even further. Once he
stepped on the practice field, he refused to remove his helmet,
even during breaks. He kept his chin strap buttoned, too, and
when his comrades on the offensive line, goofing on him, reached
over and unsnapped it, he immediately resnapped it. For five
years he sat in the same chair during team meetings. Once, when
Burlsworth was a junior, an underclassman sat in his chair.
Burlsworth quietly stood behind him, saying nothing. "That one
belongs to Burls," teammates told the player. The boy grew so
uncomfortable that he hopped to his feet and found someplace
else to sit.
"When the coaches reported to work at six in the morning,
Brandon would already be there," says Nutt. "One night during
Alabama week we're leaving a meeting at 10:30, 11 o'clock, and
you can hear shuffling, feet against the turf. We go down to the
indoor practice field, and it's Brandon. 'Brandon, what are you
doing, son?' 'Coach, we didn't have too good a practice today. I
just wanted to make sure I had my steps right.' This wasn't
Eddie Haskell, either. He was almost embarrassed. He didn't want
us to know he was down there."
It was a rare day that Burlsworth didn't lead his group in
conditioning drills at the end of practice. If the team was
running wind sprints, he routinely finished first, even when he
wasn't feeling well. One afternoon Burlsworth, suffering from
diarrhea and dehydration, refused to sit out a mandatory
440-yard run. "The strength coach said to me, 'I don't think
Brandon can do it,'" recalls Bender, the former line coach.
"Well, tell Burls that. He got sick on the run and messed all
over himself, but he still beat everybody by 20 or 30 yards. He
wouldn't quit for anything."
Every chance he got, Burlsworth went home to Harrison, a town of
about 10,000 in the Ozarks, near the Missouri state line. He
slept either in his little room at his mother's house or at his
brother Marty's, to be close to his three nephews. Even after
away games, when the Razorbacks returned to Fayetteville late at
night, Burlsworth packed a bag and drove home. "He wanted to be
with Mama and go to church in the morning," says Marty, who owns
a photography business and was 16 years older than Brandon.
"He'd play a game on Saturday in South Carolina, say, then on
Sunday he's at my son's flag football game. Half the time there
were so many fans around him that he couldn't watch the game."
Brandon and Marty's parents divorced when Brandon was two years
old, in large part because Leo Burlsworth, a musician who
traveled a lot with a country band, had a serious drinking
problem. When Brandon was 10, his father, having undergone
successful rehab, came back into his life. Abandoning his music
career, Leo found work at a die-cast plant in Green Forest, 20
miles away, and he got together with his three children--Marty,
Brandon and middle son Grady--for holidays and special
occasions. Years later he made trips to Fayetteville to attend
some of Brandon's games, but he seemed embarrassed to let people
know that he was the father of a star player. "Dad had a button
that said MY SON IS NUMBER 77, and he had a shirt we gave him
one Father's Day that said BURLSWORTH 77 ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS,"
says Marty, "but most of the time he wouldn't wear either of
them. He'd say he wanted to hear what the people around him were
After Leo was out of the picture, Barbara made ends meet by
running a day-care center. (She now sells real estate.) She and
Leo bought Brandon his Subaru when he went off to Fayetteville,
and Barbara and Brandon developed a routine every time he headed
back to school. She would walk out on the porch and watch him as
he backed into the street. "Watch for old big trucks and pray,"
she'd say. (When Brandon was a little boy, "old big trucks" were
what he called 18-wheelers.)
"Mom, I love you," he always said quietly, then drove away.
"He was the biggest family guy I've ever met," says Razorbacks
fullback Nathan Norman, Burlsworth's former suitemate in Bud
Walton Hall. "Most guys go a long time without talking to their
families, but Brandon would call every day, sometimes several
times a day, just to check in."
During spring practice two years ago, Burlsworth appeared in the
doorway of Bender's office. "Coach, my dad's real sick,"
Burlsworth said. "It looks like he's going to die before spring
training's over. What should I do, Coach?"
"You need to go home, son," Bender answered. "You need to spend
as much time with your daddy as you possibly can."
"But Coach," Burlsworth said, "he wouldn't want me to miss any
"Brandon, that's just something you're going to have to do."
A couple of weeks later Burlsworth reappeared in Bender's
office. "Coach, my father died today, but if it's all right with
you, I want to go ahead and practice."
"Brandon, you need to go home."
"Coach, my dad would want me to practice today. And it would
help me get my mind off things a little."
Bender wasn't sure what to tell him. Many kids look for any
excuse to skip practice. "O.K., Brandon," he said at last. "If
you want to practice, then you go ahead. But as soon as it's
over, I'm going to walk you out to your car, and you're going
home to be with your mama."
After practice the team huddled around Burlsworth and offered up
a prayer for Leo. "It wasn't that Brandon wasn't caring," says
Marty. "He was just doing what Dad wanted him to do. In the
months before, just to get us off the subject of his dying, Dad
would say, 'O.K., let's take care of football now.' He knew he
wouldn't see the next season, and I think he felt he was letting
Although Brandon loved his father, he rarely talked about Leo to
his coaches or teammates. Perhaps out of respect for Barbara, he
didn't write Leo's name in the questionnaire the sports
information department gave him to fill out each year. He left
the space beside "Father" blank. After the question, "Where you
would most like to spend a day?" Burlsworth once wrote,
"Harrison, because it's a nice town."
"You fixin' to take care of your mama?" Mike Markuson, the
Razorbacks offensive line coach, asked Burlsworth shortly after
the NFL draft.
"Yes sir," Burlsworth answered.
His plan was to lease a town house in Indianapolis large enough
to accommodate Barbara, Marty and Marty's family during the
season. Once that was taken care of, Brandon wanted to buy a
house for Barbara and later perhaps one for himself, both in
Harrison. He didn't need a fancy neighborhood or a mansion, he
told Marty, because no place was better than where he came from.
Though courted by any number of agents, Brandon chose Marty to
represent him. At the time of the accident, Marty and the Colts
were a week from beginning contract negotiations. Marty says
Brandon most likely would have received a three-year deal worth
about $1.2 million, including a $450,000 signing bonus. The
NFL's collective bargaining agreement provides $100,000 in life
insurance to each signed rookie, but Brandon had yet to reach an
agreement with Indianapolis. Polian, the Colts' president, says
that the team nonetheless intends to help Burlsworth's family.
While many rookies flush with NFL money run out and buy
expensive sports cars, Burlsworth hoped to cut an endorsement
deal that would put him in a sport utility vehicle. "Brandon
wasn't going to waste anything," says Decker, the Arkansas
strength coach. "We used to go to a movie every Friday night
when we played on the road, and everybody but Brandon would be
blowing his per diem check on Cokes and popcorn and everything
else. We'd be like, 'Brandon, aren't you going to get
something?' The guys would tease him about it, and he'd just
shake his head. Later, at the Citrus Bowl, I asked him why he
didn't spend the per diem money, and he said he was using it to
buy Wal-Mart stock."
At Burlsworth's first minicamp after the draft, Howard Mudd, the
Colts offensive line coach, was so impressed with his new guard
that he penciled him in as a starter. The camp lasted four days,
and after the last practice Mudd approached Burlsworth in the
locker room. "Brandon," he said, "are you prepared to run
through the goalposts at the first game of the year when they
introduce the starting lineup?"
"Yes sir," Burlsworth answered.
"Brandon, you've been outstanding," Mudd continued.
"Now, Brandon, I've got to tell you something. This is the NFL.
We're in an adult world here. I want you to understand that I'm
very comfortable when players call me by my first name. My dad
named me Howard, and you can call me that."
Burlsworth thought about it for a moment. "Yes sir," he said.
His last day was a beautiful day in Fayetteville. The sky was
big and clear, and a spring breeze blew. Burlsworth joined Mike
Bender's son Brent for lunch at Ryan's steak house. Brent said,
"Burls, guess what? You're famous."
"No," Burlsworth replied softly, "I'm just me."
Bender's face lit up with a smile. "Brandon, you're going to be
very, very rich. Think of that."
Burlsworth shrugged his big shoulders and lowered his head, as
if it were of no great importance.
When they got up to leave, Burlsworth offered to pay, but Bender
had a firm grasp on the check. "When I go up to see you play in
Indianapolis, I'm going to make you take me to a place better
than Ryan's," Bender told him.
"Brandon was happier that day than I'd ever seen him," Bender
says, "and it made me feel good. He told me he couldn't believe
how everything in his life had come together."
Burlsworth said goodbye to Bender at 1:30 p.m. That afternoon
the Razorbacks football team was receiving SEC Western Division
title rings in a private ceremony at the stadium, but
Burlsworth, determined to have dinner with his mother and attend
the Wednesday-night service at the Faith Assembly of God church
in Harrison, decided to forgo the event. He piled into his
little Subaru and started for home.
"The last thing Brandon said to me was, 'Mom, I love you,'" says
Barbara. "The last thing I told him was, 'Sweetie, watch for old
big trucks and pray.' It was always easy being Brandon's mother.
He made it easy."
"I keep remembering something," says Mike Bender, his coach for
three years. "I told him once, 'Burls, promise me you'll never
change.' He looked at me for a long time and said, 'I won't,
Coach.' 'Never change,' I said again. 'Coach,' he said, 'I
They buried him in a small cemetery just outside Harrison, in a
place called Gass that you drive right by unless you're looking
for it. One day Tice went out to visit but didn't stay long. The
coach, his heart heavy in his chest, stepped out of his car and
looked around. The little yard, overlooking a hilly ridge,
couldn't have been more peaceful. But Tice understood that
Burlsworth wasn't there after all. After a minute he got back in
his car and left.
"Brandon Burlsworth probably represents more good things in this
world than I thought existed," says Tice. "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.'"
He was one of those homegrown kids whose loyalty forbade him to
pursue any fate but one in Razorback red.
Every time Brandon headed back to school, Barbara had a routine:
"Watch for old big trucks and pray," she'd say.
"He always did everything exactly right," says Nutt, "and I've
never known anyone to work as hard as Brandon."
"Brandon was happier than I'd ever seen him," Bender says of
that last day. "Everything in his life had come together."