By Mike Vorkunov
Those who knew Brandon Burlsworth can remember the day he died.
It is embedded in their memories with searing detail. Anthony Lucas, his teammate at Arkansas and a suite-mate, was in his dorm room at the school when another teammate knocked on his door. Houston Nutt, the Razorbacks coach, took a phone call and went into a state of shock. Marty Burlsworth, his brother, got a call, too, and was told to go to his mother's house. He didn't need more information; he already sensed what he was about to find out.
On April 28, 1999, Brandon Burlsworth, a star offensive lineman at the University of Arkansas, a third-round pick in the NFL draft and a totem for the unpredictability and joy of college football, died after he was involved in a car crash with two tractor trailers not far from his home.
"Worst day ever," Marty Burlsworth said. "Not only for our family but a lot of people across the state that knew Brandon, that got to know him through his connection at the university."
This is where one story finishes and another begins. Burlsworth's family, led by Marty, started a foundation in his brother's name and an award to honor other walk-ons across the sport. And recently, a movie long in the making, "Greater," was released based on his life. While college football season is underway and all eyes are on the sport's behemoth programs and stars, Burlsworth serves as a reminder that sometimes the best stories are the ones we don't see coming.
In high school, Burlsworth wasn't much of a player. His odds of playing for a Division I school, let alone becoming a three-year starter and an All-American, were low. He was "awful as a 10th-grade football player," according to an Associated Press story that ran the day after his death.
But Burlsworth soon went on a growth spurt and lost weight. He matured as a player. In his senior year at Harrison High School in Arkansas, he started on the offensive and defensive lines. Still, there were no D-I scholarships, though two D-II schools had offered him one, his brother said. So Marty Burlsworth sent out letters to get his brother a look. He reached out to Arkansas' recruiting coordinator through a friend and got Brandon to a game. After that, there was little doubt he wanted to be anything but a Razorback.
Brandon Burlsworth went to Arkansas as a recruited walk-on in 1994. He arrived with few expectations. Lucas, his roommate, thought that he wouldn't have much of a chance to play in college. Burlsworth was also shy and kept to himself, Lucas said, and it took him time to assimilate to the school.
Soon, he also began to impress. After redshirting his first year on campus, Burlsworth received a scholarship and got some playing time as a freshman. Lucas realized Burlsworth had promise when "he started whoopin' everybody in practice," starting in the spring of 1995. By his sophomore year, he was starting.
His work ethic grew legend. "Do it the Burls' way" started to become a team motto, Lucas said.
When Nutt took the job at Arkansas, before Burlsworth's senior year, he quickly realized what he had. After his second team meeting, Burlsworth stayed behind after the rest of the players left and told Nutt not to use the word "rebuild" with them, even though Arkansas was coming off consecutive 4-7 seasons.
Later in the year, one day in the middle of the week before a game against Alabama, around 9:45 p.m., Nutt and his staff were still in the facility preparing for the game that week. Nutt heard turf shoes rapping on the field. Curious, he walked over. It was Burlsworth, working overtime after what he believed was a bad practice that day. Nutt remembers his young player saying, "I want to make sure I'm going to get my guy."
That season, Arkansas improved to 9-3 and played in the Citrus Bowl, and Burlsworth was heralded with postseason honors. The visage of the dominant lineman with the Rivers Cuomo black-rimmed glasses became a noticeable one. He had also turned himself into a significant NFL draft prospect.
On NFL draft day, two television camera crews parked inside the Burlsworth home in Harrison. Marty set up extra phone lines so the family wouldn't miss a call. The Colts came calling with the 63rd overall pick, the second of the third round. Howard Mudd, the team's offensive line coach, had told Marty before the draft he thought Burlsworth was a first-round pick. That confidence showed during his first practice with the team the next week, when he slid into a starting spot.
Burlsworth returned to Arkansas after the camp, staying in Fayetteville, and then intended to go home to Harrison. The Burlsworth family was experiencing a happy time, despite having been through tragedy in the preceding months. Marty and Brandon's father had died several years before, and then Marty's mother-in-law died in a murder-suicide at the hands of her husband, Marty said. And that February, their grandmother passed away, too. At her funeral, Brandon turned somber and hopeful. "All right, that's it," Marty said Brandon told him. "I've had enough funerals."
"We just didn't see another one coming," Marty said.
"I didn't even have to ask the funeral home about caskets anymore. I knew the models. It's terrible. It's sad. I knew everything about it … I had made arrangements for three. Here's the fourth. It was the last thing you could see."
The family grieved, but in June of that year, they began the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation, even if they did little with it at first. They were too hurt, in too much pain, too caught up in trying to get back up again to run it.
But it soon began to grow. Two benefactors reached out about endowing a scholarship in Brandon's name at Arkansas, and the foundation now gives out more than a dozen $5,000 scholarships annually and a $10,000 scholarship to a walk-on football player. The Burlsworth Trophy, honoring a walk-on player each year, started in 2010. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield took it home in 2015.
"He had done too much -- way too much -- just for it to end on that highway," Marty said. "And it's over and nothing comes out of it."
Not too long after his death, Burlsworth's family also started getting calls about a movie about his life as well. The family resisted because it was unsure that Burlsworth's real story would be told. When they did decide to let it happen, it took 11 years for it to get made, Marty said. It took several scripts and screenwriters before they felt it came out right.
The movie hit theaters in late August, and now, once again, Burlsworth has the spotlight. His legend will grow again. And while Marty Burlsworth says the film has a few discrepancies, it captures his brother.
"His legacy is don't be afraid to dream your dreams," Nutt said. "Here's a guy that had a couple of small college offers, and, he said, 'No, I want to go play for the Razorbacks."
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Mike Vorkunov is a freelance writer in the New York City area. He's covered the Mets' run to the World Series, Rutgers' path to the Big Ten and bowling -- once. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Vice Sports and The Star-Ledger. He can be found on Twitter at @Mike_Vorkunov and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org