FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (Christian Examiner) – Some call him the greatest walk-on in the history of college football, and if he had lived past the age of 22, he also may have been known as one of Peyton Manning's most valuable teammates.
His name was Brandon Burlsworth, and a new movie in theaters this weekend – Greater (PG) – tells the incredible story of the chubby kid who wasn't recruited by any big-name colleges out of high school but proceeded to walk on with the home-state Arkansas Razorbacks, earn a scholarship, and become an All-American offensive lineman.
Less than two weeks after he was drafted in the third round by the Manning-led Indianapolis Colts in April 1999, he was killed in a car wreck, leaving his family and friends stunned and asking a simple question: Why?
The movie tackles that question but also spotlights the strong Christian faith of Burlsworth and his family – showing him praying and reading his Bible, carrying a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress, and refusing to go along with his partying friends.
His brother, Marty, was 16 years older than him and served as somewhat of a father figure.
"I know this is the brother talking, but he would have been all-pro almost every year in the NFL," Marty Burlsworth told the Christian Examiner. "He would have been in Canton [in the Pro Football Hall of Fame] one day."
Burlsworth still remembers his conversation with his brother a few days after he was drafted.
"He said Peyton asked him in camp, 'Are you married?' And he said, 'No.' And Peyton said, 'Good, finally someone who is not married so that I can hang out with.'"
Brandon Burlsworth has not been forgotten. A nonprofit, the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation, was founded to help underprivileged children around Arkansas. And each year, the Burlsworth Trophy is presented, on ESPN, to the most outstanding college football player who began his career as a walk-on.
But Marty Burlsworth – played by Neal McDonough in the movie – wants people to remember his brother for more than his football skills
"He always kept God first, and that never went away," Burlsworth said.
Greater differs from some films with strong faith content in that it does have a few coarse words (details below), although they serve to highlight the straight-and-narrow ways of Brandon Burlsworth when compared to those around him.
The Christian Examiner spoke with Marty Burlsworth about the movie and his brother. Following is a transcript, edited for clarity:
Christian Examiner: What made your brother a great football player? From watching the movie, it seemed he had an incredible desire and willpower.
Marty Burlsworth: When he was growing up and when he was younger, he was like anybody else. He didn't seem like a great player. But as he got older, and I coached him in baseball, he started really developing a good work ethic. And when he hit high school, he took a good growth spurt between his sophomore and junior year, and it seemed everything clicked at once. He was developing that work ethic, desire and focus. Brandon liked to keep everything simple. He was like my dad — my dad wouldn't have a lot of interests, because that would keep him from focusing on what was important. And that's kind of how Brandon was. He was in school, and he was on the football field, and he was in the weight room. He just had a desire to succeed.
CE: What do you want people to remember your brother for?
Burlsworth: No. 1, his faith – absolutely. He always kept God first, and that never went away. That didn't take a back seat to anything. He had his priorities well set: faith, family and football, and he kept them in order. I don't think if he didn't have the strong faith that he could have gone through the struggles and the trials that he went through at Arkansas. There were coaching changes while he was there, and he had to prove himself again and again.
CE: Could you share with us a story about how he put God first – one that lingers in your mind?
Burlsworth: There were times after games that he would be invited, or our family would be invited, to go to some event, and I would say, "Well, are we going?" And he would say, "I probably don't want to." I didn't know what it was, but he would say, "There's probably going to be some things that we don't want to be around." He never did get into the college scene. One thing, he didn't think it was right and nothing good could come of it, and secondly, it would distract from what his goal was – which was to keep getting better. When kids wanted autographs in church, he didn't think that was respectful. He would say, "Let's go to the back of the building and do this." He didn't want it to appear, in any way, that his faith wasn't first and foremost.
CE: The final scenes of the movie really show you struggling with the fact that your brother died. Was that true — did you have a point where you were struggling to find God's place in that tragedy?
Burlsworth: In movies, time is condensed. That's how movies are made, or they'd be 10 hours long. But that first year after he died, it was tough. I took it really hard. The director, who had a big part in the scriptwriting, has said that my character is based off basically my first year after Brandon's accident – trying to search for answers as to, "Why?" You're numb. You're basically a zombie. He basically had the world at his feet and had worked so hard ... that was really what hurt so much. It was just over. He never got a chance to keep playing. I was already fitting him for a gold jacket in Canton [at the Pro Football Hall of Fame], because that is where he was heading.
CE: Did you come to a conclusion? Did you decide it was just one of those mysteries that you'll find out someday?
Burlsworth: That's kind of the way I am. We just have to trust and know that one day it will be all be clear. We're not supposed to know everything. We're not in control. God knows better than we do.
Greater is rated PG for thematic elements, some language and smoking. Language includes about three words: sh--, a--, da--. It contains no sexuality.