Brandon Burlsworth – Coachable
“Yes sir. I’ll do whatever you say coach. You tell me to do it and I’ll do it.”
If you are a college football fan, you have definitely heard about the Heisman Trophy, which is presented to the most outstanding player in a particular year. You’ve probably also heard of the Doak Walker Award for the best running back, and the Davey O’Brien Award for the best quarterback. Each of these awards were named after a particular athlete who truly exemplified the virtues of that award. But have you heard of the Burlsworth Trophy? It is presented annually to College football’s most outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on. The namesake for that award is Brandon Burlsworth. Here’s why.
Brandon was born in the small town of Harrison, Arkansas. He was a hefty baby — a 10-pounder at birth — and, in some ways he was an “only child.” He had two brothers who were 16 and 13 years older. Moreover, his father struggled with alcoholism and was kicked out of the house when Brandon was two. From that point on, Brandon was raised by his mother and the church, and he was instilled with good southern manners.
It’s fair to say that Brandon was reclusive and a little bit awkward. As a youngster, he spent a lot more time by himself than he did with other kids his age. Instead he watched a lot of TV and ate too much junk food. Over the years, Brandon gained weight and became the uncoordinated chubby kid. His older brother Marty understood the difficulties of growing up without an involved father and filled in the best he could as a positive male role model. This set the foundation for a close brotherly relationship.
Marty encouraged Brandon to play T-ball as a kid and then middle school football. But Brandon was nothing special. Marty later commented, “There wasn’t a whole lot of athletic ability. Not a great athlete.” However, one year Brandon and his mother traveled to the University of Arkansas to watch their high school team play for the state championship. Mesmerized by the stadium and the competition, he turned toward his mother and declared, “I’ll be here one day, Mom.” It seemed like one of those things that young kids just say but, according to Brandon, he decided his destiny right then and there in that stadium. His course was set.
However, as a high school freshman, this future was difficult to see. “He was slow. He was soft,” said Coach Tommy Tice, head football coach at Harrison High School. “We didn’t think he’d ever play.” Truth is, he didn’t play very much at all. However, Brandon’s success story starts here: What he lacked in coordination and athletic ability, he made up for in work ethic and discipline. For example, later that year Brandon asked Coach Tice if he could get into the weight room before school each day. The coach agreed, and every morning at 6:15 am, Coach Tice pulled up to the school to find Brandon sitting by the weight room entrance.
Coach Tice discovered that Brandon listened intently to the coach’s instructions, which led to huge improvements. By the time Brandon was a junior, he had earned a starting role. Then, during his senior year, Brandon played both offensive and defensive line and special teams and he barely came off the field. Consequently, at the end of his senior year, Brandon was named the most outstanding player on the team, all-conference, and all-state.
Despite Brandon’s progression as a high school athlete, he was not considered big enough to play Division I football. Nevertheless, Brandon received a Division II offer from Arkansas Tech University and Coach Tice encouraged him to sign the full scholarship: “This is really great. You’re going to get your education paid for. It’s really gonna help your mama.” But Brandon wouldn’t consider it. “I wanna be a Razorback and I’m gonna be a Razorback. If I have to walk on, that’s what I want to do.”
So, walk on, is what he did. The Razorback coaches previously told Brandon that he needed to get bigger, but they failed to specify their instructions. So, Brandon added 60 pounds — of pure fat. Brandon arrived on campus as an out-of-shape, 311-pound freshman. He was immediately redshirted and was put on a strict diet. The coaches told him that if he ever wanted to make the team, he would have to completely transform his body. “Yes sir,” was Brandon’s typical response. “I’ll do whatever you say coach. You tell me to do it and I’ll do it.”
Brandon developed a single-minded focus to football. While other players were slacking off or partying, Brandon had a disciplined routine for his schooling and football: Wake up at 5:15 AM, read the bible, work out, go to class, lift weights, weigh in, run, practice agility skills, study, recopy notes from class, and go to bed. Repeat. Five days a week. Brandon never deviated. He allowed no distractions, ate only what he was told to eat, never drank alcohol, did not swear, and did not go to parties. Brandon lived in the same dorm room for four years and walked the same path to class, refusing to take shortcuts through the grass. Almost every weekend, he drove back home to Harrison and took his mom to church on Sunday.
Brandon’s hard work began to pay off. By the spring, he had dropped his weight to 256 pounds. At that point, the coaches began to alter their instructions to add muscle. They wanted Brandon to transform his body the right way this time. “Yes sir, all the way,” was Brandon’s response. He became a coach’s dream. If they wanted Brandon to do it, he did it and more. Consequently, before his freshman year was over, the coaching staff awarded Brandon with a full athletic scholarship. Head coach Danny Ford later admitted his mistake of not recruiting Brandon: “Well, we (almost) missed that one.”
As a red-shirt freshman, Brandon played in every game as a backup. As a sophomore, he earned the starting role at right guard and never relinquished that spot for the next 33 games. During his junior year, he was named all-SEC. At the same time, Brandon’s discipline in the classroom was just as impressive — making the all-SEC Academic Honor Roll all four years.
When Brandon intitially arrived at the University of Arkansas, his teammates teased him for his idiosyncrasies. But, as time progressed, they grew to respect him for his dedication. Razorback teammate Grant Garrett commented, “He inspired everyone around him, not by hooping and hollering, but by showing up every day, being consistent and working hard.”
On the field, Brandon had only one flaw — his eyes. He had trouble seeing what he was hitting. Subsequently, he was fitted with a prescription and the head trainer handed Brandon a catalog of glasses. After several minutes, Brandon pointed at a picture and said, “I want these.” “These” were Clark-Kent-looking, big-rimmed glasses. His teammates teased him mercilessly. “Naturally, he picked out the cheapest and ugliest frames,” said fellow linemen Russ Brown. “That’s Brandon.” But these utilitarian glasses became his trademark look.
Before Brandon’s senior year, a new coaching staff was brought in to turn the team around. Once again, Brandon had to learn a new system and, once again, he applied himself. Only now, as a captain, he encouraged his teammates to work harder too. The result was a 9-3 season. Brandon also became a first-team all-American, which meant that he was the best guard in college football. It didn’t stop there. Brandon also earned his master’s degree in business administration, becoming the first Arkansas player to earn a graduate degree before the end of his football career. Not bad for a former walk on.
During the 1999 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts selected Brandon with the 63rd pick. His dreams were coming true. He reported to mini-camp in April and the Colts were so impressed with Brandon that he was penciled in as a starter. “The reason you scout is to get a guy just like this,” reflected offensive line coach Howard Mudd. “You maybe come across someone like Brandon every four or five years. We knew we were getting the kind of player and person we wanted on this football team. We felt he was perfect.” Brandon was expected to be the complete package on and off the field. He would soon be protecting the young Peyton Manning through the upcoming glory years in Indianapolis. Friends kept talking about the upcoming multi-million dollar contracts, but Brandon was more interested in proving himself and doing the right things. “I’m looking forward to being a role model for kids.”
However, all of those plans changed in the blink of an eye. A mere 11 days after being drafted, Brandon was killed in a car accident on his way home to take his mother to church. Driving the same Subaru down the same Highway 412 that he had driven hundreds of times before, Brandon collided directly into an 18-wheeler. He was killed instantly. Brandon was 22 years of age.
Instead of Brandon pulling into the family driveway that night, a police car arrived to deliver the heartbreaking news. Instinctively, his mom came running out of the house screaming, “Brandon, Brandon.” The officers just shook their heads. Brandon’s brother Marty was one of the first to arrive at the house. “It’s bad… bad. Worst day ever… ever,” Marty reflected. “It seemed…unfair. For a guy to do everything he had done, the hard way, and made it to the highest level, and he don’t get to play.” A chain reaction of raw emotions followed as the news was delivered to family members, friends, fans, teammates, and coaches. Four days later, 2,000 people attended Brandon’s funeral to say goodbye to this good and decent human being.
Before he was even buried, the University of Arkansas decided to retire Brandon’s number 77. It was only the second jersey to be retired at the university. The coaches also permanently enclosed his former locker in glass. Today if you go to an Arkansas home game, you can see his uniform, helmet, pads, shoes, and of course, his trademark glasses in that locker. The Colts honored Brandon by placing the initials BB on their helmets for the 1999 season. Some 10 years later, the Bleacher Report named Brandon as the greatest walk-on player ever to play college football. Later, Hollywood would commemorate his story in a movie entitled Greater.
In 2010, the inaugural Burlsworth Trophy was awarded to the best player who started his career as a walk-on. Marty, as the executive director of the Burlsworth Foundation, presents the annual award. Every year at the ceremony, he reminisces about his beloved brother. “It’s just cool because I get to hear Brandon’s story, over and over again… That same determination, that same work ethic, and he won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. That’s the Burl’s Way.”
To further honor Brandon’s legacy, the Burlsworth foundation has provided free eye exams and glasses to low-income kids in Arkansas. Through the “Burls Kids” program, each week of the season, they reserve 30 tickets for disadvantaged youngsters who had never attended a game before. It’s easy to spot these kids because they are wearing a #77 Razorback jersey and a pair of Brandon’s signature glasses. The foundation has also provided the Burlsworth Character Awards to high school seniors nationwide who best exemplify the ideals of Brandon.
This is an incredibly sad story. Brandon, a good Christian who did everything the right way, died at the young age of 22. There is no sugar-coating how devastating this loss was to the people who knew him. And yet, his life is an example for all of us. Bill Polian, the Colts President, put things into perspective when he said, “You read that there are no heroes anymore, but guys like Brandon renew our faith in the belief that the heroes are still out there.” Brandon’s legacy reminds us that if you keep working on yourself and your goals, your dreams can come true. Brandon represents all the underdogs out there fighting for a chance.
Check out the Student Athlete Program
Brandon Burlsworth is one of the 144 “Wednesday Role Models” featured in the Student Athlete Program. This program is designed to improve the character, leadership and sportsmanship of high school athletes. To learn more about this program and how you can implement it in your school: