Harrison, Arkansas, is about as small town as it gets.
There are about 11,000 people in town and one unspoken rule: If it’s Friday night, you’re going to the Harrison High football game. And the only thing bigger than high school football in Harrison — or anywhere else in Arkansas — is Razorback football.
Arkansas doesn’t have a pro football team — I don’t even know if a pro team could survive here. But almost every boy growing up in the state wants to be a Razorback. That’s the dream.
It was my dream, too, and I sure worked hard at it. But I didn’t have that natural talent. Not like my younger brother Brandon. Boy, did he have the size and did he have the skills.
I was 16 years older than Brandon, so I was already out of the house, married and raising my own boys by the time he was of any age. But I’d do anything for that kid. Of course, he was my brother and you do anything for family, but things were a little tougher for him. Our parents divorced when Brandon was just two years old. On top of that, Dad had trouble with drinking and wasn’t really in our lives when Brandon was a little boy. So I did whatever I could to be there for Brandon.
If it meant bringing a basket of baseballs to the park so he could work on his hitting and pitching, I wanted to be there.
If it meant going over to Mom’s house to help him with homework, I wanted to be there.
There’s no explanation for it. He was my brother and I just wanted everything for him. I’d do anything I could for him.
So when Brandon got it in his mind that he was going to be a Razorback, I was all in.
See, Brandon started out a little scrawny. He spent his first season of high school football as a sophomore on the sidelines. I don’t even think he played one game. But that summer Brandon had two things going for him: His work ethic and, luckily, a pretty big growth spurt.
“Dang, Marty, what have you been feedin’ that boy?”
His high school coaches couldn’t believe his size when he came back for his junior season. By that point he was about six-foot-two, over 200 pounds and still growing. And he just dominated on the field — didn’t matter if he was on defense or offense. He played on both sides of the ball and would just blow the field up. He’d be all over the line, right off the snap. Opposing teams made game plans just to handle Brandon. He was that good.
He spent as many days as he could in the weight room getting stronger. And it paid off. By his senior year, Brandon was an all-conference and all-state player and played in the state’s All-Star Game. But as good as he was, Brandon was also a late bloomer — he was only 17 his senior year — and he was still a little undersized for college ball. He wasn’t as tall or as heavy as D-I colleges wanted him to be.
But Arkansas was the dream. And if Brandon was doing whatever he could on the field, then I sure as heck would do whatever I could to help get my brother there.
So I started calling coaches and seeing where he could play. And the first call I made was to the recruiting coordinator at Arkansas. He took my call, but I couldn’t tell just how interested he was.
“Sure, bring him on up for a game,” he said.
So Mom, Brandon and I piled into my minivan and we drove over to Fayetteville. We’d been to a couple of Razorbacks games before, and Brandon had seen the stadium and sat in the stands. But this was on a different level. We watched the game from this conference room at the top of the stadium. It had this outdoor patio that you could stand on and look down on the field. As Brandon and I were standing out there, the offensive linemen came out, running on the field with their helmets on. And boy, was he soaking it in. So was I.
“That looks good, doesn’t it?” I said.
“I like that,” he responded.
At that moment, we both felt so close to his dream coming true — something that wasn’t even a possibility for a boy who had been sitting on the sidelines just two years ago.
But I knew we still needed a scholarship.
I don’t how many times I’d call to check in. Coach, ya need anything? I’d sit every week with the newspaper. I go straight to the sports and see if any scholarships were offered. I kept track of how many might be left for Brandon. O.K., they gave one to that boy, that’s 12 so far. We may still get one.
In the end, Brandon got invited to be a walk-on. It was disappointing, but Brandon wanted to go to Arkansas more than anything and, well, he didn’t want any regrets. And I didn’t want him to always be wondering what could have been. It was the Razorbacks. This was the dream.
A couple of weeks before Brandon left for school, one of the Arkansas coaches called me.
“We want Brandon here, but if he can’t handle it I can see what I can do to get him to a smaller school,” he said. “I want him here, but he’ll know and we’ll know.”
“Coach, don’t worry about it. He won’t be going down.”
“Well, that’s good,” he said, sort of laughing. “I know he’s working hard, but he’ll know and we’ll know.”
“Coach, mark it down. He’s not going down.”
Brandon belonged on that field, and he knew it. He was a Razorback. Some of his teammates have since told me how red his face would be during practice, how hard he went, how he never gave up.
Brandon didn’t dress the first two games of his freshman season, but we found out that he’d be on the field for the third. We were going to Fayetteville for the game and I called him early in the week to tell him where our seats would be.
“So you just walk down this side of the stadium, O.K.? And I’ll get a photo of you in your uniform. It’ll be real cool.”
And then he walked out and there it was: BURLSWORTH.
I was so proud.
After the season, over the holidays, we got a call. The school was going to give Brandon a scholarship.
For the next three years, Brandon started for the Razorbacks. And for the next three years, every Friday at 5:30 p.m., I’d close up the photography studio I owned in Harrison, pick up my mom, and my wife and kids, and drive to Brandon’s football games. Whether it was in Fayetteville, or in Knoxville or Tuscaloosa, we had an unspoken rule: We were going to Brandon’s games. We probably put 30,000 miles on my minivan each season. We drove it to death. I had about 212,000 miles on it by the time I got rid of it.
One weekend when I was driving with Brandon to campus — I think maybe it was his junior year — a thought crossed my mind.
“Man, you might get to play at the next level.”
“Ah, I don’t know, I just gotta focus on this season.”
Brandon was so single-minded, so focused. He didn’t take one summer off the entire time he was at Arkansas. Other boys would go home after school got out in May and stay there until camp started in late July. But Brandon would stay on campus, working — painting the stadium, setting up dorms, things like that — and taking classes. So by his fourth year at Arkansas, he was already finishing his masters degree.
By the time he was a senior, we both knew that if we wanted to keep playing football he was going to have to enter the NFL draft. I tried bringing it up to him again.
“You know, Brandon, you could think about entering the draft. You’ll have all your coursework done and can graduate at the end of the year anyway.”
“Yeah,” he said with a smile. “I’ve kind of been planning it that way.”
And would you believe, all these NFL agents started flying into Harrison wanting to sign Brandon. He asked me to help him, but there’s all this certification that goes into being an agent. I wasn’t sure. But this was my brother. So before he started his senior year, I started working on getting my certification. And that spring, the Burls boys found themselves in Indianapolis at the combine.
As we walked by one of the pro shops, we joked to each other.
“Should we get some Colts gear?”
“Yeah, let’s go buy some Colts stuff.”
When we got back home to Harrison, the day of the draft was just filled with anxiety. We didn’t expect Brandon to go real high, and we had been told that he wouldn’t. Still, with each pick, even in the first round, you get more and more nervous. People were swinging by all day. And I remembered to do what other agents had advised me to do, I kept multiple lines open. I kept gaming out who was left.
“Has he been picked yet?”
Finally, in the third round Brandon answered the phone and gave us the thumbs-up. Then we looked to the TV: Brandon’s picture came up on the screen and they were calling his name from the podium.
And would you believe it, it was the Indianapolis Colts who took him. We suddenly needed that gear, because we would be rooting for the Colts.
The next week, Brandon flew to Indianapolis for minicamp. He called to check in a couple of times. “Now, if you find yourself at that Colts shop,” I told him, “You make sure and get us some gear this time.”
Brandon Burlsworth, NFL player. The struggles that he had gone through to get where he was were over. He could finally reap the rewards of everything he put into the game — all the training, all the schooling, all the dedication, all the hard work. I was high as a kite.
Mom and I picked him up at the airport when he came home. I was just so proud of him. In a few weeks he’d be heading back. And I couldn’t wait to be right there with him. We planned to move out to Indianapolis with him.
But before all that, Brandon made one last trip to Fayetteville to visit with his Razorbacks teammates. He was determined to drive home the same day so he could attend evening church service with the family.
Faith. Family. Football.
That’s the order of things for us.
Every week, Brandon made the drive home. Faith and family — they meant everything to Brandon. And every week he was right on time with his little white Subaru parked in Mom’s driveway. So when he was two hours late that evening, Mom started to get worried.
She called me just before six o’clock, with panic and worry in her voice.
“He should’ve been home by now.”
“I’m sure he just got stuck in traffic, or maybe ran out of gas. He’ll show up and everything will be fine.”
I didn’t mean to dismiss Mom’s concerns, but I just figured there was some sort of reason or explanation. But as it got later in the evening and Mom got more and more worked up, I hopped into my own car to head over and see if we could find out what had happened.
When I turned on to the street behind Mom’s house, I could see her driveway through this little opening between houses. And I could see a little white car parked in her driveway.
I let out a little sigh of relief. Brandon was home.
But as I turned the next corner onto Mom’s street and pulled up to her house, I got a good look at the car.
It wasn’t Brandon’s white Subaru.
It was a police car.
One of my sons, who was in my car with me, started asking what was wrong, what had happened. I opened the door to Mom’s house and she was in a state.
Brandon, the officer told us, had collided head-on with a semi. He died instantly.
If it’s difficult to describe the love for a brother, it’s impossible to explain the loss of a brother.
I wanted everything for Brandon, and within a few moments, it had all been taken away. Less than two weeks before, I had watched as Brandon stood on the front lawn of Mom’s house and gave interviews to local TV crews about getting picked in the NFL draft. Now, I was taking calls from the same stations about Brandon’s death.
We still don’t really know what happened that afternoon. I don’t think anyone was at fault. It was just one of those things — when it’s time, it’s time. And it was Brandon’s time.
To this day, people tell me where they were when they heard the news. It was a terrible day for Harrison, it was a terrible day for the state. We had to have the funeral at the high school gym. There just wasn’t enough space anywhere else. Two buses of Razorbacks players arrived. It seemed as if the whole town was there to support Brandon and who he was and what he meant to everybody.
That’s what it’s all about: What you do while you were here.
And Brandon did a lot in his 22 years.
I can only hope I did as much as I could to help him.
Brandon wanted to do more, though. After the draft, he spoke to me a lot about helping other kids in Harrison. Brandon knew what it was like to be doubted, to be told you weren’t good enough. He said he wanted to hold football camps and bring kids to his NFL games. So a few months after his death, we started the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation, where we do all of that and more.
I think Brandon would be proud of the work we’re doing in his name. He may be gone, but I still want to do whatever I can to keep his dreams going, to keep his legacy going.
There’s never a day where I don’t think about Brandon. Whether I’m driving around town, past the baseball park where we used to play catch, past the Razorbacks signs on front lawns, I feel his presence.
I never used to worry before Brandon died. But now that my own boys are older, if they’re even ten minutes late, I get a little concerned and think that maybe they’re in trouble, maybe something went wrong.
And when it’s Friday night here in Harrison and the whole town is at the football game, I think about Brandon.
And I know…I feel him here with me.
Greater, a film depicting the life and tragic death of Brandon Burlsworth will be released in theaters on August 26th. Locations and showtimes are available on www.greaterthemovie.com.