The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

The SEC Blog: The inspiring story of Burlsworth

39 days ago
Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: SEC Staff

I didn't see it in the theater. Didn't buy it or rent it or watch it on DVD. I'd traveled to Razorback Stadium for decades - long considered it the SEC's most hospitable hostile environment - so I thought I knew the story of Arkansas football legend Brandon Burlsworth. Then I turned on Netflix and watched an honest, humble, earnest movie about the man called "Greater."

Yes, it was.

Greater than my narrow expectation of "Rudy Calls the Hogs." Greater than my previous knowledge of a young man's winding road from small-town walk-on to home-state hero. Greater than my limited understanding of the painful search for meaning every time a life ends so young.

By all accounts, Burlsworth spent his 22 years on this earth showing everyone in his orbit how to do faith, family and football right. Not early or easily when it came to football, but eventually and powerfully. It took some time for his skill to catch up to his will, but along the way, he turned doubters into believers and a walk-on opportunity into a scholarship and All-American honors.

He's been gone to a better place for almost as long. Twenty-one years ago this month, the big book of SEC football added a chapter so powerful that, to this day, it can grow your heart three sizes and then, an instant later, snap it in two.

On April 17, 1999, the Indianapolis Colts selected Burlsworth in the third round of the NFL Draft. Eleven days later he passed on attending a Razorback ring presentation ceremony to drive to his hometown to take his mom to church. On the way there, Burlsworth died an unthinkable death that shook the entire state.

That's an inadequate synopsis of an exemplary life. It demanded an audience larger than you could pack into Razorback Stadium for 60 minutes of weekend celebration in the fall - or into the Harrison High School gym on a spring day of mourning. This life demanded a movie.

Marty Burlsworth knew it even as he struggled to understand the horrific ending. A shepherd during his younger brother's life, he would become a keeper of his legacy as well.

"I was interested," he said of those early calls from Hollywood. "I wanted Brandon's story to be known."

Trouble was, every time he asked "what input would the family have" in how the story was told, he got the same answer: "None."

The movie wouldn't get made until a non-Hollywood type, an Arkansas real estate developer named Brian Reindl, decided this was a story worth telling onscreen with the Burlsworth family's input - and then some.

"He said, 'You'll have veto power,' " Marty Burlsworth remembered.

Reindl made another unique promise that he kept. He told the family, "We don't want to take Brandon's faith out of this movie."

Faith is the river that runs through it all, from Brandon's Christian life to Marty's painful spiritual journey at his death to the care with which those threads are woven together. It would take 11 years - with Reindl financing the independent production himself when other investors dried up - but in 2016, "Greater" hit the theaters.

"It was a struggle similar to Brandon's struggle to play college football," Marty Burlsworth said. "Brian wouldn't let go."

The movie was well-received upon its theatrical release, but thanks to its March debut on streaming giant Netflix, it's finding a new audience at a perfect time. Brandon Burlsworth found certainty in an uncertain world. He found it in routine and repetition, in church and in the trenches, in that place where they call the Hogs and even an Alabama visitor can feel what it means for a young man from Harrison, Ark., to call himself a Razorback.

Sure, there's some creative license in the movie, but the message rings true. Trust. That's what Brandon did.

"People are seeing it for the first time, and that's really cool," Marty said. "We want Brandon's message out there. Selfishly, I don't want Brandon to be forgotten."

Forgotten? His jersey has been retired, his locker encased in glass, his spirit captured in a trophy awarded to the best college football player who started his career as a walk-on. His story has been told in a movie that's not "Rudy."

It's "Greater." That's not a boast. It's a show of faith.