A Tragic Accident Cut His Life Short, but His Legacy for Aspiring Football Athletes Continues to This Day

In 1994, a shy, flabby teen donning big, thick, black glasses and an unprecedented wholesome disposition walked onto the field of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, and changed the way walk-ons would be viewed forever in America’s all time favorite sport.

“Brandon, I think, was born to inspire in a different way than most,” said Marty Burlsworth about his little brother.

A walk-on is considered a difficult if not impossible way to make it into professional sports because they have to make it onto a college team without a scholarship or being recruited.

Marty played some football himself, but he was nowhere as committed as his kid brother, who he stood by even in the thickest of odds.

The brothers grew up poor in their humble hometown of Harrison, Arkansas—raised by their hard-working, devoutly-religious and perpetually-optimistic mother. Their father lived nearby, but struggled between his love for his sons and the relentless clutch of alcohol addiction.

By the time he reached college age, Brandon had grown to 6’3″, but his playing talents didn’t sprout quite as fast.

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation)

“He just wasn’t a great athlete at the time,” recalled then Harrison High School football coach, Tommy Tice.

Tragically, on April 28, 1999, at the age of 22, Brandon was killed in a head on collision with a semi tractor trailer while on his way home to take his mom to church—like he did every Sunday.

It sounds like an unfortunate final chapter in the life of an ordinary young man, that is, until you hear the rest of the story—a story that not only inspired one of the most unsung and unforgettable modern day movies, but moved his brother, teammates and coaches to turn unspeakable heartache into a heart-warming mission.

Just 11 days before his fatal accident, Brandon was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts and was expected to be a starting offensive lineman in the 1999 season right alongside legendary quarterback Peyton Manning.

With a relentless drive and an inherent love for the game, the mild-mannered, awkward teen turned himself into a formidable football player.

By his senior year in high school, he had Tice taking double takes and making phone calls to colleges. “It seemed like he had been hit by lightning or something,” recalled Tice.

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation)

Brandon wanted to be a Razorback and his mother would see to it that he’d get his foot in the door at the University of Arizona by using her life savings to pay his first year tuition.

Brandon soon became not just an unlikely walk-on for “The Hogs,” but went on to become a team captain and earned scholarships, both on and off the field.

He made Honor Roll every year and was the first football player in UA’s history to earn a Master’s Degree before playing his last game.

He became—as is the title of the movie made about him—greater.

Brandon was on his way home from a workout with the Colts when his underdog glory came to an abrupt end.

“We had a choice of sink or swim,”  recalled Marty who said it seemed almost like fiction that in two weeks time he went from watching his brother go from doing TV interviews on the front lawn to being contacted by the same television networks about Brandon’s death.

With the same interminable brotherly love he embraced when Brandon was alive, Marty refused to let the giant footprints his little brother had left in this world—end there.

And so, he founded the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation, to continue “The Burls Way” as Brandon often said. Its main mission is to provide scholarships to walk-ons for kids like Brandon.

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation)

The all-volunteer nonprofit, which relies solely on donations and fundraisers, also runs football camps for underprivileged children and takes them to football games. In addition, it runs the “Eyes Of A Champion,” a program that provides free eye exams and glasses to kids who are experiencing vision problems, like Brandon had.

Each year it presents the Burlsworth Character Award to a high school senior who has exhibited the same kind of sportsmanship and character that Brandon did. And then there is its equally coveted Burlsworth Foundation Trophy—awarded to NFLers who started their career as walk-ons after Brandon’s death.

Recipients have included Seattle Seahawks, Austin Davis, Hunter Renfrow of the Raiders, Justin Hardy of the Atlantic Falcon, and Quarterback, Mayfield Brown, formerly of the Cleveland Browns and now of the Carolina Panthers.

Of those who help coach the camps is Brandon’s best friend and former Razorbacks teammate Chad Abernathy who can still remember watching his buddy transform himself from “a piece of chewed bubble gum” to someone not to be reckoned with on the field.

“Brandon made good choices,” said Chad recalling the time that Brandon, who was deeply moral and religious, was so upset when some friends snuck alcohol into a fruit drink he was having, that he ran tackles for hours late at night in the rain.

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation)

His influences can also be seen in the commitment his friends have made to the foundation in his name. Marty points out that Chad only missed one camp in the 21 years since the Foundation started and that was when he was playing for the Minnesota Vikings.

Tice, who recalled Brandon as a Teddy Bear off the field, but someone you shouldn’t get in the way of on the field—serves as Vice President and says to this day, Brandon keeps him on his toes with his “Burl’s Way” and that includes what he affectionately calls “nagging things” like staying on walkways even though walking across the grass would be quicker or picking up litter.

“I think about him when I walk through a park or down the street and I see a Coke can laying in there, and I think I could just walk on by. But then I go, no, that’s another one of his Burl’s ways and I go pick it up and throw it in the trash can.”

Alice Giordano


Alice Giordano is a former news correspondent for The Boston Globe, Associated Press, and New England bureau of The New York Times.

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