On a lonely stretch of highway U.S. 412E, a white 1993 Subaru was making the all too familiar trip from Fayetteville eastward to the small town of Harrison. The winding road had been one that both the Subaru and its driver knew by heart from having made it hundreds of times during the previous five years. All of a sudden as dusk was approaching, the silence of the farms was shattered by the sound of squealing rubber and crashing metal echoing across the countryside and mountains. The Subaru had collided head-on with an 18-wheeler and was now being hurled back 168 feet before finally coming to its rest. There was no hope for the driver of the small car as he was killed instantly while making the journey home on Wednesday, April 28, 1999, to have supper and go to church with his mother. Being only fifteen miles from his destination, he had nearly made it. But in that instant, he had finally reached his Home. He was only 22 and his name was Brandon Burlsworth 6'4", 308 lbs., All-American Razorback offensive right guard #77.
In that same moment, the boy who had been a walk-on for Danny Ford, then a Razorback starting offensive lineman, had gone on to be an All-American under Houston Nutt, and finally a NFL Indianapolis Colts football rookie, now became a true Razorback football legend for Hog fans everywhere.
There have only been two numbers retired for Razorback football. The first was the #12 for Clyde "Smackover" Scott. It was then reactivated for Steve Little and finally permanently retired after Little's graduation. However, in a ceremony held in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium on November 20, 1999, Brandon's #77 was officially retired as only the second number to be bestowed with this honor.
Described by defensive lineman Sacha Lancaster as "If God ever made the perfect person, it was that guy." A point brought home by a poster displaying "The Ultimate Razorback". On it, each part of the Razorback football player's anatomy is represented by a former player's name. The heart, however, is special and is represented by Brandon Burlsworth! Fitting? YES. For no one else could be considered more deserving as the heart of "The Ultimate Razorback" and the heart of the Hogs.
Brandon graduated from high school in Harrison and entered the U of A as a walk-on guard for then head coach Danny Ford. He has been described as an "ordinary guy," although, if the truth be known, deep down with the removal of the star ratings and hype, all college football players are "ordinary guys" that just happen to have a talent for playing the game. Brandon was no different.
His dedication, persistence, and seeking of perfection in developing his skills, and footwork soon won a starting position for this former walk-on. Whenever he felt that he had not had an especially good practice, he could be found alone after hours working on his footwork until it was perfect for all of the plays that had been used that day during practice. It was this drive and attention to detail that made him the All-American that he became, as well as, the first Razorback football player to obtain both a bachelor and master's degree before completing his Hog playing career.
Former assistant coach Mike Bender summed it all up by saying that Brandon was, "the best to play the offensive line in Arkansas history," and added "there has never been one like Brandon Burlsworth, and there never will be again."
During team meetings for five years, he would always sit in the same seat which everyone knew as "Brandon's chair." As the story goes, when Brandon was a junior, an underclassman made the mistake of sitting in "Brandon's chair". With his seat taken, Brandon saw nothing else to do but to quietly stand behind the chair. Being embarrassed, the underclassman soon figured it out and quickly vacated this seat and found himself another more suitable place to sit.
Brandon lived in a world of routine and familiarity. He always parked his Subaru in the same spot in "The Pit" just north of the Broyles' Athletic Center. At practice, he would always refuse to remove or unsnap his helmet, even for water breaks. Going to class or anywhere else on campus would find him always walking on the sidewalks and never taking shortcuts across the grass. Being almost OCD and Adrian Monk-like, you could say he always followed a strict regime. Always, always, always ... perfect, perfect, perfect.
It could have been his Drew Carey looks with his short hair and black horn-rimmed glasses that dredged up a chuckle in the defensive player across the line from him, but this was soon put to rest by his formidable force and footwork that tended toward perfection. Whether it was a practice or game, Brandon knew only one speed and the defensive player would always suffer the brunt. If you were unlucky enough to line up across from Burlsworth, you would first feel a hit, and in the next moment realize that you were picking yourself up off of the ground. The chuckle would soon vanish and be replaced by a grimace of pain.
Anytime the Hogs found themselves inside the twenty on offense, Brandon would quietly challenge the squad during the huddle by asking "OK guys, how bad do you want it?". It was a rally call for commitment from every player to perform at their top level. He very seldom raised his voice, but at this time it would be raised to the highest level that he would allow himself to use. Everything had to be perfect and he truly believed that if it was, then the Hogs would score.
Brandon was known, not only for his dedication, drive, and perfection, but most of all for his tremendous faith. Comments from former coaches, and players all express how his strength and trust was brought on by his unyielding Christian faith. There is no doubt by anyone that knew him that he is now at Home. On every occasion possible, Burlsworth would make the familiar trip back to Harrison in order to attend church with his mother. There were many times that after away games, he would pack his bag upon arriving in Fayetteville on Saturday night and make the trip back to Harrison for Sunday morning services.
Each time when he would leave to return to Fayetteville, there was a routine that he and his mom would follow where his mom would stand on the porch and say "Watch for old big trucks and pray". In Brandon's world, "Old big trucks" had been the term that he had used for 18-wheelers when he was a small boy. Hearing his mom, he would quietly say "Mom, I love you" and then pull away and head back to Fayetteville and the Hogs.
Perhaps it could be found in his origin as a walk-on, perhaps it was coming from a small town environment, or perhaps it was due to his unwavering faith and family upbringing, but no matter what the reason, it had molded Brandon into a unique young man with a complex dual personality. On the field, he had developed into almost the perfect offensive lineman as he went from being a walk-on to being an All-American while becoming one of the elite top-tier players in the nation.
The flipside of this was Brandon when he was off of the field. He was the truly humble, gentle giant that never quite realized or took credit for his greatness. At the end of his Hog career, he stopped coach Houston Nutt and his true nature became apparent. Brandon began by saying “Coach, I want to thank you for the best year of my life in football". Followed by Nutt’s response “Brandon, you made it happen". And finally, Brandon ended by saying in his own humble way “No, it was my teammates and coaches. Y'all made it". Any football player faced with his accomplishments and the future that lay ahead might have been totally consumed by his own greatness, but then again, that would not have been “The Burl’s Way”!
"Brandon Burlsworth probably represents more good things in this world than I thought existed," - Tommy Tice, Brandon's high school coach at Harrison High School.
Through the Foundation, thousands of eye exams and pairs of glasses have been given to children in need. Brandon's goal had always been to help the under-privileged children. In memory of Brandon and his career, the Foundation has also developed the Burlsworth Trophy which is presented each year to the nation's top college Walk-On football player.
While driving a few weeks ago, I heard this song on the radio and found it especially fitting for Brandon as it tells of his faith and love of children. The song this month is one sung by a children's choir containing the powerful words "Lead me on through the night, Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me Home".
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