FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The story of Brandon Burlsworth, one of the greatest walk-ons in college football history, was put on the big screen in the film Greater. The movie tells the uplifting story of Burlsworth’s journey of making a childhood dream of becoming a Razorback a reality, no matter the obstacles. At the same time, it’s a story about how bad things happen to good people.
It’s been 17 years since Brandon Burlsworth was taken from this earth on his drive home from Fayetteville to Harrison, Ark. And to this day, his story resonates within the Arkansas fan base in a way that is difficult to put into words.
Burlsworth’s life is a phenomenal story that is deserving of being portrayed on the big screen, and even though it’s been 17 years plus since his death, the movie will stir you with emotions you forgot were there. To that end, there wasn’t much need for Hollywood to add anything to the narrative because Burlsworth’s story is just that good.
Burlsworth was a hard worker and the movie does a great job of portraying what he was willing to do to reach his goals despite dealing with ridicule from a young age that was focused on his weight. He was a big kid, and Marty Burlsworth, portrayed by Neal McDonough, makes a comment in the movie on several occasions about his much-younger brother’s love “chips and cheesecake.”
In the move, Burlsworth makes the proclamation that he eventually will be a Razorback while an Arkansas game was on TV. From that point forward, the movie focuses on Burlsworth’s passion to achieve his goal.
Actor Christopher Severio plays Burlsworth and manages to capture the endearing nature of the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder. Severio takes over the role of Burlsworth as a senior at Harrison High.
In the movie, Severio doesn’t look like his weight fluctuated. In reality, at the start of Burlsworth’s senior year of high school, he weighed about 200 pounds and stood right around 6 feet. Not exactly Division I size by any stretch.
His size is noted by assistant coach Mike Bender, who coached Burlsworth from 1995-97. In real life, Bender was a lineman at Arkansas who played on the 1964 national championship team.
Bender, portrayed by Frederic Lehne, points out that Burlsworth just is not big enough to play Division I football. In real life, that credit could probably be handed to Louis Campbell, who now serves as the coach of Sheridan (Ark.) High. Campbell held several positions on the Arkansas staff from 1990-2007 and once worked for Bear Bryant at Alabama.
What you don’t see in the movie is that Campbell met with Burlsworth during his senior year as a favor to Harrison coach Tommy Tice. In that conversation, as pointed out by John Ed Bradley in his 1999 Sports Illustrated article on Burlsworth, Campbell had no idea “what was brewing inside of Burlsworth” after telling him he wouldn’t ever play.
That would be crow that Campbell eventually dined on heartily as Burlsworth gained a scholarship by his sophomore year after redshirting as a freshman. Burlsworth became a three-year starter for the Razorbacks.
Burlsworth’s work to gain that scholarship is seen throughout the movie. His discipline – mentally and physically – are very well portrayed. What you don’t see is how deep his commitment was to himself and his team.
Bender recalled in his interview with Bradley about a time when Burlsworth was sick with diarrhea and suffering from dehydration, yet refused to sit out of conditioning. Bender pointed out in the interview that Burlsworth didn’t have any quit in him and finished the conditioning exercise, beating everyone after he “messed all over himself” during the exercise.
The movie goes on to show Burlsworth’s success as a Razorback and his eventual selection by the Indianapolis Colts. It was so quiet at this point in the theater you literally could hear the other movies and people talking outside of the theater. Eventually, though, you could hear the sounds of sniffles and tears because of the tragic ending we all knew was coming before we sat down had arrived.
For many in Arkansas, this movie is not just a story of a beloved individual but an indication of what the Razorbacks’ football program, the state and its people represent: hard work. Much like Rudy represents the fighting spirit of Notre Dame football, Greater represents the never-quit, work-hard-for-what-you-want, blue-collar mentality of the people who live in Arkansas.
Burlsworth’s memory lives on through football camps, scholarships, awards and several non-profit organizations created to help children in need. In his memory, the Burlsworth Trophy – first presented in 2010 to Sean Bedford of Georgia Tech – is awarded annually to the nation’s most outstanding player who began his college career as a walk-on. Last season’s winner was Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who was a walk-on at Texas Tech.
Along with the scholarships and non-profit organizations, the movie will continue to have an impact. Burlsworth’s story will move young men or women in a similar situation to overcome obstacles to achieve their dreams. My 8-year-old gave the movie its ultimate review when we were walking out of the theater: “That movie taught me to never give up.”
(You can follow Chad Neipling on Twitter @SEC_Chad)
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