Most beloved Colt of all never suited up
By GEOFF CALKINS
(January 16, 2000) INDIANAPOLIS – The big brother knows he will get a call this weekend, knows that he’ll hear from the Colts.
He’s not exactly sure when the call will come, mind you, but it’s 17 games into the season, and it always does.
The Colts called before the Patriots game. They called before they played the Bengals, the Dolphins, the Cowboys, the Chiefs.
“It’s a habit now, I guess,” says the big brother. “It helps.”
Mostly, they talk about the game, about the weather, about this or that. The Colts usually ask about his mom. He usually says she’s doing O.K. and aiming for good. And then, one way or another, they talk about his little brother, too.
“I always tell them I want him to be remembered,” says the big brother. “That’s all. I don’t want anyone to forget him.
“The calls, they tell me that he is.”
This is a love story. And it’s all the more remarkable – a testimony to the depth of the love, really – when you realize that the leading man is dead and gone.
His name is Brandon Burlsworth. You remember him as the quirky, throwback guard for the Arkansas Razorbacks, the one with those thick, black Drew Carey glasses.
He went from walk-on to All-American. From All-American to the third-round pick of the Colts last April 17. Then, 11 days after the draft – less than a week after returning from a Colts mini-camp – Burlsworth was killed in a car accident as he drove from Fayetteville to Harrison to go to dinner and church with his mom.
“Devastating,” says Marty Burlsworth, 39, Brandon’s agent and older brother by 16 years. “He had attained his goal of making it to the NFL. And then it was taken away so quick.”
There was a big funeral that week, then a Brandon Burlsworth day in Harrison. The Colts did the expected thing, and sent officials to both. But Burlsworth never even suited up for the team. He never played a down. So when the officials went back to the big city, the Burlsworths figured that would be it. They’d be left with their grief and their memories. The Colts would simply find another guard and move on.
Only that’s not how it happened; that’s not how it happened at all.
Somehow, during that brief mini-camp, a relationship was formed. Somehow, a bond was forged that has lasted all year.
“I can’t explain it, but Brandon really touched a chord up here,” says Craig Kelley, the Colts’ director of media relations. “He inspired people. That’s just the kind of person he was. We have a clip file on every player. And the file we have on Brandon is thicker than the ones for some players who have been here five years.”
The Colts invited the Burlsworths to come for the season opener against the Bills, so they could honor Burlsworth at halftime. They devoted a page to Burlsworth in the media guide. They put his initials in a black decal on their helmets.
And then, after all that, the calls started, the calls that have never stopped. Every weekend, Kelley would call Marty, and it didn’t matter where he was. He’d call from the practice field. He’d call from the team hotel. When Indianapolis played the Bills in Buffalo, he called as the Colts drove to the stadium on the team bus.
“It got to be part of our routine,” Kelley says. “Part friendship, part good-luck charm.”
That’s the mystical part of it, really. Kelley kept calling, and the Colts kept winning. So did Burlsworth’s high-school team at Harrison High. So did Burlsworth’s college team, Arkansas.
“I’m not saying it’s connected,” Marty says. “I know it’s not. But all those teams carried Brandon in their hearts.”
When Harrison won the state title in Little Rock, Marty called Kelley from the field after the game.
When Arkansas upset Tennessee and then beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl, Kelley called Marty to share in the joy.
And now that the Colts are rolling into the playoffs?
“I hope,” Marty says, “we can make it a clean sweep.”
Now, it would be nice to be able to tell you that all this winning has erased the pain for the Burlsworth family. But that would be elevating football to a place it doesn’t belong.
Barbara Burlsworth, the mother, is still mostly numb. Marty visits the gravesite every day. He props up the porcelain teddy bear that sits by the grave, wearing tiny thick black glasses like the ones Brandon wore. Sometimes, at night, he goes just to shine his headlights on the stone.
So, no, the winning hasn’t made the pain disappear. But it’s helped.
“It’s been a very, very hard year,” Marty says. “But Brandon thought of himself as a Colt. He has his Colts uniform number on his grave. And wherever the team is going, Brandon is going as well.”
As for the Colts, they’ve have been affected, too. More than they ever would have imagined when they drafted Burlsworth nine months ago.
“It’s been profound,” Kelley says. “In this business, so many people come and go, you forget that they’re people. But everyone has a family. Everyone comes from somewhere. Brandon reminded me of that, and I think I treat everyone a little differently because of him.”
Outstanding on the field and in the faith
By Kirk Noonan
Brandon Burlsworth, the 6-foot-3, 308-pound University of Arkansas Razorbacks offensive guard, stood alone outside his brother’s house. He inhaled the cool Arkansas air deeply. Inside the house, family, friends and two television reporters and camera crews were crammed into the living room. The air was thick with tension.
After several minutes of solitude, Brandon walked back into the house where the others had gathered to watch his future unfold on national television. Unable to relax, he paced between the living room and kitchen. His brother, Marty, who was also his agent, sifted through hundreds of charts and player profiles.
“For some people it is exciting,” says Marty, recounting the day, “but for us it was strictly business.”
When Brandon was chosen 63rd overall in the third round of the NFL draft on April 17, 1999, the wait was over and a lifelong dream was realized – Brandon was now an Indianapolis Colt.
A few years earlier, not many people would have guessed that Brandon would be drafted into the NFL. The kid, whom some described as a “teddy bear,” was big, polite, extremely reserved and not an exceptional athlete. But he was also determined, disciplined and a strict adherent of routine in all areas of his life – especially football. His love for the sport was surpassed only by his love and commitment to Christ and his family. His pursuit of excellence on the field was rewarded when the University of Arkansas walk-on became a Football News All-America offensive lineman and NFL draftee.
A week after the draft, Brandon shined at a Colts minicamp. His rigorous play, work ethic and strong character made an immediate impression on his new teammates and coaches.
“From everything we could see,” said Bill Polian, president of the Colts, “Brandon represented everything we want in a Colts uniform.”
Brandon returned to the university in Fayetteville. He had finished all of his course work and needed only to collect his things, work out and say goodbye to teammates and friends. On April 28, three days before his graduation, Brandon decided to drive home to Harrison. It was Wednesday night, and he wanted to have dinner and attend church with his mom.
Twenty minutes away from his mother’s doorstep, Brandon was killed in a head-on collision with a tractor-trailer. In an instant, the 22-year-old was whisked into eternity.
In the aftermath of his death, it became apparent through the words and tributes of his family, community, teammates, coaches and fans that the godly life he lived left a bigger mark than any of his hits on the football field.
“Everybody down here wanted to be like him,” Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner told the Northwest Arkansas Times. “He was as close to being the perfect Christian, student and football player as anyone I know.”
“Brandon Burlsworth probably represents more good things in this world than I thought existed,” Tommy Tice, Brandon’s high school football coach, told Sports Illustrated.
Over the life of his NFL career, Brandon stood to make millions of dollars. He was already famous in his hometown and Arkansas, but playing for the Colts would have made him a national celebrity.
Yet, those who knew him best say the glory, fame and riches that were to come could not have spoiled him.
“Brandon loved the Lord more than he loved football,” says Arlis Thrasher, pastor of Faith Assembly of God in Harrison, Ark., where Brandon attended church with his mother. “If there was never the opportunity for football, Brandon would have still been an outstanding Christian. His testimony left no doubt where he went.”
The same resolve that carried Brandon to the NFL was evident in his spiritual life, says Eddie Hodges, Brandon’s youth pastor in the early 1990s.
“When he volunteered at Super Church [a children’s ministry], he would get there early and stay late to do whatever he could to help,” says Hodges, who is now the senior pastor at First Assembly in Harrison. “He was over and above what you would expect from a young man at that age.”
When Brandon was 9, a family friend came to the house to visit. Near bedtime, Brandon was sitting on his bed studying his Bible when the friend passed his room and looked in.
“Our friend told me he was not living the [Christian] life at the time and seeing Brandon really got to him,” says Marty, adding that soon after, the friend came back to Christ and is now a pastor. “To me that’s about the strongest statement you can hear about Brandon’s life.”
The Saturday after Brandon’s death, Marty stood in his place at the university’s graduation ceremony. Brandon had fulfilled the requirements for a master’s degree in business administration – the first player in Razorbacks football history to do so while still playing for the school. As Marty crossed the stage, the audience stood in ovation.
“His death affected a lot of people,” says Marty.
Brandon’s skills as a football player made him a budding star in the NFL. But his unwavering walk with Christ etched him on the hearts and minds of many.
“Rarely do you see someone who is so prepared to live and yet so prepared to die,” wrote one Colts fan.
His spirit lives on
By John Clayton – CNHI Indiana
It’s hard this time of year.
The memories are long for the folks in Harrison, Arkansas, for the Burlsworth family.
The Burlsworths were used to celebrating Christmas on some January off-day after Brandon Burlsworth had finished football season at the University of Arkansas, moving their holidays to fit around the college bowl schedule. But Burlsworth always came home eventually and so did Christmas.
“When you’re a football family, everything you do is centered around football – with Brandon since he was a little guy and especially after he got so big in high school,” said Marty Burlsworth, Brandon’s older brother and director of the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation. “With Brandon, it wasn’t just football season when it was football season, it was year-round.
“Now, it’s definitely and emptiness. Usually, he wasn’t around during the Christmas season because of the bowl games, so Christmas was usually later or earlier for us. But it always came.”
Christmas comes for the second straight year without Brandon, the former Colts draft pick who was killed in a car crash just 11 days after the Colts made him a third-round selection in the NFL Draft.
It’s hard. Brandon’s mother, Barbara, still gets emotional when the Colts starting offense is introduced at games, so strongly does she want her big No. 66 to rumble from the tunnel and onto the field he never saw.
The kids in Harrison play basketball and do some of their growing up at the renamed Brandon Burlsworth Youth Center. That Youth Center carries on Burlsworth’s name and the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation carries on his memories, providing tickets to Colts games in Indianapolis and to Razorback games in Fayetteville.
But the foundation does more than provide tickets, particularly for Marty. For him, it keeps Brandon alive. It carries out an idea that Brandon had discussed with Marty soon after Brandon became a Colt.
“Definitely, it is (therapy),” said Marty. “It may sound strange, but when I’m working on something or trying to plan out some aspect of what we’re doing with the foundation, it seems like old times. I try to work it out in my mind and then I know the answer. It’s strange.”
One answer was this:
They’re called “Burls’ Kids” and they wear those trademark black horn-rimmed glasses just like Brandon wore and became his trademark.
On a lesser player, those glasses would have been a joke. But on Burlsworth, they became the stuff of cult fashion. Fans wore them at Arkansas to show their support and love for the one-time walk-on who became an All-American by the time he left the Razorback program as a senior. The Colts marketing department, counting on the big rookie to land in the starting lineup, had ordered thousands of pairs to sell at home games. “If you see the glasses at an Arkansas game, everyone knows what it means,” Marty said.
Now, Burls’ Kids wear them and Marty wants to make sure those kids understand why. He wants to give them more than a ticket to the game through the foundation.
“We want to reward children who are doing the right things and have character,” Marty said. “We want to try to show them a role model in Brandon. One thing, he was always a good role model for child. Even with the accident, we didn’t want that to go to waste. If he could lift some kids up, I know that’s what he’d want to do.”
So, with each ticket, Burls’ Kids receive the glasses with the slogan “Do it the Burls’ way” on them, a t-shirt, a certificate and a copy of a Sports Illustrated article written on Brandon soon after his death.
“At least with that, they can read about Brandon and their parents can read that article and know where all this comes from,” Marty said.
It comes from the heart, which is what Brandon was known mostly for as the Razorbacks’ symbol of perseverance and desire. “The Burls’ Way” means a combination of hard work, drive and a commitment to doing things “the right way” on and off the field.
The foundation distributes its tickets – 25 to every Colts home game – locally through Kiwanis Clubs and their charities and is a non-profit organization funded through private donations.
“We want to show these kids a role model. We don’t want them to be a clone – there’ll never be another Brandon – but we can show them someone who walked on, not offered a scholarship at a Division I school, made All-SEC and made All-American by his senior year. We can show kids no matter their background that they can do it.
“To some of them, there may not be much light at the end of the tunnel. We don’t want to just bring kids to a game. We want to try to have lasting effect.”
“Burls’ Kids” will be bespectacled in the stands today – on Christmas Eve – when the Colts, fighting for their playoff lives, face the Minnesota Vikings.
Marty says that’s fitting.
“Brandon loved Christmas. He liked getting gifts – like anybody, but, boy, he liked giving them,” Marty said. “He got more pleasure out of that than receiving and that goes right back to this foundation.”