Brandon Burlsworth Foundation keeps legendary Razorback’s legacy alive
It’s been 24 years since Brandon Burlsworth, an All-American football player for the University of Arkansas (UA) known for his strong character and work ethic, died in a car accident while driving home to Harrison from the Fayetteville campus. He was 22 years old.
His untimely death on April 28, 1999, just 11 days after he was drafted by the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, shocked his fans, friends and family, leaving them devastated and questioning why such a tragedy happened to a young man with such a bright future.
“It was the worst day ever,” recalls Marty Burlsworth, Brandon’s older brother and CEO/chairman of the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation in Harrison.
By the time the college football season began in the fall of 1999, Marty and his wife, Vickie, had turned their grief into action with the formation of the foundation. According to the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation’s website, it is a Christian organization with a mission “to support the physical and spiritual needs of children, in particular those who have limited opportunities.”
Brandon and Marty had discussed creating such programs that would begin along with Brandon’s NFL career.
“We were always looking to make a difference,” Marty says, adding that he could not accept the idea that Brandon, an inspirational role model who has been called the greatest walk-on football player, would ever be forgotten.
“He worked so hard and did so much in a short period of time; we could not let it end like that.”
In addition to being a star on the football field, Brandon also excelled in academics, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in business administration. His hard work and dedication prompted Houston Nutt, who became the Razorback football coach in Brandon’s senior year, to encourage others to “Do it the Burls way.” The foundation has made “Do it the Burls way” its motto, explaining on its website that the saying means, “Do it the right way, even when no one is looking.”
Further demonstrating the impact of Brandon’s extraordinary life are a book, “Through the Eyes of a Champion: The Brandon Burlsworth Story,” written in 2001 by Jeff Kinley, and a movie based on the book, “Greater: The Brandon Burlsworth Story,” which was released in 2016.
Starting in 2000, the foundation began the Burls Kids program, giving underprivileged youngsters free tickets to Razorback home football games in Fayetteville and Little Rock. It also established a Burls Kids program in Indianapolis for the Colts’ home games. In addition to the tickets, the Burls Kids receive shirts with Brandon’s No. 77 on them and lens-free plastic eyeglasses frames, fashioned after Brandon’s signature black horn-rimmed glasses. The program is still going strong, thanks to support from the UA’s Delta Gamma sorority, which hosts the 30 kids who attend each game.
“We’re trying make those kids feel special,” Marty says, adding that many of them come from difficult home situations. “They can get on a college campus and see what that’s all about. They can see that, ‘Maybe there’s a future here for me, too, that I have never really thought of.’ We have had a member of the football team, I know, and at least one cheerleader and I am sure other students who have attended (the UA) who told me they were Burls Kids.”