Brandon Burlsworth at the heart of another Saturday

Player's past, present, future come together for funeral in Harrison

By: Bob Holt Bob Holt's Twitter account
Published: Sunday, May 2, 1999
A commemorative display was set up by the Indianapolis Colts at the funeral of Brandon Burlsworth in Harrison on Saturday, May 1, 1999.
( Bob Coleman)
A commemorative display was set up by the Indianapolis Colts at the funeral of Brandon Burlsworth in Harrison on Saturday, May 1, 1999.

— For one more Saturday, Brandon Burlsworth was with his Arkansas football teammates and coaches and surrounded by family and friends.

Except this time, there were tears instead of cheers.

Burlsworth, a guard who earned second-team All-America honors as a senior last season, was remembered warmly Saturday at a funeral ceremony attended by an estimated 2,000 people at Harrison High School Gymnasium.

It was the only place in this town of 11,611 big enough to hold all the people who came to pay their last respects to Burlsworth, 22, who died Wednesday in an automobile accident.

"It was a service that will be remembered by everyone who was here," Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles said. "I wish everyone in Arkansas could have been here."

Friends and former teammates of Brandon Burlsworth carry his casket on Saturday, May 1, 1999, in Harrison. (Photo by Bob Coleman)

As if by design, at 3 p.m. as Burlsworth was being laid to rest in Gass Cemetery, a Harrison hotel electronic sign with the time and temperature read "77" degrees -- Burlsworth's jersey number at Arkansas.

The afternoon sun shined as bright as Burlsworth's life, which stood out because of the All-America status he achieved after walking on at Arkansas, his earning of degrees in marketing management and business administration, his fame as a high NFL draft choice, his strong Christian faith and his obvious caring for all with whom he came in contact.

After Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt spoke Saturday, he presented Burlsworth's mother, Barbara, with her son's SEC Western Division championship ring.

Burlsworth was killed as he was driving from Fayetteville to Harrison to attend church, have dinner with his family and watch game films of the Indianapolis Colts, who made him a third-round pick (63rd overall) in the April 17 NFL Draft.

Nutt said Burlsworth was ready for each stage in his life, even his tragic death.

"He prepared for everything. He was prepared for this day, there's no doubt about that," Nutt said. "He's in heaven now.

"He's one of the finest young men I've ever met. He was perfect. He really was."

Also speaking at the funeral were Harrison Coach Tommy Tice, Colts President Bill Polian and Rev. Arlis Thrasher, pastor of Faith Assembly of God Church, where Burlsworth was a member.

Thrasher read a letter from Gov. Mike Huckabee sent to the Burlsworth family and said that Burlsworth had planned to marry Heather Nichols and that they were to have picked out wedding rings Saturday.

"There was a special girl in Brandon's life," Thrasher said. "Last January, Brandon told Heather that God had whispered in his ear and he felt, 'This is the gal to be my wife.' "

Attending the funeral were many of Burlsworth's Arkansas teammates as well as Arkansas coaches and athletic department staff and Chancellor John White. Harrison football players wore their team jerseys, and there were many others from Harrison and around the state.

Danny Ford, who was Arkansas' coach from 1993-97, traveled from his farm in Pendleton, S.C., to attend.

"Anybody you respect, you'd do that for," Ford said. "And I respect Brandon tremendously for what he achieved and what he had to overcome."

Ford said that a few days before the NFL Draft, a couple of his former Clemson players who now live in Atlanta visited his farm. They had read about Burlsworth in an Atlanta Journal Constitution article previewing the draft.

"They said, 'This guy sounds unbelievable,' " Ford said. "I said, 'He's even better than that.' "

In addition to Polian, the Colts were represented at the funeral by offensive line coach Howard Mudd, starting center Jay Leeuwenburg and trainer Hunter Smith.

The Colts sent two flower arrangements in the shape of their horseshoe logo, a framed No. 66 jersey that Burlsworth wore in his brief time with Indianapolis, a helmet autographed by the team and a football bearing Burlsworth's name.

"The Colts were very impressive in the caring they showed and the way they reached out to the Burlsworth family and the state of Arkansas," Broyles said. "I'm a Colts fan right now because of that."

Polian related a story told to him by Mudd, who had pushed for the Colts to draft Burlsworth, after the team's four-day minicamp last week.

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt speaks during the funeral for Brandon Burlsworth on Saturday, May 1, 1999 in Harrison. (Photo by Bob Coleman)

"Howard pulled Brandon aside during practice," Polian said, "and said, 'Brandon, you know, you're going to play a long time in this league, so you can call me Howard. Brandon said, 'Yes, sir.'

"A little later in the drill, he pulled Brandon aside again, and said, 'Brandon, you've got a chance to start here pretty darn early. I'm going to be in your ear a good portion of the time, so you can call me Howard. Brandon said, 'Yes, sir.'

"Finally, when practice ended, he said, 'Brandon, you're going to be around a long time, and I promise you that you're going to call me Howard sooner or later.' Brandon said, 'Yes, sir.' "

Polian said that in getting to know Burlsworth through the draft process and at minicamp, "it was evident that he was embarking on what would have become a long and successful NFL career.

"But most importantly, it was equally evident that Brandon was exactly the type of young man we wished to build our program around.

"As one of our other coaches said to me yesterday very eloquently before we left to come here, 'Others will play guard for us, but we won't replace Brandon Burlsworth.' "

Tice recalled the dedication and work ethic Burlsworth showed in transforming himself from a sophomore that Tice doubted could play for the Goblins into an all-state player as a senior who started on the offensive and defensive lines.

"Brandon knew that champions were made when no one else was around and no one else was looking," Tice said. "He beat me to work every single day his senior year. I get to work at 6:30, and lots of times he would be waiting on me in the dark.

"If I was a little bit late, he would chuckle and say, 'Sleeping in a little bit today, Coach?' "

Tice said he encouraged Burlsworth to accept a scholarship offer from one of the NCAA Division II teams recruiting him but that Burlsworth was committed to playing at Arkansas even if he had to begin as a walk-on and earn a scholarship, which he did as a redshirt freshman.

"Really and truly, nobody thought he would ever play much. We were just looking for bodies to practice with," Ford said. "But he was an overachiever, and when he got up there he started whipping people."

Nutt recalled that last fall, during the week of the Alabama game, the coaches came out of meeting late on a Wednesday night and heard someone shuffling his feet in the Broyles Center indoor workout area.

"We all said, 'Who could that be this late at night?' " Nutt said. "We walked down to see, and there was Brandon.

An estimated 2,000 people filled Harrison's basketball arena for Burlsworth's funeral. (Photo by Bob Coleman)

"I said, 'Brandon, what are you doing?' He said, 'We didn't have too good a practice today, Coach. I want to make sure my steps are right, so I'm walking through all of these plays.'

"Then he said, 'We're going to be all right, aren't we, Coach?' I said, 'Oh, Brandon, we're going to be all right. We're going to be fine.' And you know the rest of that story."

Arkansas beat Alabama 42-6 en route to a 9-3 season, the Razorbacks' best record in 10 years. Burlsworth was a team captain, elected by the players "in a landslide," Nutt said.

"Words like honest, integrity, character aren't good enough to describe Brandon," Nutt said. "He's going to leave a legacy."

Arkansas is retiring Burlsworth's No. 77 jersey and will encase his locker in glass as a memorial. Harrison High School also will retire the No. 54 Burlsworth wore for the Goblins and put it on display.

"By doing this, we will know that once upon a time, we had the honor and privilege of knowing someone like Brandon, and that has made us better people and our community a better place to live," Tice said. "He may have been the 63rd pick in the NFL draft, but he always will be our No. 1 choice."

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