Crystal Bridges filled with joy, relief at Morgan's win

By: Matt Jones Matt Jones's Twitter account
Published: Monday, December 6, 2021
Arkansas linebacker Grant Morgan (left) and coach Sam Pittman pose for a photo prior to the presentation of the Burlsworth Trophy on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.
( J.T. Wampler)
Arkansas linebacker Grant Morgan (left) and coach Sam Pittman pose for a photo prior to the presentation of the Burlsworth Trophy on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

BENTONVILLE — When former Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield won the Burlsworth Trophy in 2015 and 2016, he was the local favorite. 

Oklahoma fans flocked to Springdale’s Northwest Arkansas Convention Center to get an in-person glimpse of the Sooners’ superstar of the time, and his wins set off loud ovations inside the large ballroom. 

But never in the 12-season history of the Burlsworth Trophy had there been such a partisan crowd as Monday night when Arkansas linebacker Grant Morgan was presented the trophy inside Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which hosted the award ceremony for the first time and its first night-time presentation. 

Morgan seemed to be the favorite of nearly everyone in the room. When Marty Burlsworth announced him as the winner at the end of the 90-minute ceremony, he needed only to say “University of Arkansas” before a loud roar engulfed the museum’s intimate Great Hall. 

From inside, Burlsworth could not be heard saying Morgan’s name. 

Morgan is the first Arkansas player to win the award that is named for Razorback legend Brandon Burlsworth, a 1998 All-American whose walk-on journey and 1999 death have been the subject of a book and a motion-picture movie. Burlsworth’s No. 77 is one of two retired jerseys at Arkansas. 

“It’s special, there’s no doubt about it,” said Marty Burlsworth, Brandon’s older brother and co-creator of the award. “I know Brandon would be happy.

“In my position I have to be neutral and that’s hard to do. I’m a lifelong Razorback fan, but I’m thrilled for it going to a Razorback and for Grant being a two-time finalist. He worked for it....It was on his mind for a year.” 

Morgan was a finalist for the award in 2020, but was a runner-up to Pittsburgh offensive lineman Jimmy Morrissey. The award was presented virtually last year, so Monday’s ceremony was the first Morgan was able to attend in person. 

Several members of his family arrived from his hometown of Greenwood and elsewhere to be part of the occasion. 

“To be able to represent the University of Arkansas and be able to be compared to Brandon and his legacy, this honestly means so much to me, to be able to say, ‘You did it. You brought it home,’” Morgan said. “It’s awesome to say that I’m compared to some of the greats like Baker and all the different other guys who’ve won it, and even the finalists who were up here. 

“To be able to hold this statue and say it’s mine, it just means so much to me.”

Morgan won this year’s trophy over two other finalists, Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett and Troy linebacker Carlton Martial, who both flew to Northwest Arkansas over the weekend. 

Also in attendance were several Arkansas coaches and support staff, including head coach Sam Pittman, linebackers coach Michael Scherer and tight ends coach Dowell Loggains. Loggains, who walked on as a quarterback at Arkansas in 2001, was one of several former Razorback players who were in attendance, along with Morgan’s older brother, Drew, and former Burlsworth teammates. 

“I do think it means a lot to the state of Arkansas for him to be the first award winner from the University of Arkansas,” Pittman said. “I think it’s a big, big deal.”

It was no guarantee Morgan would win the award. Bennett started for a team that did not lose until two days ago and spent most of the season ranked No. 1, and Martial was college football's sixth-leading tackler this year. 

Pittman said he was “relieved” when Morgan’s name was called. 

“I’m so happy that he won the award,” said Pittman, who was hired away from an assistant position at Georgia two years ago. “Certainly, I knew Stetson as well because we were at Georgia. There were certainly three great, deserving guys up there. 

“I’m just really proud of him. I’m glad he won it this year, coming back from last year. He certainly had a chip on his shoulder to play well again.”

Morgan said he viewed not winning the award last year the same way he would view losing a big game. 

“It was (like) a whole other walk-on experience,” said Morgan, who earned a scholarship in 2018, two years after arriving as a walk-on. “You got rejected and it was something you had to prove yourself again, that you’re good enough to be there. 

“It put a chip on my shoulder and it slowly grew to a log. I have a log on my shoulder now because of it. It grew and it made me work super hard to go push this team to new heights that we’ve never been able to get to.” 

Statistically, Morgan was better in 2020 when he recorded 111 tackles, 2 sacks and returned an interception for a touchdown in 9 games. The American Football Coaches Association named him an All-American after the 2020 season. 

Morgan has played well this year, but his tackle total is lower (96 through 12 games) as he plays among a linebacker corps that also includes senior standouts Bumper Pool (120 tackles) and Hayden Henry (94). He thinks he is as deserving of the award this year, however, as he was last year. 

“I don’t think stats really determine who the best player is overall,” Morgan said. “I might have had better stats last year, but I don’t care. I came back here and I came back to play football, and to be able to step up and be able to grow as a player and grow as a man.”

More trophies might be in store for Morgan, who is one of 13 finalists for the Campbell Trophy and one of 20 semifinalists for the Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award. 

Morgan will fly to Las Vegas on Tuesday morning for that night's presentation of the Campbell Trophy, which is commonly referred to as the Academic Heisman. Like Burlsworth, he played college football with a Master’s degree already in hand. 

If he wins the Campbell Trophy or the Witten Award in February, it will be hard to top the experience Monday night in front of a home crowd. 

“This is like the national championship. This is like the Heisman to me,” Morgan said. “This is the biggest thing that I’ve ever been able to accomplish.” 


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