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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.

Kirk Noonan is staff writer for the Pentecostal Evangel.


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