I was pretty down yesterday morning, still suffering, artificial plumbing installed, blood clots and bleeding causing problems, and afraid that all that I went through last December was going to be happening again. I’m ashamed to admit that I had thoughts that maybe it was time to quit, to give in, to just stop fighting and let the bad things take over and win. While feeling that way, I took some time to watch a movie we just recently acquired, “Greater” the story of Brandon Burlsworth, a football player who died at the age of twenty-two in an automobile accident. Now, you’d think the story of a young man who fought for everything he ever got and triumphed only to die early wouldn’t be very inspiring, but you’d be wrong. This kid from a small town in Arkansas, with a mostly absentee, alcoholic father, loved playing football. As a boy, his coach told him he’d never even be able to play at the high school level. Of course, he worked very hard and did whatever the coach told him to do and eventually excelled. Brandon was a devout Christian and was always studying the Bible. He had always wanted to be a Razorback, to play football for the University of Arkansas and even turned down an academic scholarship to play at another university. He tried out for the team as a freshman walk-on with no scholarship and was told he could only play for the practice team with no scholarship. They let him play in the last game of the season and by that time his dedication, practice, and persistence landed him a scholarship. He went on to play as a starter for several years as the Razorbacks struggled and stayed at the bottom of their division. He just got better and better and was a good student academically. I met him in 1997 with some other Christian players at a Bible study. I was impressed with his size and his faith. In the last year of his college career (a very good season for the Razorbacks), he was named a first-team All American and got to play in a bowl game. He was the only football graduate in the history of the university to graduate with a Master’s degree. His goal of one day playing in the NFL came true as well when he was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts. All he had ever dreamed of had come true. Then, a week before he was to sign his contract with the Colts, he was killed in an automobile accident. There is a character in the film who represented all the negative and atheistic sentiments telling his older brother that God hadn’t loved Brandon or he wouldn’t have lost everything at such a young age. This man held that because Burlsworth hadn’t gotten to play professional football, his life meant nothing. No man who had the love, the faith, the kindness, the dedication, and the never-say-quit attitude of Brandon Burlsworth could ever have his life mean nothing—no matter how short it was. The University of Arkansas retired his jersey number, 77, and sealed his locker in glass. After his death, family and friends established the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation in honor of his work ethic and Christian values. The Christian organization's mission is to support the physical and spiritual needs of children, in particular those children who have limited opportunities. The Foundation's logo prominently features Brandon's signature black-framed glasses. In addition, through the "Burls Kids" program, the Burlsworth Foundation provides underprivileged youth a chance to attend Razorback and Colts football games. Since 2000, the Foundation has bought 30 tickets to each Arkansas Razorbacks home football game. The tickets are distributed through Razorback Clubs across the state. The children are a big part to the foundation. The children are given an official "Burls Kid" T-shirt and replica glasses similar to what Brandon wore on the field.
In 2007, the "Eyes of a Champion" program was started. The Brandon Burlsworth Foundation, in partnership with Walmart/Sam's Optical Department and independent optometrists across Arkansas, provides eye care to thousands of pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade students. Primarily they come from working families that cannot afford extras like eye care and do not qualify for state funded programs. There are also numerous scholarship programs and awards from local to national that also carry his name. For someone who only lived twenty-two years, Brandon Burlsworth accomplished more and left a more enduring legacy than thousands of people who went on to live long lives. I had forgotten a lot about Brandon and through the movie learned a lot I hadn’t known. His faith sustained him, his kindness and dedication to making himself better set him apart from the rest. For me, his life resonated within me and gave me the incentive to stop feeling sorry for myself and to start fighting back. As of this moment, all the negative medical problems have gone away (all the problems, bwana asifiwe) and life looks good again. It’s possible that my change to a really positive attitude and fighting spirit after seeing the film had nothing to do with what has happened medically, but no one will ever convince me of that. That young man touched my life almost two decades after his death, a death that only ended a life, but not the impact of someone who would go on to touch thousands and change lives in ways that I know would make him proud. It’s not about how long a life you have, it’s about what you do with what you’ve got. Here’s another man whose faith and family sustained him and made him special. He will be remembered long after so many others have been forgotten. God bless you, Brandon Burlsworth.