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ALMOST PERFECT
John Ed Bradley
June 28, 1999
ARKANSAS LINEMAN BRANDON BURLSWORTH DEDICATED HIMSELF TO DOING EVERYTHING FLAWLESSLY. WHEN SOMETHING FINALLY WENT WRONG, IT COST HIM A BRIGHT NFL FUTURE—AND HIS LIFE
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June 28, 1999

Almost Perfect

ARKANSAS LINEMAN BRANDON BURLSWORTH DEDICATED HIMSELF TO DOING EVERYTHING FLAWLESSLY. WHEN SOMETHING FINALLY WENT WRONG, IT COST HIM A BRIGHT NFL FUTURE—AND HIS LIFE

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Burlsworth was so focused on becoming a better player that he seemed willing to make any sacrifice, and his behavior bordered on the obsessive-compulsive. Until late in his senior year at Arkansas he didn't date, fearing that a romantic relationship would interfere with football. He refused to move into an off-campus apartment because he liked his dorm's proximity to the stadium and to his classes. Besides, he figured, the dorm had been fine for him when he was an unknown, so why should that change now that he was the most recognized athlete on campus?

During his five years in Fayetteville, Burlsworth always parked his car, a '93 Subaru, in the same spot in a parking lot by the stadium. In his room his bed was always made except for when he slept in it. He so liked things in their place that friends say you could drive him half crazy by moving a pencil an inch on his desk. Every night he copied his notes from the day's classes, practicing perfect penmanship, whiting out mistakes and writing over them. He maintained a 3.4 grade point average and earned a bachelor's degree in marketing management and a master's in business administration in his years at Arkansas.

His haircut was never any length but short. Unlike others of his generation, he didn't abide tattoos, body piercing or facial hair. His clothes were always clean and neatly pressed. A style of glasses last popular in 1958 suited him best; people said they made him look like Drew Carey. Walking to class or the cafeteria, he never strayed from the sidewalk, never cut across the grass even when he was running late. "If you told the team to keep things neat around the locker room," says Nutt, "you'd catch Brandon picking up gum wrappers and Coke cans all over the building."

Burlsworth carried his single-mindedness even further. Once he stepped on the practice field, he refused to remove his helmet, even during breaks. He kept his chin strap buttoned, too, and when his comrades on the offensive line, goofing on him, reached over and unsnapped it, he immediately resnapped it. For five years he sat in the same chair during team meetings. Once, when Burlsworth was a junior, an underclassman sat in his chair. Burlsworth quietly stood behind him, saying nothing. "That one belongs to Burls," teammates told the player. The boy grew so uncomfortable that he hopped to his feet and found someplace else to sit.

"When the coaches reported to work at six in the morning, Brandon would already be there," says Nutt. "One night during Alabama week we're leaving a meeting at 10:30, 11 o'clock, and you can hear shuffling, feet against the turf. We go down to the indoor practice field, and it's Brandon. 'Brandon, what are you doing, son?' 'Coach, we didn't have too good a practice today. I just wanted to make sure I had my steps right.' This wasn't Eddie Haskell, either. He was almost embarrassed. He didn't want us to know he was down there."

It was a rare day that Burlsworth didn't lead his group in conditioning drills at the end of practice. If the team was running wind sprints, he routinely finished first, even when he wasn't feeling well. One afternoon Burlsworth, suffering from diarrhea and dehydration, refused to sit out a mandatory 440-yard run. "The strength coach said to me, 'I don't think Brandon can do it,' " recalls Bender, the former line coach. "Well, tell Burls that. He got sick on the run and messed all over himself, but he still beat everybody by 20 or 30 yards. He wouldn't quit for anything."

Every chance he got, Burlsworth went home to Harrison, a town of about 10,000 in the Ozarks, near the Missouri state line. He slept either in his little room at his mother's house or at his brother Marty's, to be close to his three nephews. Even after away games, when the Razorbacks returned to Fayetteville late at night, Burlsworth packed a bag and drove home. "He wanted to be with Mama and go to church in the morning," says Marty, who owns a photography business and was 16 years older than Brandon. "He'd play a game on Saturday in South Carolina, say, then on Sunday he's at my son's flag football game. Half the time there were so many fans around him that he couldn't watch the game."

Brandon and Marty's parents divorced when Brandon was two years old, in large part because Leo Burlsworth, a musician who traveled a lot with a country band, had a serious drinking problem. When Brandon was 10, his father, having undergone successful rehab, came back into his life. Abandoning his music career, Leo found work at a die-cast plant in Green Forest, 20 miles away, and he got together with his three children—Marty, Brandon and middle son Grady—for holidays and special occasions. Years later he made trips to Fayetteville to attend some of Brandon's games, but he seemed embarrassed to let people know that he was the father of a star player. "Dad had a button that said MY SON IS NUMBER 77, and he had a shirt we gave him one Father's Day that said BURLSWORTH 77 ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS," says Marty, "but most of the time he wouldn't wear either of them. He'd say he wanted to hear what the people around him were saying."

After Leo was out of the picture, Barbara made ends meet by running a day-care center. (She now sells real estate.) She and Leo bought Brandon his Subaru when he went off to Fayetteville, and Barbara and Brandon developed a routine every time he headed back to school. She would walk out on the porch and watch him as he backed into the street. "Watch for old big trucks and pray," she'd say. (When Brandon was a little boy, "old big trucks" were what he called 18-wheelers.)

"Mom, I love you," he always said quietly, then drove away.

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