He never loafed. He never cursed. He never complained. Everything was "Yes sir" and "No sir." He was a man of routine who resisted change as if it were an affliction I without a cure, who believed you stuck with what got you there. "How had do you want it?" Brandon Burlsworth asked his Arkansas teammates every time the offense came within 20 yards of the end zone. "O.K., guys," and now his voice got as loud as he ever let it, "how bad do you want it?"
He knew, as they say, only one speed. If at practice a coach made the mistake of lining up against Burlsworth to demonstrate something, the coach got punished. "First you felt his forearm, then the back of your head hitting the ground," says Tommy Tice, his coach at Harrison (Ark.) High.
Four years after he walked on at Arkansas in the fall of 1994, Burlsworth was one of the most dominant interior linemen in the country, a Football News All-America at guard, "the best to play the offensive line in Arkansas history," says Mike Bender, a former lineman who played on the Razorbacks' 1964 national championship team and, as an assistant in Fayetteville, coached Burlsworth from '95 to '97. "There has never been one like Brandon Burlsworth, and there never will be again."
"If God ever made the perfect person, it was that guy," says Razorbacks defensive lineman Sacha Lancaster. Which is why Burls-worth's death on April 28, only 11 days after the Indianapolis Colts took him in the third round of the NFL draft, left people in Arkansas in shock and asking questions that will remain unanswered. Burlsworth allowed so little room for error that the car crash that claimed his life seems inconceivable. He was driving east from Fayetteville to Harrison when he drifted over the center line, clipped the fender of an oncoming semitruck and then swerved into the path of another tractor-trailer rig, which hit his car head-on and threw it back 168 feet. Burlsworth, 22, died on a piece of road he'd traveled a thousand times. He was 15 miles from home, where he had planned to go to church and have a quiet dinner with his mother.
"Brandon just didn't make mistakes," says Don Decker, the Arkansas strength and conditioning coach, "and this is why the accident is so hard to accept. When I heard the news, I thought, Well, it had to be someone else's fault, because Brandon was definitely driving 55, and he had his seat belt on."
Burlsworth seemed destined for big things in the NFL. The Colts wanted him to start immediately. Team president Bill Polian says, "Brandon promised to be one of those players we point to and say, 'This is how it's done.' " At the NFL scouting combine in February he ran 40 yards in 4.88 seconds, best among offensive linemen, and bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times. He weighed in at 308 pounds and measured just shy of 6'4", yet he could stuff a basketball with two hands from a standing start. As awesome as he was physically, however, it was in private interviews that NFL scouts and coaches really fell for him. Polite almost to a fault, Burlsworth seemed too good to be true. Some called him a throwback, but he was better than that. He was the future.
"He always did everything exactly right," says Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, "and I've never known anyone to work as hard. At the end of last season he said, 'Coach, I want to thank you for the best year of my life in football.' I said, 'Brandon, you made it happen.' He said, 'No, it was my teammates and coaches. Y'all made it.' "
When Burlsworth began his senior year at Harrison High, in 1993, he stood only six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. A couple of small colleges showed interest in him, but he was one of those homegrown kids whose loyalty to the university in Fayetteville forbade him to pursue any fate but one in Razorback red.
Louis Campbell, then an assistant at Arkansas, made the hour-and-a-half drive to Harrison only because Tice kept hounding the Razorbacks coaches about his "big rascal," as Tice liked to call Burlsworth. Campbell met the player in Tice's office, and Burlsworth, as was his way, had little to say beyond the usual courtesies. "We sat there for about 30 minutes looking at each other and not saying a whole lot," says Campbell, now Arkansas's director of football operations. "I was thinking, 'If you want to come, come. But there ain't no way you're ever going to play.' What I couldn't see was what was brewing inside of Brandon. A lot of kids, about 35 a year, walk on here, but most quit in the first year. Some make it to the second. How many stay four years and start? I can think of only two or three in the last 10 years."
By the spring of '94 Burlsworth had put on 30 pounds and grown nearly three inches. He made a return visit to Fayetteville, and coaches were impressed by his growth but told him he needed to gain still more weight if he expected to play major college football. By summer's end he weighed 311 pounds. "You had to be careful what you told Brandon," says Tice. "You'd better be real specific and tell him just how much you wanted him to gain. Brandon believed that whatever his coach told him was right, whatever his mother told him was right and whatever his preacher told him was right. At Arkansas the coaches told him one day that his legs could be stronger: 'Brandon, you could work on that a little.' Well, he ends up squatting 700 pounds."