Burlsworth still remembered by Indianapolis

Scripps Howard News Service
Published Sunday, January 16, 2000

INDIANAPOLIS -- The big brother knows he will get a call this weekend, knows that he'll hear from the Colts.

He's not exactly sure when the call will come, mind you, but it's 17 games into the season and it always does.

The Colts called before the Patriots game. They called before they played the Bengals, the Dolphins, the Cowboys, the Chiefs.

"It's a habit now, I guess," says the big brother. "It helps."

Mostly, they talk about the game, about the weather, about this or that. The Colts usually ask about his mom. He usually says she's doing OK, and aiming for good. And then, one way or another, they talk about his little brother, too.

"I always tell them I want him to be remembered," says the big brother. "That's all. I don't want anyone to forget him.

"The calls, they tell me that he is."

This is a love story. And it's all the more remarkable -- a testimony to the depth of the love, really -- when you realize that the leading man is dead and gone.

His name is Brandon Burlsworth. You remember him as the quirky, throwback guard for the Arkansas Razorbacks, the one with those thick, black Drew Carey glasses.

He went from walk-on to All-American. From All-American to the third-round pick of the Colts last April 17. Then, 11 days after the draft -- less than a week after returning from a Colts minicamp -- Burlsworth was killed in a car accident as he drove from Fayetteville to Harrison to go to dinner and church with his mom.

"Devastating," says Marty Burlsworth, 39, Brandon's agent and older brother by 16 years. "He had attained his goal of making it to the NFL. And then it was taken away so quick."

There was a big funeral that week, then a Brandon Burlsworth day in Harrison. The Colts did the expected thing, and sent officials to both. But Burlsworth never even suited up for the team. He never played a down. So when the officials went back to the big city, the Burlsworths figured that would be it. They'd be left with their grief and their memories. The Colts would simply find another guard and move on.

Only that's not how it happened, that's not how it happened at all. Somehow, during that brief minicamp, a relationship was formed. Somehow, a bond was forged that has lasted all year.

"I can't explain it, but Brandon really touched a chord up here," says Craig Kelley, the Colts director of media relations. "He inspired people. That's just the kind of person he was. We have a clip file on every player. And the file we have on Brandon is thicker than the ones for some players who have been here five years."

The Colts invited the Burlsworths to come for the season opener against the Bills, so they could honor Burlsworth at halftime. They devoted a page to Burlsworth in the media guide. They put his initials in a black decal on their helmets.

And then, after all that, the calls started, the calls that have never stopped. Every weekend, Kelley would call Marty, and it didn't matter where he was. He'd call from the practice field. He'd call from the team hotel. When Indianapolis played the Bills in Buffalo, he called as the Colts drove to the stadium on the team bus.

"It got to be part of our routine," Kelley says. "Part friendship, part good-luck charm."

That's the mystical part of it, really. Kelley kept calling and the Colts kept winning. So did Burlsworth's high school team at Harrison High. So did Burlsworth's college team, Arkansas.

"I'm not saying it's connected," Marty says. "I know it's not. But all those teams carried Brandon in their hearts."

When Harrison won the state title in Little Rock, Marty called Kelley from the field after the game.

When Arkansas upset Tennessee and then beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl, Kelley called Marty to share in the joy.

And now that the Colts are rolling into the playoffs?

"I hope," Marty says, "we can make it a clean sweep."

Now, it would be nice to be able to tell you that all this winning has erased the pain for the Burlsworth family, but that would be elevating football to a place it doesn't belong.

Barbara Burlsworth, the mother, is still mostly numb. Marty visits the gravesite every day. He props up the porcelain teddy bear that sits by the grave, wearing tiny thick black glasses like the ones Brandon wore. Sometimes, at night, he goes just to shine his headlights on the stone.

So, no, the winning hasn't made the pain disappear. But it's helped.

"It's been a very, very hard year," Marty says. "But Brandon thought of himself as a Colt. He has his Colts uniform number on his grave. And wherever the team is going, Brandon is going as well."

As for the Colts, they've have been affected, too. More than they ever would have imagined when they drafted Burlsworth nine months ago.

"It's been profound," Kelley says. "In this business, so many people come and go, you forget that they're people. But everyone has a family. Everyone comes from somewhere. Brandon reminded me of that, and I think I treat everyone a little differently because of him."

(Geoff Calkins writes for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.)

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