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story.lead_photo.caption All-American offensive lineman Brandon Burlsworth started his football career as a walk-on for the Arkansas Razorbacks. Shortly after being drafted by the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, Burlsworth was killed in a car wreck near his hometown of Harrison. The 2016 movie Greater chronicles Burlsworth’s life and faith, and now a Sunday school curriculum uses clips from the movie and Biblical passages to teach about character.

"Cheesecake." "Lunchbox." "Walk-on."

The late Brandon Burlsworth endured some cruel nicknames until he reached success as an offensive lineman for the Arkansas Razorbacks. Then those names changed to the likes of "Scholarship," "All-American" and "Good Kid."

Becoming Greater

The 12-week Sunday school curriculum is available for free on the website of the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation. View it here.

Those nicknames, the labels they hung on Burlsworth, and the people around him are discussed in the first chapter of Becoming Greater: A Biblical Study of the Movie 'Greater,' a Sunday school curriculum developed by Michael Covey of Jonesboro. In this chapter, the Sunday school facilitator plays clips from the movie in which others are assigning Brandon nicknames.

"Name changes are common in scripture, too," reads the lesson. "In the Bible, a person's real name had meaning -- like a nickname. It was given to him because of something unique about his character. For example: 'Jacob' means 'deceiver.' So as a person gave his name, it told others what they could expect when they interacted with him. Often, God would change a person's name as his character and purpose changed. Jacob was changed to 'Israel,' meaning 'struggled with God,' as he physically wrestled his Lord in Genesis 32:24-30."

In a personal reflection, the Sunday school members are asked to read the story of Jabez.

Jabez was more honourable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, "I gave birth to him in pain." Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, "Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain." And God granted his request.

-- 1 Chronicles 4:9-10

Then they answer questions: What pain have you experience in your life that you still think about today? Do these events affect your decisions today? In what ways has this pain influenced others' perceptions of you when you make decisions? How might this sorrow prevent you from becoming "greater"?


Greater, a 2016 release, tells the life story of Burlsworth, who rose from mediocrity to greatness depending on his faith. Just 10 days after being drafted by the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, Brandon Burlsworth, 22, died April 28, 1999, in a car wreck on U.S. 412, just a short distance from his hometown of Harrison. He was on his way home from Fayetteville to attend church with his mother, reads a biography on the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation website.

"The movie is not exaggerated," said Marty Burlsworth, Brandon's older brother, father figure and biggest fan."The movie wouldn't have been him if they took the faith out. That's not him. And we want everyone to know (about his faith)."

Covey -- who calls himself a fan of all Arkansas sports -- watched the movie Greater the first weekend of its release in 2016. "It reminded me of Brandon's life and how he lived out the scriptures," Covey said. And he wanted to share that message with others.

Covey had gotten to know Marty Burlsworth and his wife Vickie when his son, Kinman Covey, received the Burlsworth Character Award as a high school football player at Brookland High School. Covey approached them about his idea for a Sunday school program.

"It was still in theaters when he got in touch with us with the idea," Marty Burlsworth said.

"We had talked about a Sunday school lesson," Vickie added. Like the movie production, "we were just sitting here and people contacted us." She said she doesn't believe in coincidences.

Vickie and Marty Burlsworth are dedicated to fulfilling Brandon's dream of helping underprivileged children through the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation. In addition to recognizing high school football players of good character, the foundation provides free vision checks and glasses, gives children a chance to attend Razorback games, provides scholarships, offers a football camp and awards outstanding NCAA athletes who start their careers as walk-ons.

Covey humbled himself in the face of such service, explaining he is a lay speaker and a Sunday school teacher at Community Fellowship Church in Jonesboro.

"I felt they really took a risk," he said of the Burlsworths. "I haven't been to seminary. I'm not ordained. I'm just a lay minister. But they let me walk on their team like Brandon walked on the Razorbacks."

The first lesson --"What's in a Name?" -- is one of the author's favorites. "It's letting you know you can change your name, or change who you are," Covey said. "Brandon was labeled as someone who was not good enough. He had to walk on to prove it.

"God has this same plan for us who submit and follow the scripture to make a better self."


On Mondays, the DeWitt Dragons junior football team has short practices. After practice, some of the players gather at the home of Johnathan Eggerman and his family. Eggerman is dean of students and a football coach at DeWitt Middle School.

Eggerman explained that many students at his school live in households with low socio-economic profiles. "And if you can have the opportunity to feed them tacos ... I've learned that the way to football players' hearts is through food. It's a way to give back to the kids for working so hard. It's an opportunity to pour into the kids."

Through the years, the community has supported Eggerman in his efforts by joining the group and providing meals.

"Then somebody suggested, 'As long as we're here, why don't we have a Bible study,'" Eggerman said. Covey likens the gatherings to the coach's Bible study Brandon Burlsworth attended in college and in the movie.

Eggerman said he was looking for a Bible study for football players. Eggerman's wife, who is a teacher, used to work for Covey's wife, a school principal in Brookland. And the connection was made.

"As a football coach, football dominates your life," Eggerman said. "(The study) was a great opportunity to try to integrate the ideas of faith. When we're in two-a-days (practices), times are hard -- maybe especially on players who are not starters. In the movie, they get to see someone who made it."

"(Brandon) had a choice back then -- to sink or swim," Marty Burlsworth said. "He was sinking for a little while, but he couldn't let it end right there."

"All that he accomplished ...," Vickie Burlsworth said. "I couldn't believe that he had time to do what he went over there to do."

"It's not until the very end of the movie when Brandon is finally given something," Eggerman continued. "One of the kids -- who doesn't come from a lot -- told me, 'Coach, I understand. It's nice to know sometimes people make it.'"

The lessons of Becoming Greater, with the short video clips, are great for his players, Eggerman said. "The attention span of 13- to 15-year-olds has never been a strong point."

And the format allows all kids to participate in the discussion. The first-stringers were willing to join the conversation early in the study, but soon all opened up.

"All of them got a lot out of it," Eggerman said. "They got to see what impact faith had on the life of a young man.

"But it's not just faith. It opened their eyes to what their teammates might be going through. It's made them better leaders."


Other lessons in Becoming Greater focus on alcohol and drug addiction, food and eating disorders, bullying.

"Things we all deal with in different stages of life," Vickie Burlsworth said. "Faith is the base of everything. Everywhere, someone is hurting. I don't know how people make it through death, divorce, bullying, without something to cling to.

"With Brandon, everything was about his faith," she continued. "He was a Christian seeking academics. He put faith and God first."

The family has so many stories people have shared about Brandon that he didn't share himself because he wouldn't brag about himself, Vickie said.

At one away game, Brandon met a custodian whose son had just started wearing glasses. Brandon wrote a letter of encouragement to the boy, she shared.

"No telling what we still don't know," Marty said. "He wasn't trying to hide it. He just wasn't going to brag about anything. He just lived by example, never preaching."

"Brandon felt this was his pilgrimage, his road, his purpose," Covey said. "And Brandon is still pointing people to the church 20 years after the accident."

One lesson in the curricula Becoming Greater focuses on death, loss and grief. "We've had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows," Marty Burlsworth said.

"We had those highs, highs all those years," Vickie recalled. "Brandon goes to Indiana and got to meet (renowned Colts quarterback) Peyton Manning. Days later, we got the call.

"It's OK to grieve, to be mad, to question God," she continued.

"People try to tell you when you're going to get over it," Marty added. "I'll never be over it, but I'll learn to compartmentalize."

"We want him back from heaven, selfishly, but we know it's the best," Vickie said. "A lot of good has been done in his name. It wouldn't impact people if it wasn't the way it is. I really believe all things happen for good.

"He was so good. He got his reward early."

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord. "Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

-- Jeremiah 29:11

NAN Religion on 08/26/2017

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