"Greater", the true story of Brandon Burlsworth, the greatest walk-on in the history of college football, opens this Friday and promises to encourage, inspire, and entertain audiences of all ages.
Written by Brian Reindl and starring Chris Severio and Neal McDonough, "Greater" tells the story of Brandon, a devout Christian who dreamed of playing for the Arkansas Razorbacks. Undeterred by those who told him he wasn't good enough to play professional football, Brandon took a risk and walked on in 1994.
Despite receiving little support from his teammates and coaches, Brandon refused to give up in the face of overwhelming odds, eventually becoming the most respected player in the history of the program. In 1998, Brandon was a First-Team All-American, the Razorbacks' first such player in nine years.
Tragically, Brandon was killed in a car accident the following year, shortly after being selected in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts. But while his life ended all too soon, Brandon left behind a legacy of faith, determination, and perseverance.
Brandon's death was particularly hard on his older brother, Marty (McDonough), who supported and loved his brother throughout his short life. Heartbroken, Marty experienced a crisis of faith and struggled with why a loving God would let something so terrible happen to someone so good.
Eventually, Marty came to grips with the cruel twist of fate, and founded the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation to help other kids overcome challenges in their lives.
The Gospel Herald had the honor of speaking with the real-life Marty Burlsworth, who opened up about faith, his brother's legacy, and why he believes audiences will be pleasantly surprised by "Greater".
GH: What was it like to have your story - and your brother's story - be the subject of a movie?
MB: It was just incredible. Several years ago, just after Brandon's accident, we took a few calls from Hollywood producers asking about doing a film, and we never could get them to say that Brandon's story would be told accurately, that there wouldn't be stuff made up. Brian Reindl, who lives in Fayetville, AK, who had no experience making a movie, came to Harrison and approached us about making a movie. He said he wanted to tell Brandon's real story, that he would not leave out his faith, which no one else could guarantee. Our family agreement was that we would have some say in how things were portrayed. Not that we wanted to micromanage - we wanted to stay out the way completely. And, for the most part, we did. They went through several different scripts over the years - I've got scripts on file that aren't even close to what the movie was made off of. It was just a progression of getting to where it needed to be. It's 11 years in the making - if it had been 9 or 10 years in the making, it wouldn't have been what we've got on screen, which is incredibly powerful and incredibly well written.
GH: Would you say that the faith element of the film was the most important thing for filmmakers to grasp?
MB: I think so yeah. I'd say that as a family, that's what we wanted them to grasp. There was a lot there to get, which is a "never give up attitude" and an inspirational message, even though with Brandon's accident, people wondered, "How's that ever not gonna be a downer in a movie?" Well it's not, and it took a lot of time, a lot of years, a lot of rewriting the script to get it to the point where people would leave the theater feeling good and inspired and uplifted. That was incredible feat to be able to pull that off. Brandon's faith, my family's faith, my mother's faith comes through very strongly on the screen. My character struggles, which I did - I mean, I had some tough, tough times for quite sometime because I was trying to make sense of it. What I wasn't getting was that there was no sense to be made of it, that's not what it's about. We don't know the answers, we don't know the why, we just know that one day we will. There's a bigger picture that we can't see right now, but one day it'll become clear.
GH: You talked about how you had a crisis of faith and how that was portrayed accurately in the movie. So, throughout the filming process, did you experience those feelings and emotions once again?
MB: No, not really. But you're never over it. I can be giving a talk to a football team somewhere, and I get myself choked up talking about Brandon, talking about what he did. I will get my mind in a place it doesn't need to be. It'll always be something different, but I get emotional. In the film, my character is struggling, and it shows a condensed version of what it was like for me the first year after Brandon's accident. But, you know, I'm always Type A. I'm trying to push things and make things happen, and when the rug is jerked out from under you the way it was there, I just didn't know what to do with that. It was just beyond belief.
GH: What do you think viewers might be surprised about the most?
MB: I want everyone to go to it expecting it to feel good, because you will. It's a roller coaster of emotions, there's a lot of funny stuff, a lot of really good stuff in this movie, and then there's some sad times. Brandon goes through some things, even in junior high, or the college level where he's getting picked on. And it's about overcoming and proving himself, and even though he was lost in a car accident, you don't leave the theater thinking, "Wow, that was really sad." It is not a sad movie. There is some sadness in it, but it's so well done, so well written. What a challenge to be able to write this in a way where it does come off that way, where people leave the theater feeling good and wanting to see it again. We think it's so well done, it'll spread to more theaters every week and have a long, long stay in the theater chains.
GH: What emotions did you and your family experience after viewing the final cut of the movie?
MB: Actually, the movie was going to be released in January, and then it was delayed, which was the exact right thing to do. We were able to view it before the premiere in January - the producer thought we might want to see it for the first time at the premiere, and I said, "No," because I didn't want my wife and I, and my mother, and then our sons to see that, because it was going to be too emotional. And, itt was emotional to watch. The producer and his wife brought it to our house, and we were able to see it, and there was some tough stuff in there. But, our family was able to watch it and really feel good about it and feel like it was done in the right way, and that you're not just emotionally sapped by the end of it. You're not gonna be leaving the theater crying, so that's a great thing.
GH: What advice would you give to others who might be struggling their faith in light of tragedies like you experienced with Brandon?
MB: I think that's a good question - I think, especially when you've lost someone unexpectedly, or too young, and in Brandon's case someone who had struggled and worked and made sacrifices and was about to reap the rewards of that, is that I think it's normal to - I don't wanna say doubt your faith, but it's normal to have a hard time dealing with it, it's normal to feel bad about it and struggle to make sense of it. You kind of forget you're not going to make sense of it. You always try to figure out why, why, why, and we just need to leave that alone and remember it's normal to go through a time period where you're in a fog and you're not certain about anything. But, time makes it better. Does it ever go away completely? No, but that's okay, too - when the time comes, and you'll know when the time comes, then you can move on and make something good of what they did while they were here.