“Character is what you do when nobody is looking.”
So says Arkansas Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt when he finds starting lineman Brandon Burlsworth working out alone in the team gym.
Brandon disagrees: “There’s always Someone looking, Coach.”
That line of dialogue expresses the essence of Brandon’s heart in Greater, a movie based on the true story of this remarkable young man whom we hear a sports reporter call “quite possibly the greatest walk-on story in the history of college football.”
Brandon’s story is a triumphant, satisfying tale of overcoming long odds. But it’s also a tragic story of an amazing life cut short even as it began to flourish, and how those closest to him—especially his devoted brother, Marty—seek to make sense of his seemingly senseless death.
Greater is about life and faith, death and faith. And before anyone howls too loudly that I’ve just spoiled this story, well, the opening scene takes place at the monument company where Brandon’s tombstone has just arrived, with one worker there saying, “Of all people, how’s this make any sense?” A sign hanging across Main Street in sleepy Harrison, Ark., reads, “Harrison Will Always Love Brandon Burlsworth.”
The movie, then, is as much about how those who loved Brandon are coping with his loss as it is the many ways Brandon’s character, faith, integrity and perseverance enabled him to do what everyone said was impossible: start for his beloved Arkansas Razorbacks as an unheralded walk-on.
Brandon’s life isn’t an easy one. His father, Leo, is an alcoholic who until recently had zero contact with his family for a decade. His mother, Barbara, valiantly struggles to make ends meet, even as she dotes on her youngest charge. Meanwhile, Brandon’s much older brother, Marty, tries to get the overweight boy with a sweet tooth off the couch and out in the yard to play ball.
Brandon longs to play big-time college football for the Razorbacks. But he’s overweight. He’s slow. He has no real natural talent. He’s a magnet for bullies. In other words, nothing about Brandon marks him as a gifted athlete destined for glory.
Brandon’s kindhearted high school coach, however, encourages him to give his best effort. He challenges Brandon to be the first one to arrive at practice and the last to leave. Brandon takes that advice to heart—for the rest of his football career. No one is ever at practice before Brandon or stays longer. It’s just the first of many moments in the movie where the young man pairs a quietly indomitable work ethic with a teachable spirit as he takes a coach’s words to heart.
No one believes Brandon can achieve his dream, save perhaps his mother. Marty encourages him, but tries to coach him on being realistic, as do his coaches. When he meets Coach Bender at Arkansas, for instance, the man bluntly tells him that he’ll never be anything more than practice fodder for the scholarship players.
But thanks to his willingness to work, to learn, to submit and to practice the skills his coaches teach him, Brandon proves them all wrong in route to becoming a starter, an All-American and even getting drafted by the Indianapolis Colts. He goes from being a much-mocked outcast and proverbial punching bag among his peers to someone they respect and, eventually, follow as the team’s undisputed heart-and-soul leader.
Coaches deliver important life lessons throughout Brandon’s playing career. His high school coach tells the team, “You can’t control who your mom and dad is. But you can control how hard you work.” He then delivers this well-known truism: “Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, you reap a habit. You sow a habit, you reap a character. you sow a character, you reap a destiny.”
Though the outcome of Brandon Burlsworth’s life was, from an earthly point of view, tragically cut short, his legacy of diligent, dignified hard work continues to influence the Arkansas Razorbacks (the film shows us in the credits) nearly 20 years after his untimely death. We even see Brandon’s father, who’s deathly ill, wishing he could have been more like his son and made the kind of wise choices that Brandon made.
There’s a great deal of Christian content in this film. It can perhaps best be summarized by saying that Brandon’s unwavering faith deeply informs everything he does, while his brother’s faltering faith after Brandon’s death is something he grapples with mightily.
Brandon has deep trust in God. At every step along his journey, when naysayers rise up to tell him that he’s being unrealistic, Brandon keeps moving forward in faith. Marty is more pragmatic, asking his brother things like, “You think God would give you D I [Division 1] dreams and a D III (Division III) body?” To Marty, the answer to that rhetorical, spiritual question is self-evident. Brandon, however, soldiers on, refusing to give up. “Have faith, Marty,” he says elsewhere. “This is my road.”
For his part, Marty struggles to cling to his faith in the wake of his brother’s death. That internal battle is depicted in a dramatic way through ongoing dialogue with a doubter named the Farmer. Marty’s trying to summon the courage to go into Brandon’s memorial service at Harrison High School. And the Farmer, depicted very nearly as a Satan-like tempter, repeatedly delivers soliloquies about the utter foolishness of faith. In one scene, the man (who’s whittling a portrait of Marty into a block of wood, almost as if he’s creating a voodoo doll) says, “Brandon did have faith. He believed if he worked hard and did everything he was supposed to do, God would make everything turn out for the best. Did everything turn out for the best, Marty?”
Elsewhere, the Farmer taunts, “There is no loving God, Marty. That’s ridiculous. There’s just a howling void. And a real man, an honest man, doesn’t get down on his knees to pray to it for his mercy. He stands up to it, and he looks it right in his face and he howls right back.”
But Marty also talks with his godly mother about how to process the randomness of Brandon’s death. She tells him that it’s only random when looked at from an earthly perspective. “If you assume this is all there is, you’d have a point, Marty. But that’s not true. This life is a drop in the ocean. One tick of eternity’s clock, and we’ll all be together again, Marty. And every trouble we had here will recede away like a dream.”
Elsewhere, we hear hymns and passages of Scripture, see folks praying, see how Brandon’s witness influences others on the team to embrace faith themselves and watch many football players begin attending a Bible study.
A waitress at a restaurant wears a top revealing both shoulders. Football players are shown shirtless and in towels in the locker room. (One player jokingly calls another in a towel “sexy.”) A couple of scenes also show players in their underwear. Someone advises Brandon to “stay away from fast women” as he’s preparing to go to college. When Brandon gets some huge glasses to correct a vision problem, one of his teammates jokes, “Did you order no-sex specs?”
Football scenes picture some tough hits. One line of dialogue hints Brandon’s father may have physically abused him when he was younger. (“No one’s going to hurt you,” Marty tells the scared boy at one point, apparently referencing their dad.)
We hear that Brandon has been killed in an accident involving an 18-wheeler, prompting wailing grief from his bereaved mother. We see portions of funeral scenes for two characters.
When Coach Bender tells Brandon a story that includes the uncensored phrase “pile of s—,” Brandon corrects his profanity and calls it a “pile of manure” instead.
Brandon’s meanly labeled a “fat a–” three times. God’s name is taken in vain once. We also hear “heck,” “oh my gosh” and “jeez” once each. “Butt,” “turd” and “suck” are used two or three times each.
Brandon and Marty’s father, Leo, is an alcoholic and a smoker. He insists he’s tried to clean up his act when he reappears after a 10-year-absence from his sons’ lives while Brandon’s still in high school. Barb and Marty agree to let Brandon spend a night with his dad, who’s trying to reengage. But Marty lays down the law regarding his drinking around the boy: “Not one drop.” Leo fails that night, and Brandon finds the man drunk and clutching a mostly empty liquor bottle the next morning. Marty confronts Leo about this lapse and his supposed desire for sobriety, asking, “Do you really want help? I’ll be there for you. Until then, you stay out of our lives.”
Several of Brandon’s fellow Arkansas Razorbacks football players play a prank on him, tricking him into drinking two tall strawberry daiquiris that, unbeknownst to teetotaling Brandon, are laced with alcohol. He’s crushed when he finds out, and angrily leaves the restaurant to go run off the alcohol in the middle of the night in a driving rain storm.
Football players talk about alcohol being a part of college life. We see people drinking bottles of beer.
Marty is deeply invested in Brandon’s life. But sometimes his frustrations boil over in negative ways. His nickname for Brandon is “Cheesecake,” a reference to Brandon’s love of junk food. Sometimes it’s a nickname that’s lobbed with affection. Other times, however, Marty uses that nickname in a shaming way.
Brandon’s teammates initially mock both his weight and his regimented, disciplined lifestyle. One says that he’s an “OCD poster child,” while another disparages, “He’s like if Rain Man and C-3PO had a love child.”
We hear Brandon vomiting (off camera) during an intense football practice. Coach Bender relates a fable of sorts about digging through a pile of manure to find a horse presumably buried somewhere beneath.
Just when you think all the great football stories have been told, up pops another one. And unless you live in Arkansas or are a big-time college football fan, the amazing true story of Brandon Burlsworth is likely going to be new to you as it was to me.
There are familiar elements here, of course. The training sequences, the narrative that invites you to root for the underdog. But Brandon scales that metaphorical mountain, proving that hard work, discipline, faith and quiet integrity can pay enormous dividends.
If that were as far as the story went, it would be a redemptive one. But this movie also spends as much time grappling with that familiar narrative’s vexing converse: why someone who does everything right for the right reasons would suffer the seemingly cruel fate that Brandon does.
In this, Greater treads off the beaten sports-movie path into deeper philosophical and spiritual questions. It refuses to give a pat answer to why bad things happen to good people. Instead, we watch as those who survive Brandon try to come to grips with this tragedy. (And, occasionally, players and coaches use the kind of salty language we’d likely hear in a real locker room.)
Marty struggles. His mother trusts. A town mourns. But they’re all eventually able to celebrate the goodness of Brandon Burlsworth’s faith-filled life. They recognize that his legacy is one of giving your all, no matter what the outcome might be, and trusting that God will redeem it all in the end—even if the fullness of that redemption won’t be completely unfurled until the next life.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.