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The Time When Rush Limbaugh Helped the Arkansas Football Program The Time When Rush Limbaugh Helped the Arkansas Football Program
The legacies of America's most polarizing radio host and Arkansas football's most beloved star intertwine. The Time When Rush Limbaugh Helped the Arkansas Football Program

Rush Limbaugh was, to put it gently, a polarizing figure.

The longtime conservative radio host, who died today at age 70, was lionized in some circles as someone who spoke up for values that many Americans feel are being wiped away by the encroachment of the secular world. 

“Rush spoke truth to power – no matter who had the power,” Arkansas U.S. Representative Rick Crawford Tweeted. “In his one microphone, he gave voice to millions who felt unheard. He amplified what was best about our country; ideas, beliefs, and pursuits of freedom, liberty, and happiness. Rest In Peace, Mr. Limbaugh.”

In other circles, Limbaugh is reviled as racist provocateur. In 2003, when he briefly worked as an NFL analyst for ESPN, he said this about Philadelphia quarterback Donvoan McNabb: “The media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.”

Yikes. 

That didn’t land well at the time. And it certainly hasn’t aged well. 

Love him or hate him, though, when it comes to Razorback sports, Limbaugh appears to have helped more than hurt. Even though his mother was from Searcy, Ark., and he grew up right across the border in Cape Girardeau, Mo. Limbaugh didn’t follow Arkansas football closely as an adult. 

So when the story of Brandon Burlsworth in the form of movie “Greater” came across his desk in 2016, he had never heard of the former All-American Razorback who tragically died in a car accident while driving home to take his mother to church. 

So Limbaugh checked the movie out. It moved him enough to talk about it on his nationally syndicated show.

“He is the most famous walk-on success story in college football, and to this day there is a national award given to the college football player who achieves the most as a walk-on every year,” Limbaugh said. “He was teased. He was ridiculed. He was bullied. He was laughed at. He was told he couldn’t do it, and he never stopped smiling.” 

This is no lie. I was a senior at Little Rock Central High when I met Brandon Burlsworth for the first and only time. The University of Arkansas was recruiting me and a bunch of other seniors toward an academic scholarship and part of their laying out of the red carpet was attending a home game. Afterward, they took us into the locker room and I remember shaking Burlsworth’s hand and exchanging some casual greeting. I don’t remember what. But he had a very mature, honest kind of look about him. I could tell he was a special person.

Limbaugh, like so many others who saw the movie “Greater,” came away from a much bigger appreciation for Burlsworth and the hard work it took for him to get where he got. “No connections, no networking. Nobody knew anybody. Nobody in his family knew anybody to call at Arkansas. You had to earn every step of it.” 

That’s the kind of person that the Arkansas football program thrives on recruiting. 

Someone with an edge. You see that in Hogs linebacker Grant Morgan, who should have won the Burlsworth Trophy this past year for the nation’s best walk-in. Morgan, of course, had pre-built ties through his older brother Drew, but that didn’t mean he got to walk in and play from Day 1. He, like Burlsworth, had to scrap and claw his way into becoming a star over the course of four years. 

For a sense of Burlsworth’s hard work, watch this clip from the movie where he drops from 330 to around 280:

The movie, which took a decade to make and cost $9 million, came out in August 2016. It was an instant smash in Arkansas, the No. 1 film in 25 of the 27 theaters in Arkansas over its opening weekend.

Limbaugh’s promotion of the movie turned it into a national phenomenon. 

“The movie is doing amazing,” the executive director of the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation told Arkansas Money & Politics. “Since Rush Limbaugh started promoting it, we have been on a roller coaster ride.  We hear from people all over the country who have been inspired by the movie. Theaters are calling in and requesting the movie. Last week they heard from Rhode Island.”

Limbaugh wasn’t a Razorback fan, but his promotion of Burlsworth’s story and the movie on a national level indirectly helped the Razorback brand. It helped create another avenue for people to learn about Arkansas football and its legacy. 

More importantly, it got the word out on a man who is as universally loved as Limbaugh is polarized. 

***

Burlsworth was on track to become a starting lineman for Indianapolis when he died. He would have protected Peyton Manning for a decades, says one former Colt here:

Here’s a great recap of his life:

Who was Brandon Burlsworth?

When Brandon Burlsworth arrived from Harrison to the U of A in 1994, he had no money, no famous last name, and no Division 1 scholarship offers.  “Through his unbelievable work ethic and ceaseless determination, Brandon not only earned a scholarship, but became team captain, All-SEC 1997-1998, First Team All-SEC 1998, Football News First Team All-American in 1998, and the first All-American from the University of Arkansas in a decade.His success was not limited to the gridiron.  He was also named to the All-SEC Academic Honor Roll every year from 1995-1998, and was the first football player in the entire history of his university to earn a Masters degree “before” playing his last game,” according to the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation.

“Brandon Burlsworth was selected by the Indianapolis Colts as the 63rd overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft.  After minicamp, he was projected by his coaches to start as a rookie.  Unfortunately, Brandon was tragically killed in a head-on automobile collision just 11 days after the draft.”

“Today, The University of Arkansas has created an endowment in Brandon’s name.  They award eighteen $5,000 academic scholarships, and one $10,000 Walk-0n athletic scholarship each year.  The Brandon Burlsworth Foundation is engaged in various charitable endeavors including the provision of free eye-care to thousands of underprivileged children.”

“In 2010 The Burlsworth Trophy was created to honor the achievements and successes of the Walk-On athlete. It is presented annually to the Most Outstanding player who began his career as a Walk-On.”

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