When Great Lives End Early for Something Greater

(photo: Photo credit: greaterthemovie.com)

Why, God? They had so much to contribute; why did you take them so young?  It’s a question that swirls around the lives of exceptional people that ended early.  

I’ve personally witnessed a dozen such losses over the years.  For instance, Betsy Roller was a cheerful and precocious little girl who never made it to second grade. What was the point of her learning to read at the age of only 3 and giving her family so much joy only to die so young? 

At the funeral of Josh Cates, 26, people came from around the country to mourn his death from a car accident.  Several people from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he was working on his PhD, were at the funeral. One instructor said.  “Josh was brilliant. Even for MIT, Josh was brilliant.” More importantly, though, was the testimony to his goodness that had touched so many.

It is such a loss that opens the movie Greater, the story of Brandon Burlsworth, (1976-1999) an offensive lineman for the Arkansas Razorbacks from 1995-98.  In the first scene, his older brother struggles with Brandon’s death.  It’s our human resistance to losing loved ones to the other side.  And when they lived lives that touched so many others, it makes us wonder why they couldn’t have stayed with us longer. 

Remarkable Lineman

Brandon Burlsworth was the most remarkable walk-on in the history of college football. Initially, his coach told him that he would never actually play in a game but would serve to help improve the team. Yet, Brandon became one of the best linemen in the country and was named a First Team All-American in 1998 and selected in the 1999 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts. He also was the first Razorback to complete a master's degree while playing football.

In 1998, a Tulsa World sports reporter wrote of Brandon: “Why does a guy with these credentials push himself harder than, say, someone who has something to prove? It's obvious. He has these credentials because he pushes himself.

…``The guy deserves everything he gets,'' said fellow senior Russ Brown. ``He deserves the millions of dollars that he's going to get (in the NFL draft) next April.

…“Burlsworth doesn't talk about himself with any amount of comfort. But he does, somewhat reluctantly, acknowledge his success. `I’m very grateful for what I've accomplished so far,'' he said. ``The Lord's been real good to me and blessed me. But you've just got to keep things in perspective. All the honors are nice, but you have to focus on the job at hand.”

Ironically, in the beginning, none of us would want to be like a Brandon Burlsworth: an over-weight, clumsy, socially awkward son of a single mother and alcoholic absentee father. When he started college, he still didn’t fit in and was made the butt of jokes. Brandon never even tried to to defend himself.  But while shouldering criticisms and mockery, and willingly taking blame for his own mistakes, Brandon touched people. He accomplished beyond anyone’s expectations but was always humble and kind.  And, he always prayed. 

At one point in the movie, a coach turned on the lights in the gymnasium and discovered Brandon had gotten up before the sun and was working out, trying to improve himself.  The coach smiled.  “Character is what you do when no one is watching,” he said to Brandon. 

Brandon smiled back. “There is always someone watching, Coach.”

His teammates and fans came to love him.  He made a difference on and off the field. And then he died. On his tombstone is written:  “Our Loss it great but God is greater.”

Yet, what consolation is that?  I look to the examples of faith around me.  In the case of Josh Cates, when I interviewed his father to include his story in Amazing Grace for Survivors, I witnessed how faith comforted him.

Steve explained that at the hospital as he gripped his son’s hand for the last time he could not imagine a world without him. Back in the hotel room: “As the four of us talked about Josh it occurred to me that in twenty-six years of being his father, I had never once felt angry at him.  ‘Has anyone ever been angry at Josh?’ I asked.  No one ever had.  I added up all our time lived of knowing Josh—113 years.  ‘We’ve known him for 113 years and in all that time, no one was ever mad at him,’ I realized.  I asked if anyone ever remembered him being unkind or ever lying or bragged.  There was never a time.

“Although we all knew Josh was an incredible human being, not until that moment did we truly understand the immensity of the life he had lived. I felt the pain of losing him would overwhelm me. ‘Why would God do this?’ I asked Cathy [his wife] in anger. 

“Cathy’s eyes were swollen from crying. ‘Steve,’ she said, her voice shaking. ‘We can’t be angry. Think of the gift God gave us for twenty-six years. We’ve talked about all the good things about Josh.  Look at what we’ve had.”’

“In an instant, Cathy’s words cut through my anger.  She continued: ‘God does not want us to be thankful for everything; he wants us to be thankful in all things. Then you will look up instead of looking down.’ “

In the case of Betsy Roller, a year after she had died, her mother Diane shared with me that although she missed her beloved daughter very much, she would not want her back.  It seemed a shocking statement for a mother to make. “Betsy is with Jesus,” she said. “She wouldn't want to come back.”  It was a testimony of true love and faith.

While watching the life of Brandon Burlsworth in Greater, I also realized that had he lived a long life, we would have merely given him a nod as a wonderful role model. Instead, his death halted the world around him while the essence of who he was came to the forefront. Brandon's jersey number, 77, was permanently retired. His locker in is encased in glass, preserved in his honor. He was elected to the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2002, and the University of Arkansas Letterman's Association Hall of Honor in 2004

Each year, the University of Arkansas gives $5,000 scholarships to 13 students for academic achievement that, like Brandon, are primarily from smaller towns.  And the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation is a Christian organization created to encourage positive values, a strong faith, and programs for underprivileged kids.

Had Brandon’s life not ended on the trail of goodness, his worldly success would have become a mere footnote. Instead, his dedication to something greater lives on, in this world and the next.

‘Greater’ is rated PG. It was originally set to open on Jan. 29, but moved to August 26 after the Pro Football Hall of Fame agreed lend its support to the movie.

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