As the tagline proclaims, Greater tells the incredible true story of dreamer Brandon Burlsworth who set his mind to joining the University of Arkansas Razorbacks -- and through great effort and commitment, accomplished just that. The odds were against him and nobody was looking his way. Even his peers saw an innocent kid who just didn't understand why he couldn't make it in college football, and certainly not the NFL. But as Marty Burlsworth, Brandon’s older brother and companion through it all, emphasized in an exclusive interview with The Daily Wire, Brandon made his football goals happen because he was relentless. When he set his mind to something, you better believe you were going to witness him do it.
Brandon’s exceptional journey came to an abrupt, tragic end when a devastating car crash took his life, shocking his hometown, the state of Arkansas, and the national football community. Brandon’s short-lived career involved true honor and character, and thanks to the new film, his legacy will go further and live on as a model for others. Along with Brandon’s rise, Greater equally focuses on the loss experienced by Brandon’s family, especially his brother Marty, and the questions about God’s goodness that are stirred by the heartache and grief.
Marty Burlsworth tells us about bringing the story of Greater to the screen, his relationship with Brandon, and making one’s way through understanding and accepting God in times of crisis.
What was your first thought when someone approached you about making "Greater"? Had you ever thought of Brandon’s story as a film?
It always seemed like a movie to me. Especially after it was all over and, you know, that was bad times. Not good at all. But… me and… friends that were close to me were like “This is like a movie. It’s unreal.” But, you know, how would you make it where it wasn’t basically depressing.
So we had talked to a group or two out of California that had pitched the idea but we just never were at peace or had any comfort. They couldn’t give us any assurances that there wouldn’t be a lot of “Hollywood” going into it. Anything that wasn’t right, wasn’t real, wasn’t what Brandon was about. And we were concerned that his faith would take a big backseat...And we just weren’t up for that at all. And then we were approached 11 years ago by Brian Reindl who’s the producer- who had no experience in the filmmaking industry at all but had a passion for it. And I was equally impressed with Missy, his wife… [They] live in Fayetteville and they drove over to Harris to meet with us and she said “Whatever he sets his mind to, he gets done”... that resonates with me because that was like Brandon. You take care of it, you get things done. So that was kind of the stamp of approval there, plus they’re Christians and they didn’t want to lose that faith aspect. So we really did have a good comfort level with them plus the agreement with Brian and them having the movie made was that the family would have some “say so” if something wasn’t just right as far as the script goes and things like that and they’ve kept us in the loop all along. We’ve felt like we’ve been very involved and kept up to date on what was going on… and we’re very happy with the outcome.
So because you and your close ones felt like this story could be a film, did you make that known and/or start looking for filmmakers to bring it to life?
No, we just kind of kept that to ourselves. It just seemed like it was just a storybook thing...with a -- at that time -- just seemed like a bad ending... It’s such a great story, how can it be told, you know? Where it doesn’t have such a bad ending? But [the death was] not the ending…
We weren’t proactive at all in [making a movie]. It was just something that we thought of, you know. And then… apparently that thought process was also out there in California… we did hear from some that approached us but one thing I wasn’t 100 percent sure [of] was the commitment level over there which was why when Reindl’s wife said “[when] he sets his mind to it, he gets it done”, you know, I’ve always heard that in Hollywood [scripts] can sit on the shelf forever. Even an idea, you know...a script can sit on the shelf and never see the light of day. So you didn’t know if that was going to happen but that wasn’t really the main [concern]. The main [concern] was that it was going to go somewhere that really never happened. If there was anything inappropriate in it, of course that was all made up. We didn’t want that… Sports Illustrated did a feature piece on Brandon. I think it was in June … I think [that's] kinda when that started. The phones calls started coming right after that.
What were the vital elements that you knew had to be involved in the movie, no matter who made it, in order to fully capture Brandon’s life?
Well if you had taken God out of it, it [would’ve] been fiction. His faith is… what he relied on. It’s what he leaned on to work as hard. There were… many times… I know it was tough. I know it was hard. I would talk to him most every night. He’d call me or I’d call him and we would talk about what practice was like that day. He’d tell me what it was like but… he’d never say “it was really hard and I’m not sure I can do this”. He would just say “Yeah we did this, we did this, we did this” and it was just like “this is what we’re doing”, you know… he never [said] “I can’t do this.” That just wasn’t there because, you know, that’s where his faith led him. He knew he could.
In the film, we see a lot of moments where the Marty character is learning from the persistence and drive of Brandon. How is the dynamic in reality versus how its shown in the film?
Some of that was a little bit of filmmaking and...we were fine with it. In the movie I’m learning from Brandon and I think we’ve all learned from Brandon but… I was right there by his side all the way, you know, backing him and supporting him as far as what he was doing in school and football and the challenges. … I think the overall message of the film is we can learn from this and my character in the movie… may not be 100 percent the way it is or the way it was, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s a good story and, you know, Neal McDonough struggling in the aftermath that’s absolutely true. It’s condensed. They put it in more of a condensed form which is the way filmmaking generally always happens.
But that first year after Brandon’s accident, that was- for the whole family, [especially] my mother and me- I mean it was just… it was unreal. For someone who had worked so hard and not only did he work so hard, but [for] the family to be backing him and supporting him and talking to him everyday and seeing him everyday and [him] moving on and going on to greater things and then for that to- boom- [and be] over. That was very very tough…
…I’ve heard the director say many times “what we’ve done is [put] that [whole] first year [after the accident] in Neal’s piece in this movie. That first year has been put into the way it comes off on screen… his feelings and the way he’s taking it” and I mean it was a rough time and anyone that's had a family member that’s passed unexpectedly or too soon… can relate to that.
Greater is a very emotional movie and it deals with figuring out your faith in times of grief and loss. Was there anything that you had to do for yourself spiritually or emotionally to prepare for the making of this movie?
In the making of [the movie], sometimes we were able to be on set… some days they didn’t want us there and we didn’t want to be there. When the producer says “Today is probably not a good day [to be on set]”, that’s all he has to say. We won’t be there. Because we don’t want to be there- that close-... to some scenes that’ll be tough to watch even being filmed. As far as Brandon goes and reliving everything- through his foundation we’ve always kept his memory alive and his example out there for kids ever since his accident. You know, we established his foundation shortly thereafter [the accident]. So that makes it quite a bit easier to revisit because we’ve never really gone away. Some of the tougher scenes, you know, that’s a little different. That’s pretty tough.
From anyone who is struggling with God because of a loss they’ve faced, especially one as devastating as a close family member, what wisdom would you share with them?
[To] anyone who’s struggling with their faith when something catastrophic happens, I guess the best thing I can say is- to me- that’s somewhat normal. I mean it was for me. And I don’t want to say [it means] you're angry at God. I don’t think I got there.
But I remember going back to church...close after the accident and after the death had settled a little bit. And in Arkansas it was a statewide tragedy. It was all over ESPN. I mean everybody knew. Everybody knew…
[W]e went back to church services and I had a friend…[who] was going to lead a song or two and he started out with [a song saying] ‘God is good’ and you know ‘God is so good to me’ and I’m thinking… man, I cannot believe you’re singing that with me in the building...that’s where my mind was then. So I think it’s normal. It just takes some time. You don’t lose your faith… I had struggles because [I’d think] ‘why?’, you know. Why? Always why. And I know… a lot of good has come out of it and I think a lot of good is going to continue to come out of it and only grow what we’re [doing] through this film and through Brandon’s foundation, … to impact a lot of kids for many years.
Greater reflects that relentless energy we need in order to be the best people we can and, at times, to push further than anyone suspects we can go. Greater is currently playing in theaters and stars Neal McDonough, Christopher Severio, and Leslie Easterbrook.