FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Tuesday was a rough day for memories for Arkansas fans. It was 25 years to the day since Brandon Burlsworth and Clint Stoerner were forever linked by a single play against Tennessee in a football game. But the movie was more than any simple biography of Burlsworth.
The movie True Character debuted on the SEC Network on Tuesday night. To refresh the memory or explain to the youngsters, on Nov. 14, 1998, Arkansas came within basically one play of beating No. 1 Tennessee to advance to the SEC Championship game and have a legitimate shot at a national championship they’ve never won. It was all shattered by a fumble that led to a Vols’ touchdown and a shocking win.
It had been a season to remember until that point. The Razorbacks were 8-0 in Houston Nutt’s first year as the coach and it was the fifth year for an unlikely offensive lineman from Harrison, Ark., who willed himself from a chubby little kid into an All-American guard.
He and the quarterback Stoerner were summer roommates and developed a bond. Burlsworth wasn’t a great interview. He was exceedingly nice and polite, but didn’t waste a lot of words. You asked Stoerner a 10-word question and you might get a 500-word response (a skill he’s turned into a profession talking sports on the radio). The respect between the two was immense.
The movie centered around that fumble. The Hogs were running out the clock, Stoerner was going to sprint out to run the clock down. He somehow slightly tripped over Burlsworth’s leg and instinctively put his hand down to brace the fall. Unfortunately the ball was in that hand and slipped away on the wet grass in the rain. Tennessee recovered.
These things usually have to dig deep into old archives for video clips about people connected to the whole thing because they are no longer around. Nearly all of the key people involved were a big part of it, including Nutt, Danny Ford (his first coach with the Razorbacks) and many of the teammates and people around that 1998 team.
But not Burlsworth. He was killed in an automobile crash as he was coming home from Fayetteville to take his mother to church, something he did on a very frequent basis. His dream to play for the Hogs and get drafted into the NFL had happened. The Indianapolis Colts had taken him with the 63rd pick in the NFL Draft in 1999 and had impressed them so much on a camp they had already named him the likely starter as a rookie.
It also talked about Stoerner, who never backed away from the fumble. He’s owned the play since the postgame after it happened and never put a second on Burlsworth. Stoerner played for two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, primarily as a backup. He’s still impacted by the influence of Burlsworth, whose brother, Marty, worked tirelessly to create the Burlsworth Trophy, given every year to a player who started as a walk-on and became a standout football player.
With the season winding down, the Burlsworth Trophy three finalists were named this week. They include James Madison noseguard James Carpenter, Oklahoma wide receiver Drake Stoops and Missouri running back Cody Schrader. Atotal of 74 universities from across the nation nominated a player for the 2023 award. Last week the list was narrowed to 10 semi-finalists. The Burlsworth Trophy is awarded to the most outstanding college football player in America who began his career as a walk-on.
Marty also has football clinics around Arkansas for kids. It gives them a chance to work on basic drills with former college players, but also a visit to a Razorbacks’ game. That’s something a lot of them have never experienced and their first chance.
It also gives them the chance to learn about the “Burl’s Way.” Stoerner learned that from their relationship, which is something that had a deep — and lasting — impact on awful lot of their teammate. That motto is something pretty simple and I’ve heard him repeat in talks since then and it was the basic message to take away from the movie.
“That simply means doing the right thing, even when nobody else is around,” Stoerner said. If you haven’t you need to go spend an hour or so watching it on ESPN+ (under the “Originals” menu selection) or catch a replay on the SEC Network. It’s about character … but not just one player. You can include Stoerner in that.