Several years ago the long-awaited movie Greater was released, and Cathy and I had the privilege of watching the movie in a theater in Ozark, Missouri which is a few miles north of Branson. The movie covered the life of Brandon Burlsworth, a young man born and raised in Harrison, Arkansas which is about thirty miles south of Branson. This faith-based movie inspired and challenged us as we watched the life of this wonderful young man unfold, and as we saw him fulfill his dreams of becoming a phenomenal football player for the Arkansas Razorbacks from 1996-1998.
Brandon’s home life had been splintered by the absence of his father who was an itinerant country and western musician, and who had a problem with alcohol abuse. Brandon’s life was stabilized by the strong character of his mother Barbara and older brother Marty. By the time Brandon was in high school he was an overweight kid with a love for football but with no personal discipline to train. His high school coach in Harrison, Tommy Tice once told him if he wanted to play football he had to be the “first to come to practice and the last to leave.” He finished his high school days as a lineman with average abilities. He was offered a scholarship to play football at Arkansas Tech, but turned it down in order to try out as a walk-on for the Razorbacks.
In Fayetteville Brandon encountered the offensive line coach Mike Bender who initially saw no potential for him to ever play for the Razorbacks. Fortunately Mike saw his gritty determination to succeed and allowed Brandon to continue to practice. He followed Coach Tice’s advice and was always the first to arrive and the last to leave. At the end of one year Brandon had developed his body into a strong 6’3″ three hundred pounder, and had proved to Coach Bender he did have the desire, discipline and talent to play for the Razorbacks. He was offered a full scholarship at the end of his freshman year.
The movie depicted the relationship between Coach Bender and Brandon as almost one of a father to a son, and it helped me better appreciate the value of football coaches in general and more specifically Mike Bender.
Cathy and I became friends with Mike and Gayle Bender shortly after we moved to El Dorado in 1971. Mike was selected as head football coach of the El Dorado Wildcats in 1974, and I was the team physician. I watched him struggle with teams which didn’t perform well in their conference and in fact lost most of their games. Mike was accustomed to winning having been a great player himself for Strong High School (twelve miles east of El Dorado) and becoming a greater player at the University of Arkansas. He played on the 1964 team which was the only Razorback team to win the National Championship. He was drafted into the NFL and played several years with the newly franchised Atlanta Falcons.
Cathy and I were especially close to the Bender’s in those early years, because Mike and Gayle were members of our couple’s Sunday school class at First Baptist Church, and our daughter Ginny was best friends with the their only daughter, Eden. Their other child, an older son Brent had some physical challenges related to a birth incident, and because he was nearer in age to our son John they occasionally spent time and played together.
On one occasion Cathy and I were at the Bender’s home on a Friday night for a social event following a Wildcat football game, and we got to meet one of Mike’s brothers, “Little Boy” Bender. When he stood from the couch on which he was seated, he was at least 6’4″ tall weighing over two hundred and fifty pounds. I said, “I’m not sure I want to meet “Big Boy” Bender as huge as you are! He laughed and said he was so-called because he was the youngest of the Bender boys.
Because of Coach Bender’s belief in Brandon’s abilities while instilling in him sound playing and coaching principles, Brandon became a starting offensive guard in his sophomore year. He performed so well the next year he was selected as one of the Captains of the team and named to the All SEC 1st Team Offense. Before his senior year a new head coach, Houston Nutt was named to lead the Razorbacks replacing Head Coach Danny Ford. Coach Nutt was the one who coined the phrase, “Doing it the Burl’s Way” when challenging the team to do the right thing in life or when playing football especially when no one was watching.
As with all head coaching changes many assistant coaches are replaced by other coaches chosen by the new leader. Under Coach Nutt Mike Bender was replaced as a Razorback coach, and he pursued other coaching opportunities. He was not present for Brandon’s senior year when he excelled as a man and a player, receiving not only repeat 1st team honors All SEC, but also 1st Team All-American as well. Academically Brandon was named to the All SEC Academic Honor Roll for each year he was on the team and was the first Razorback ever to receive his master’s degree before playing in his last game, which was the Citrus Bowl in Orlando in January, 1999.
To complete his unbelievable rise to football fame Brandon was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in the third round, and following the initial training camp tryout he was assured by the Colt’s line coach he would be a starting guard on the team the following year. Tragically Brandon died in an automobile accident just weeks before reporting to the team in Baltimore. He was travelling from Fayetteville where he had worked out and was driving to Harrison in order to “take his Mother to church.” We recently learned he had a meal with his good friend Brent Bender just prior to leaving for Harrison.
As in life no individual achieves any measure of success apart from the influence of many people, so a football player does not become great without the instruction and encouragement of a great coach. Mike Bender was used of God in the athletic training of one of the greatest players to don a Razorback uniform. Without knowing for sure I believe both coach and player helped mold each other’s character and Christian witness. In the final analysis God’s purposes for the talents He gives is for us to use them to lead others to a full life in Christ. Both Coach Mike Bender and Brandon Burlsworth did so beautifully for each other.
Note: On the day this blog story was posted, I read in the Arkansas Gazette Mike Bender stepped into eternity having died in his sleep the night before. I am very sad because I would have liked for him to read this tribute to him, but I do believe he is at peace with God and in the presence of his Savior.