FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Brian Reindl refers to himself as a “walk-on filmmaker.”
The 52-year-old real estate developer didn’t go to film school. Until 11 years ago, Reindl had never attempted anything remotely connected to the movie business — other than, of course, watching lots of movies.
So it’s quite fitting that Reindl’s first film explores the life of Brandon Burlsworth, the iconic, bespectacled Arkansas football legend and namesake of the annual trophy presented to college football’s most accomplished walk-on.
Once a far-fetched dream in one ambitious Razorback fan’s mind, “Greater” will premiere Tuesday at Fayetteville’s Malco Razorback Cinema. The film will be released three days later in more than 200 theaters, mostly within the SEC footprint.
The long-awaited release of “Greater” comes more than 17 years after Burlsworth’s tragic, untimely death at the age of 22. He has lived on through the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation’s scholarships, awards and work with needy children.
And now, his legend will light up the silver screen, thanks to Reindl’s persistence and young actor Christopher Severio, whose portrayal of Burlsworth marks his feature film debut.
“I ran into so many brick walls through this process,” Reindl said in a recent interview with SEC Country. “Eleven years ago, I had no experience and no connections.
“But if I’ve ever had a calling in my life, this was it.”
Reindl grew up in Alabama, but has lived in Arkansas since 1984. He worked in graphic design, marketing and real estate management, and over the years, became a loyal Razorback football fan. In the mid-to-late 1990s, he also became a big fan of Brandon Burlsworth.
Burlsworth’s story is well-known: A chubby, unathletic offensive lineman from Harrison, Ark., Burlsworth walked on at Arkansas instead of accepting a scholarship offer from smaller schools.
He was never expected to actually play for the Razorbacks, but through passionate, obsessive work, slimmed down and then built himself back into a powerful SEC lineman. He earned a scholarship, became a two-time All-SEC selection and a first-team All-American his senior year in 1998.
Burlsworth became the first-ever Arkansas football player to complete a master’s degree before playing in his final game.
Reindl proudly watched on TV as the Indianapolis Colts made Burlsworth a third-round NFL dDraft choice in April 1999.
“This is a guy that deserved everything he got,” Reindl thought at the time. “He worked for it. Nothing was given to him.”
Reindl saw Burlsworth’s image on his TV again 11 days later and assumed a follow-up story was coming, perhaps an update on how the former Hog was doing. Instead, an anchor delivered the news that Burlsworth had died in a car accident between Fayetteville and his hometown of Harrison.
Pretty soon, Reindl began thinking, “The guy even looks like a movie character. Somebody’s gotta make a movie about this guy’s life.”
But six years passed and nobody did. That’s when Reindl — who had zero experience in the wild, rough and tumble movie business — started to wonder why he couldn’t do it himself.
He read every book he could find on screenplay writing, spoke with industry professionals and even attended a few writing classes in Los Angeles. He purchased stacks of DVDs, many sports-centric movies but also other films in which the main character dies.
Then Reindl contacted the Burlsworth family, eventually meeting with Barbara and Marty, Brandon’s mother and brother, respectively.
Despite his non-existent filmmaking background, the two sides felt a quick connection.
“I think they sensed they could trust me,” Reindl said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but these are the same people who believed that Brandon Burlsworth could start for a Division I football team.
“These people are eternal optimists.”
Reindl spent years interviewing those who knew Brandon, and relied heavily on Jeff Kinley’s 2001 book, “Through the Eyes of a Champion: The Brandon Burlsworth Story.”
He teamed up with director and co-writer David Hunt, and the duo wrote and rewrote the screenplay several times over the ensuing years it took — “Greater” is an independent film made on a tight budget — to finally reach the casting stage.
Severio auditioned for and earned the leading role. A young actor from Louisiana, he never played football growing up and needed intense training to accurately portray Burlsworth.
The football scenes were shot inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium and at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium over a two-week period in 2013.
“We were filming 12- to 16-hour days, sometimes longer than that,” Severio recalled in a recent telephone interview. “It was mentally, physically and spiritually exhausting. That really broke me, but it also gave me a new respect for the sport and made me fall in love with it.”
Severio — whose Louisiana family is full of LSU fans — now calls himself a “die-hard” Arkansas football fan.
But Severio said his passion for the project stemmed not just from the fact that “Greater” represented his first role in a movie. After he met Barbara and Marty Burlsworth, Severio did everything he could to ensure he wouldn’t let them down.
“I’m just truly honored to be part of it,” Severio said, audibly choking up. “I get emotional talking about it because the story is just so powerful.”
For their part, the Burlsworths loved the final product. They saw it for the first time during a small, private screening in their home with Reindl eight months ago.
Through their work with the Burlsworth Foundation, the family has retold Brandon’s story hundreds of times since his death. But seeing it all play out in movie form brought back some emotions, especially during the scene when officers deliver the news of Brandon’s death.
“There are several parts of the film that were spot on,” Marty Burlsworth said in an interview, “but that scene at the house is exactly spot on. Those are memories you’ll never forget.”
Marty — portrayed in the film by veteran Hollywood actor Neal McDonough of “Band of Brothers” and “Desperate Housewives” fame — is one of the film’s main characters. His crisis of faith in the aftermath of Brandon’s death is an overriding theme.
And now, after all these years of waiting .. and waiting … and waiting some more, everyone involved is eager for the public to see the result of Reindl’s years-old vision.
“The family is very, very happy with it,” Marty Burlsworth said. “We hope the public is as happy with it as we are.”
Editor’s note: “Greater,” a feature film portraying the life of Arkansas football legend Brandon Burlsworth premieres next week in Fayetteville, Ark., and will be released in more than 200 theaters on Friday, August 26. You can find a theater showing “Greater” near you on the movie’s official website, and view the trailer below.