Football: North Marion's James Rhodes earns Brandon Burlsworth Character Award
When it came time for the North Marion football coaching staff to hand out team awards at the end of the 2017 season, there was one honor that took little to no deliberation. James Rhodes, a senior, a captain and a lineman was a hands-down lock for the Brandon Burlsworth Character Award.
"I talked to the staff and it was a no-brainer," Head Coach Doug Bilodeau said. "It was unanimous."
Coaching staffs hand out awards every season. Not just the all-conference and all-state awards that honor the most prolific athletes, but team awards that highlight individuals who made great strides from one season to the next, or awards for those who were inspirational beyond their performance on the field.
The Brandon Burlsworth Character Award is something bigger.
The award was created to honor Burlsworth, a 1994 walk-on to the University of Arkansas. Burlsworth worked his way onto the Razorback roster, becoming a captain, an All-SEC honoree, an All-American and a four-time member of the Academic Honor Roll, earning a master's degree prior to finishing his career at Arkansas.
Burlsworth was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the third round of the 1999 NFL draft, but was killed in an automobile collision 11 days later. To honor his commitment and memory, the University of Arkansas created an endowment in Burlsworth's name, handing out academic and athletic scholarships to upper classmen who exemplify the qualities that Burlsworth represented.
The award expanded to honor Arkansas high school student athletes 11 years ago and grew further to become a nationwide award to put a spotlight on players who may not be the most gifted athlete on their team, but who represent the ideals, values and morals that Burlsworth showed in his career at Arkansas.
Bilodeau knew he had just such a player in Rhodes this year and wanted to make sure that the senior was recognized beyond just the Honorable Mention award he received as an offensive lineman in the Oregon West Conference.
"It's a nice way of honoring a kid," Bilodeau said. "You can honor a kid's athleticism all the time, but this world is missing character and it's just a great way to honor him."
What makes the award particularly special is that it's not strictly an annual award. Coaches are not beholden to give it out each year, but to only honor those particular players who show strength of character and moral value.
Rhodes was a natural choice for the North Marion coaches. In a sport that often fuels athletes to be amped up on adrenaline to the point where they lose control of their composure on the field, Rhodes was a player who never broke, no matter the condition.
"There's a lot of heated games where guys will taunt you and try to get you to do something stupid," Bilodeau said. "James avoids all that. He kept his cool, kept working, kept chopping the wood."
Off the field it was more of the same. While much of the team had commitments elsewhere during the summer, Rhodes was there at 7-on-7 practice in July, catching passes and running drills with a small group of teammates.
He was quick to step up into leadership positions when needed, cleaning up after games and practicing, even filling in for injured starter RJ Magana.
"He's always doing stuff for other people in the program, doing those extra things," Bilodeau said. "He's a guy you can trust. The team rallied around him because he was a good teammate. Just being there and doing what he did."
Rhodes was always patient and respectful with the coaching staff, Bilodeau said, in those extraordinarily rare occasions when the coaches laid into him for a mistake he didn't commit.
"I could get on him, and I could be wrong," Bilodeau said. "He'd wait until I was done. He didn't get upset. He didn't get mad. He just figured, 'I'm not going to tell him he's wrong until he's done talking.'"
Rhodes becomes just the second North Marion player to earn the award, joining former teammate Brian Westman, who was honored in 2015. Westman was the measuring stick with which he compared Rhodes, and now the two will leave a legacy at the North Marion football program that will be difficult for future players to match.
"It's not every year you're going to have a guy like that," Bilodeau said. "I couldn't think of a better guy."