University of Houston Senior Leroy Burrell didn't care that a lot of the leading U.S. track stars weren't at TAC's USA/ Mobil Outdoor Track and Field Championships on his campus last weekend. He didn't even care that Houston assistant coach. Olympic long jump and 100-meter-champ Carl Lewis, wasn't competing because he wanted to save himself for a flurry of continental competition.
No, Burrell cared only about atonement. He knew his obscurity was his own fault. He knew he was as fast as Lewis. He stays right with him when they work out. Yet in last month's Southwest Conference meet, the 22-year-old Burrell had come in second to TCU's Raymond Stewart—9.97 to 10.03—and two weeks later he finished fifth in the NCAA 100. He had been spreading his exceptional talent too thin by also long-jumping—a leap of 27'5½" earned him second place in the NCAAs—and running relays.
Lewis and Houston coach Tom Tellez have been frustrated by the way Burrell would start his 100's well, but would then drift off somewhere sweet-smelling and restful. "When he needs to accelerate, he just floats," said Tellez.
"I've been listening to Coach, but I haven't been able to get my body to do it," said Burrell.
June 25, 1989
At the TAC championships he passed up the long jump, ran a strong 100-meter semifinal in 10.03 and got a last-minute prod from Lewis, who told him, "You go in the middle [of the race], you run under 10." Burrell was affected. "Carl's experience is of momentous worth," he said grandly afterward. "Carl knows."
Conditions for Friday's final were ideal. A legal .73 meter-per-second zephyr of unseasonably dry Texas air cooled the runners' backsides as they rose in the blocks. Another Tellez-trained sprinter, Brian Cooper, won the start, but Burrell produced the top speed that those who knew him longed to see, and won by a meter over U.S. Olympian Dennis Mitchell. Burrell finished with his arms to the sky, redeemed.
And more. Burrell's time of 9.94 makes him the fourth-fastest 100-meter man ever. One had to wonder whether Lewis should have been in there himself, trying to beat his pupil, especially since Ben Johnson's 9.83 world record may be decertified in the wake of his sworn testimony that he took steroids to prepare for that race (page 98). Invalidate the mark he set at the '87 World Championships in Rome, and the 9.92 Lewis ran in Seoul suddenly becomes the record, with Burrell's 9.94 very close to it.
Yet Lewis, who was massaging a sore back last weekend, seemed content to leave the day to Burrell. "It helped him a lot more to win this race than it could have helped me," said Lewis, not at all grandly, just nicely.
In 1985, Burrell single-handedly won the Pennsylvania high school state meet for Penn Wood High by finishing first in four events. We might have heard of him sooner had he not torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while long-jumping for Houston in 1986. Surgery and rehab took a year. Now he, like Lewis, is a man with the Knowledge. "I have finally realized what it takes to run that fast," said Burrell. "I can build on that. I can go faster."
Another athlete just grasping his powers is Miami-Dade Community College sophomore Antonio Pettigrew. On Saturday he burst forth from the 400-meter field on the last turn and won in a blazing 44.27, the fastest time in the world this year, though still .98 of a second off the world record held by Butch Reynolds, another TAC no-show. "I based my whole season on coming to TAC," said Pettigrew. "I wanted to take hold of this race."
Except for the one year in four when it is the qualifying meet for the World Championships (to be held next in 1991), TAC seems unable to motivate most of the premier U.S. athletes to compete in their own nationals. Olympic heptathlon and long jump champ Jackie Joyner-Kersee, world-champion high hurdler Greg Foster, Olympic 400-meter-hurdle champion Andre Phillips and Olympic 200-meter champ Joe DeLoach also skipped the meet.
Athletes are like investigative reporters. They follow the money. The TAC meet awards no prize money and pays no appearance fees. European meets do. This year's TAC offered its winners little more than a trip to the World University Games in West Germany in August or to the World Cup meet in Barcelona in September.
But the meet was not entirely bereft of big names. Larry Myricks took obvious pleasure in smashing Lewis's home-field long jump record of 28 feet, winning with a soaring 28'6½". Mike Conley, who won the triple jump with a leap of 57'5", seemed a little self-conscious about having shown up. "I've never missed a TAC meet," he said. "And I won't, but it does sometimes seem that the only thing carrying the meet is shoe companies giving bonuses to the athletes they sponsor for winning here."
Yet it also appears at times that a celestial compensation system is at work. Look at David Patrick and Sandra Farmer-Patrick. The two 400-meter hurdlers were married a year and a half ago. Last year Farmer-Patrick, who was born in Jamaica, gave up an almost certain berth on that nation's Olympic team to try for the U.S. team. Whereupon she and David were plunged into Olympic trials of unremitting wretchedness. Farmer-Patrick was disqualified for running out of her lane. Patrick ran the race of his life, finishing with a rush behind only Phillips and Edwin Moses—or so he thought. Patrick took a joyous victory lap before hearing the cold truth. Kevin Young had kept him from the team, 47.72 to 47.75.
In Houston, the women's final was run first. Farmer-Patrick, in her first outdoor meet of the year, was a new and better runner. She had an eight-meter lead by the stretch and ran away to win by 15. Watching her last unforced strides, you knew you were seeing a milestone effort. Indeed, her time of 53.75 cut almost half a second from Judi Brown King's American record of 54.23.
"When she did that," said Patrick, "the pressure was on." He trailed Reggie Davis early, began to gain when Davis hit the seventh barrier, pulled even at the ninth and took him at the 10th. His winning time was 48.83, and the Patricks were the first husband-and-wife team to win events in the nationals since Hal and Olga Connolly triumphed in the hammer and discus, respectively, in 1960.
And the Patricks did it wearing the colors—scarlet and gold in this case—of the Flo-Jo International track club. Al Joyner and Florence Griffith Joyner have been coaching and sponsoring a few athletes this spring, including their old friends, the Patricks, "Florence called us up," said Farmer-Patrick, "and said they wanted to give us some money."
The Patricks answered with alacrity, and might have been speaking for a whole hungry generation of track athletes. "We'll take it," they said.