The track at the University of Houston's Robertson Stadium is a throbbing red, as though baked with the heat from some primal fire. It's only early June, yet the sun is merciless, pushing the temperature into the mid-90's and transforming the skyscrapers of downtown Houston into a mirage of shimmering mirrors. Some days the track gets so hot that Leroy Burrell has to pour water on it before he can place his fingers on the surface to practice his start.
Burrell is clad in black bicycle tights, and his broad, muscular back drips with sweat. He settles into his blocks; two lanes to his right, Carl Lewis does the same. They rise to the set position, rock back and forth and then explode from the blocks. Fifty meters down the track they ease up, turn and walk slowly back.
"Was that better?" Burrell asks his coach, Tom Tellez. "It felt easier."
"Much better," Tellez says. "It doesn't feel fast when you do it right."
June 30, 1991
After six starts things begin to loosen up. "Track practice for us is a social thing," says Burrell. "We'll talk for three hours."
The talk on this scorcher of a day is jubilant, mercurial. It jumps from Spike Lee's movie Jungle Fever to sprinter Mark Witherspoon's new hairdo, a "flattop fade with a curl" that sits atop Witherspoon's head like a bird's nest. " 'Spoon," asks Tellez innocently, "you got some eggs up there?"
Don't be fooled by the repartee; this is fast company that Burrell is keeping. On June 14, when Burrell lowered the world record for 100 meters to 9.90, eclipsing Lewis's mark of 9.92, the scene at the USA/Mobil Outdoor Track & Field Championships in New York City looked very much like a normal afternoon on the Robertson track. Four of the other seven finalists in the 100 were Burrell's Santa Monica Track Club teammates who, like Burrell, work out in Houston: Lewis was second, in 9.93, and Floyd Heard (10.10), Witherspoon (10.12) and Mike Marsh (10.20) placed fifth, sixth and seventh. Add 1988 Olympic 200 champion Joe DeLoach, who is passing up the rest of this season with a bad back, and Steve Lewis and Danny Everett, the Olympic gold and bronze medalists in the 400, and the club's goals of setting world records for the 4 X 100, 4 X 200 and 4 X 400 relays do not seem at all farfetched.
With Ben Johnson a slim shadow of his former self, the only man who looks capable of beating Burrell is Lewis. "I'm as much of a challenge for Carl as he is for me," says Burrell, who at 5'10" and 180 pounds is built less like his lean, 6'2" training partner than like the muscular Johnson.
Burrell, 24, has long been compared with Lewis, who is six years his elder. They grew up just 20 miles apart, Burrell in Lansdowne, Pa., a suburb west of Philadelphia, and Lewis across the Delaware River, in Willingboro, N.J. When Burrell was a high school senior, the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia did a film comparison of the two, alternating footage of Burrell and Lewis running the 100 and 200 and long jumping.
No one is quite sure which man is faster. "If they raced 10 times, I'd be surprised if one guy won more than six," says Mike Takaha, Tellez's assistant. Santa Monica teammate Cletus Clark, a hurdler, says, "You get them both in peak shape, in the right conditions, and you'll see nothing short of a world record." It took the men nine races to prove Clark right. After the TAC championships, Lewis held a 6-3 edge, but Burrell's three wins had come in their last four races.
"We've looked at film," says Tellez. "There's not much difference between them. Leroy is more muscular and has more power. Carl, when he's on, is more efficient and relaxed." Burrell knows how fortunate he has been to develop in Lewis's shadow. "Carl is very glamorous," he says. "He enjoys the spotlight. That's his persona. But it's not mine! When you do something in the spotlight and then leave it, some of you is left there. If there weren't somebody like Carl, I'd be in his shoes, and I wouldn't know how to deal with it."
Burrell is selling himself short. Last summer, with Lewis enjoying an intentionally low-key season, Burrell dealt masterfully with the attention he was suddenly receiving. At 100 meters, he won 19 of 22 races, including both the Goodwill Games and the Grand Prix final. Twice he clocked 9.96, faster than anyone else had run since the Seoul Olympics. At 200 meters, he was the only person to beat Michael Johnson, last year's Track & Field News Male Athlete of the Year, running a wind-aided 19.61, the fastest ever recorded for the distance, at the Southwest Conference championships at College Station, Texas, in May 1990.
Burrell's achievements last summer stood in marked contrast to those of the previous summer when, after running 9.94 at the TAC championships in June, he went to Europe and won only one of seven races. "I was on the decline by the time I got to Europe," says Burrell, pointing out that he had aimed originally to peak in June. "The travel nearly wore me out. Jet lag, strange food, late-night meets—all of it contributed. I lost my confidence very quickly."
What is most attractive about Burrell is his honesty. "He was never afraid to speak out," says his father, Leroy Brown. Burrell has edges, and he is not afraid to let them show. At the Goodwill Games he was asked if he thought he had "graduated" by beating Lewis for the first time. "You say that," replied Burrell. "I think I graduated when I ran 9.94."
Despite his distaste for the limelight, he has poise. In Zurich last summer, he was having dinner with some black teammates at an elegant Italian restaurant when a Swiss banker, who had obviously been drinking, decided to join their party. Would the athletes mind his company? They did, but were too polite to say so. Soon the banker was making racist comments, wondering aloud what chance, if any, a black athlete stood of succeeding in life beyond sport. While his friends steamed, Burrell calmly dressed the man down. Burrell asked, "Why shouldn't an athlete who has mastered the model of success be able to use his mastery of that model to succeed at something else?" That shut the banker up. "You have to handle certain situations with tact," Burrell said later.
Tact is also required in dealing with the team's numerous critics. The club is viewed by rivals as track and field's answer to the mob, gangsters in bodysuits who make offers that meet promoters can't refuse. Says team manager Joe Douglas, "Promoters tell me, 'I can't have a meet without either Carl or Leroy.' "
Which, of course, puts Douglas in an enviable position. He demands—and often gets—far better treatment for the Santa Monica contingent than other athletes receive. Burrell and his teammates stay in better hotels, travel in limousines and often gobble up huge chunks of a meet's budget. "We have been criticized," admits Burrell. "But I don't think we should be blamed for being more marketable. That's the nature of the world." He points out that the club paid its own way to the Penn Relays in April and will compete in the New York Games on July 20 for whatever meet director Fred Lebow thinks he can afford.
Last summer Burrell's appearance fee was reportedly $20,000. Now, after the 9.90, it has climbed to an estimated $30,000. He bought a three-bedroom house in southwest Houston in December, and in January he and the other Santa Monica members based in Houston formed Modern Men, Inc. "We're pretty diversified," says Lewis, explaining that the firm will focus on three areas: real estate; a party-organizing service, in which Burrell's talents as both disk jockey and chef—he spins platters at private parties and whips up his own pasta dishes—will no doubt come in handy; and a line of men's athletic sportswear. Says Lewis, "The one we're most excited about is clothing. The name of our line is Ctyle [pronounced STYLE], and our fall catalog will be out soon."
At the Penn Relays the Santa Monica athletes caused a sensation. Running in one-piece bodysuits dyed, except for a black strip around the loins, to match their skin color, they looked to be parading around in nothing but ebony jockstraps. "They covered everything," Burrell says, smiling. "It's the way they covered it."
Burrell's smile reveals braces, which were among his first purchases when he began making money from his running. "I didn't smile much when I was young," he says. "I wasn't the happiest guy. Or the most confident. I was shy, and I still am to a certain extent. It wasn't until high school, when I found something I could do well, that it changed."
When Burrell was eight, his mother left his father. Soon afterward, Brown had a mild heart attack. Unable to continue working, he couldn't support his family. So from the ages of eight to 12, Burrell lived with his maternal grandmother, Tansy Parns, in Lansdowne.
Track was not his first choice of sports. Lansdowne is a 15-minute drive from Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, and in 1980, when Burrell was 13, the Phillies won their only World Series. Burrell tried out for the baseball team at Lansdowne Aldan Junior High in seventh, eighth and ninth grades, and each year he got cut.
The problem was his right eye. Burrell had had severe myopia from birth. "As a kid, I was supposed to wear a patch over my left eye to make the right one stronger," he says. "But that would have made it impossible to do the things a normal kid can do. I couldn't go outside, couldn't watch TV. I'd bump into walls." So when no one was looking, Burrell poked holes in the patch. Today he is legally blind in the right eye.
The baseball coach at Aldan, Bob Kane, was also Burrell's homeroom teacher, and his heart went out to this nice kid who clearly was never going to be a baseball player. Says Burrell, "He told me, 'Leroy, you're a good kid, and I'd love to have you on the team. But you can't hit anything and you can't catch anything. But you're passing people on the base paths. Why don't you go out for track?' "
Burrell did so and was instantly the top sprinter on the team. "He was just flat-out fast," says Bob Jesson, who coached him in track at Penn Wood High School.
Burrell was also extremely versatile. As a sophomore, he was runner-up at the state meet in the indoor triple jump, and he ran on the second-place 4 X 400 relay team his junior year. In his last year at Penn Wood, he won the state title, beating Lancaster McCaskey 40-34: Burrell accounted for every one of his team's points, winning the 100 (10.44), the 200 (21.51), the long jump (23'4") and the triple jump (4'3").
The national high school class of 1985 was loaded with speed. Besides Burrell, it boasted two of his current Santa Monica teammates, DeLoach and Heard, who was the TAC 200 champion in 1986 and '89; Roy Martin, who competed in the 200 at the Seoul Olympics and still holds the high school record for the distance; and Michael Johnson. In that speedy bunch, Burrell was hardly a standout. "But I always felt I could do it," he says. "I just didn't know how."
Tellez would show him how. Since coming to the University of Houston in 1976, Tellez has compiled a remarkable record as a sprint coach. His athletes have won the most significant U.S. 100-meter race—the TAC championships or, in 1984 and '88, the Olympic trials—for 11 consecutive years. Lewis accounts for seven of the wins, and Burrell (1989 and '91), Witherspoon ('87) and Kirk Baptiste ('85) the others. At twice the distance, Tellez's athletes have been just as impressive, winning the gold and silver medals in the 200 at both the 1984 and '88 Olympics.
In Burrell, Tellez got the rawest of talents. "He was a project," admits Tellez. "He ran bent at the waist, and when you do that, you create a lot of problems."
"I was an overstrider in high school," says Burrell. "I think that's how I got so strong, by reaching. In the long jump my run was so bad, I couldn't use my speed. Coach T taught me to straighten up and put my feet underneath me rather than out in front of me."
Tellez recruited Burrell as a long jumper. "I didn't see him as a sprinter then," admits Tellez. Burrell's long jump improved mightily that first year at Houston, from 24'2½", which didn't place him among the 20 best high school jumpers, to a world-class 26'9". "I absorbed a lot and didn't cling to any of my bad habits," says Burrell. "If I hadn't gotten injured, I think I would have done better."
At the Southwest Conference Championships in 1986, Burrell hit the sand on his second jump and heard a loud pop in his left knee. He did not realize how serious the injury was until the next day, when his knee blew up to the size of a football.
He had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. Three days later, he had surgery in which the doctors unfastened the tendon on the outside of the knee and fused it an inch lower to stabilize the knee. "A lot of people told me they doubted he'd ever run again," says Burrell's mother, Delores. Burrell came back to Penn Wood after the operation. "I saw him limping and cried," says Jesson. "He had worked so hard to get where he was."
For eight months, Burrell dutifully performed all the rehabilitative exercises that runners hate. He stretched. He jogged. He "ran" in a pool wearing a flotation vest. He lifted minuscule amounts of weight, improving so gradually that he had to add weight to the Universal machine in quarter-pound increments. "My leg had atrophied really badly. My leg was the size of my arm," he says, rolling up his sleeve to reveal a biceps large enough to serve most of us quite nicely as a leg.
Burrell lost a whole year, but those who watched him go through rehab see it as a time of personal growth. "Having to come back from injury helped him focus," says Lewis.
What he focused on was the sprints, which place less stress on the legs than long jumping. In 1988 he narrowly missed qualifying for the final of the Olympic trials 100. "Once he got to that level, his confidence went up," says Takaha.
Not that Burrell has forgotten about long jumping. He had a personal best of 27'5½" in 1989, and Lewis says, "Leroy's going to jump 28, 29 or maybe 30 feet. There's a lot more there." But for now, he's the fastest man alive—and he plans to hang on to that title. "The more I train," he says, "the more I realize I have more speed in me."
Watch out, world.