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A Man to Lean On
Leigh Montville
December 21, 1992
Former Olympic sprinter and NFL receiver Lawrence Burton found his true calling as a counselor to troubled kids at Boys Town
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December 21, 1992

A Man To Lean On

Former Olympic sprinter and NFL receiver Lawrence Burton found his true calling as a counselor to troubled kids at Boys Town

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A world record? Pro football? Burton talks about none of this as he tells Raymond that maybe another bag of ice on that knee would not be a bad idea.

"Larry Burton was the subject of one of the greatest quotes I ever read," former New Orleans Saint quarterback Archie Manning says, going back to another time. In 1972, he remembers, Burton finished fourth in the Olympic 200 meters. In '73 he had a great game as a junior at Purdue against Notre Dame, caught a 53-yard pass for Purdue's only touchdown. The next fall, a sportswriter went up to Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian before the Purdue game and said he thought it would probably be tougher for Burton to catch passes because Notre Dame had a much better secondary. Parseghian said, "I don't know about that. There are only three people in the world who are faster than Larry Burton, and they are not in the Notre Dame defensive backfield."

Burton was a genuine bullet. In high school at Mary N. Smith in Eastern Shore, Va., he was a flanker back fast and elusive enough to bring the college scouts to his door. Six-one, 175 pounds. A dasher and a darter. At Purdue he was an All-America, sound enough to have the Saints spend their No. 1 draft choice, seventh pick in the land, on him in 1975. In track? He didn't run track until he went to college.

"He came up to me as a freshman, said he wanted to try out for the track team," former Purdue coach Dave Rankin says. "I sent him home. I said it was too late in the season. The next year he came up to me again. It was during the indoor season. December, maybe even early January. I can remember him coming up to me on the track, saying, 'I would like to come out for the team.' This time I let him. I was a great recruiter, huh?"

Eight months later Burton was in Munich. Who does something like that? Novice to Olympian in eight months. He was as natural as natural could be. He had the high knee lift of the power runner. Natural. He had the good reaction time at the start, fast out of the blocks for a tall guy. Natural. By the time he qualified for the Olympics, he was no fluke. He had tied the record for the 60, at 5.9 seconds. He had beaten Herb Washington of Michigan State—later to become Charles O. Finley's designated pinch runner for the Oakland A's—in a celebrated 100 in a dual meet. He had won the NCAA 200. A fluke?

In the Olympics, Burton qualified for the 200 final in the same heat as the Russian favorite, Valery Borzov. They talked bilingual trash to each other on the way to the finish, Borzov in front, Burton second. In the final the moment somehow escaped Burton. That is what happens sometimes in Olympic sprints. One moment can mean everything.

"I was in Lane 6 in the semis, and Borzov was outside me, in Lane 8," Burton says. "I knew exactly where I was and what I needed. In the finals, it was the reverse. I was in the sixth lane, and he was in the fifth. I was out in front on the turn. I thought I was running the best race of my life. Never felt better. Then everyone came up and went past. Once that happens, there's no getting back. There's one shot."

No matter. He went back to Purdue as a junior and led the team with 15 receptions, 271 yards and three touchdowns. As a senior he caught 38 passes for 702 yards and four touchdowns and was tapped by the Saints. He was part of the team that led the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers at the half of the 1975 college all-star game. Natural. It was only in the pros that success eluded Burton.

"That's one of my great regrets, that we didn't bring a winner to New Orleans," Burton says. "It was an awesome town with rabid football fans. Archie was there. I wanted to be the savior of the franchise. It just didn't happen. It's the most frustrating thing of my entire career."

"There was just a lot of pressure on Larry," Manning says. "Too much. It's something I know more than a little about. You have a franchise like we had, always losing, and the new Number One draft choice always is supposed to make a big difference. That's the way people look at it. If Larry had been drafted by some other team, given some time, I think it would have been a lot different. If you came to New Orleans, everyone was watching you all the time. If you were a track guy and dropped a ball, they'd say, right away, 'Four-two speed with two flat hands.' I didn't think it was fair. I didn't think Larry had bad hands.

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