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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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"Everything was constant change with the team then. Someone new always was coming in. One mistake I think people made with Larry was to measure him only by the number of catches. He was a threat just being there, and he opened up a lot of defenses for us. Plus he was a really good guy."

Burton played three seasons in New Orleans, catching 35 passes and scoring four touchdowns. He was injured for almost all of the third season—torn tendons in his left hand—and then released. The San Diego Chargers picked him up as a bit player in the Don Coryell air show, where he played two more seasons and learned how life could be with a winner, plugged into the excitement, making the playoffs in 1979. He certainly was expected to play another season and maybe a few more. His legs were fine. His speed was the same, maybe the best in the league.

Other things, however, were cooking inside his head. There has always been a serious quality to Burton. He had picked Purdue because on his recruiting visit, the players assigned to him said they had to study on Saturday night rather than take him on a round of parties. Marriage and the birth of his son, B.J., in 1970 gave him a maturity many college students didn't have. He was a sociology major, not taking an easy path through school. He got his degree. He had always thought he wanted to be involved in some kind of public service, to help people.

In the off-season, he took a job working with kids in a program with the New Orleans Police Department. He liked it very much. He and Ida also became born-again Christians after a man came to their house and asked, "Lawrence and Ida, if you died right now, where would you go?" Lawrence said he certainly hoped he would go to heaven. The man said there were ways to have more assurance than that. Football was important, Burton said to himself, but weren't other things more important? He thought a lot about the kids he saw during the off-season, thought about their troubles and their lives. What happened to those kids after he left? Who helped them? He found himself thinking more and more about them, wanting to do more.

In 1980, Burton went to camp with the Chargers for his sixth season. "I was having a good camp," he says. "At least I thought I was. This one day, we were in double sessions. I had as good a practice as I'd ever had. One-on-one. We finished the second practice, and as I was walking back to the locker room I finally decided I was going to retire. It was something I had been thinking about for a while. I remember I told Charlie Joiner. He couldn't believe it. I called Ida and told her what I'd done. She said, 'You just come home, baby. We'll get started.' "

His murky idea was that he would set up a home or some foundation to help kids. He would take them into his care and somehow love them into mainstream life. Wasn't that all they needed? Someone to show them love? He explained his ideas to some friends, New Orleans businessmen who had agreed to be on his board of directors. They told him that it was a bit more complicated than that. One of them suggested that he take a trip to Nebraska, to Boys Town, to see the program that had evolved from Father Edward J. Flanagan's celebrated beginnings in 1917. Nebraska? It sounded like the end of the civilized world. Lawrence and Ida went.

"We were supposed to be here for a week," he says. "We'd learn what we had to learn and then bring it back to New Orleans. You know what we learned? We learned that everything we hoped to do was being done right here already. At the end of the week, we were offered a job as family teachers. We took it. Why try to reinvent the wheel? It was already here."

Their own family had reached its final size. Lawrence Jr., called B.J., was nine. Shanaeya was five. Christie was 11 months. Ida's mother worried more than a little about whether living with 10 troubled strangers would have a bad effect on three untroubled kids, but weren't there risks in every life? Shouldn't somebody be taking the right risks? The two older kids lamented the loss of their New Orleans house with its swimming pool, but Lawrence took them to Nebraska and showed them the Boys Town Field House and the Olympic-sized pool. See? There would be a better pool, bigger. Everyone would just have to learn to share.

The decision was made in July 1980. The New Orleans house was rented. The Burton family was in residence in Omaha, the group substantially enlarged, by the opening of school in September. Lawrence Burton was 28 years old, taking his Bible at its literal best, putting away the things of the football world, following his heart.

The operation he joined was far different from the Boys Town of the Spencer Tracy movie. There were more buildings, more land but fewer residents than during the days of Father Flanagan, who headed the institution until his death in 1948. The kids had infinitely more problems. The Mickey Rooney character in the movie, Whitey Marsh, was only a kid with a lust for playing pool and stud poker, the brother of a notorious bank robber. Since those days the progress of society had given kids far more sophisticated lusts.

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