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 27'5�" 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.
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."