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."