Leroy Burrell has achieved much in a life of track and field excellence — winning a state championship by himself at Penn Wood High School, all-America status at Houston, Olympic gold and twice setting the world record in the 100 meters.
However, one of the memories that stands out for Burrell, now in his 20th season as head coach at Houston, is the first time he ever saw the inside of Franklin Field and experienced his first Penn Relays carnival in 1980 as an eighth-grade student.
“I think they snuck me in to run on the varsity team at Penn Wood,” Burrell, 51, who grew up in Lansdowne, said in a telephone interview before flying to Philadelphia with his Cougars to compete in the Penn Relays beginning Thursday.
“I knew nothing about it other than that it was big based on what everyone else was talking about. Then when we got there, I was like, ‘Wow, this really is big.’ To see that stadium full of people and all the action and the hustle and bustle was something I don’t think whoever experienced it ever forgets.”
In 1985, Burrell won four events at the PIAA track and field championships and accounted for all 40 points, enough for Penn Wood to capture the Class AAA state title. The school competed at the carnival every year, but “we never could put it all together on the relays,” he said.
In 1989 at Houston, he led the Cougars to the 4×100 Championship of America title in a race that had special meaning. Texas Christian, Houston’s Southwest Conference rival, had dominated the event at Penn, but Burrell ran down two-time Olympian Raymond Stewart on the anchor leg to hit the tape first.
“To break that TCU streak at Franklin Field for me was probably one of the highlights of my career,” he said.
Burrell also was part of a 4×200 world record at the carnival in 1992 with the renowned Santa Monica Track Club, joining Michael Marsh, Floyd Heard, and Carl Lewis to post a time of 1 minute, 19.11 seconds.
Burrell first set the world record in the 100 at the 1991 U.S. outdoor championships, running 9.90 seconds, and did it again with a 9.85 clocking in 1994 at a race in Switzerland.
Lewis, a native of Willingboro who also competed for Houston and won nine Olympic gold medals, is an assistant coach with the Cougars. Asked if his young runners know what he and Lewis accomplished on the track, Burrell replied with a chuckle, “I think you can’t be a Houston Cougar without knowing anything about what we were able to do.”
The Cougars will run six relays at Penn — the men’s and women’s 4×100, 4×200 and 4×400. They are the defending champion in the men’s 4×200, and will run three athletes in the men’s 4×100 who were part of the NCAA champion relay team at that distance in 2017.
“We haven’t quite hit the point where we’re doing things that I think we’re capable of across the board,” Burrell said. “But it’s been my experience that when you take your team to Philadelphia for the relays, they really come together because of the unique challenges the meet provides.”
Burrell’s son, Cameron, will compete on the 4×100 and 4×200 teams and in the individual 100. But the participation of another top sprinter, two-time NCAA indoor champion Elijah Hall, is questionable because of tightness in his hamstring, the coach said.
Competing last year as Eli Hall-Thompson, he ran the fastest 100 in Penn Relays history, a wind-aided 10.00 seconds, and anchored the winning 4×200 team.
“We’ve got enough depth that we would feel comfortable running without him,” Burrell said. “Elijah is going to travel but it will be a day-to-day situation whether he competes or not.”