T-ball’s loss has been track’s gain, as Sean Burrell (Zachary, Louisiana) enters his junior year as only the third underclassman ever to have earned No. 1 in our HS All-America 400 rankings. Burrell had played ball from as early as he could remember; then came the summer that the family vacation clashed with the T-ball schedule. Without giving specifics on how the vacation played, Burrell remembers his parents telling him he needed to be in an active sport. “I was a hyper kid,” he says. Nicknamed “Squirrel,” he explains, “I was small but fast. And I looked like one. One of my dad’s friends named me that and it stuck.”
He and his older brothers were always competing, whether it was racing or lifting weights. “Anything at all,” he says, “just trying to be the best. It’s competitive with my family the whole time.” His mother, Jacqueline, a health and PE teacher, had seen posters at her school about a track club. “The posters said if you have any athletes that want to run track then just sign them up and they can start practicing. So that’s how I got my start,” says Burrell.
That was the summer after his 5th-grade year, and the 11-year-old running for the Feliciana Heat TC didn’t make the finals at the USATF Junior Olympics. However, for a young boy who was used to competing hard for everything, the spark was enough. Success would come.
Two years later, as a 7th-grader, he made the finals in both hurdle races at the JOs and also managed a 2nd in the 1500 (4:37.02, for the curious). However, earlier in the season he had produced an impressive 51.39 in the 1-lapper. As an 8th-grader, he clocked a 22.18 for the 200 in a summer meet and two weeks later a 48.39, but as impressive as those numbers were, they still gave no indication of how much he would improve as a high schooler in the suburbs of Baton Rouge.
Finally enrolled at Zachary High, Burrell saw his times plummet throughout his frosh season. He opened up outdoors at 47.69 and lined up for State after a 46.92 at District. He crossed the finish first in 46.29. Then, at the Golden Southwest in Albuquerque he finished 2nd in 46.19(A), a national age-15 record.
Last year he kicked off his outdoor season with a 46.65. He also made progress with his hurdling and at District he clocked a 20.77/45.88/14.61 triple. Amid the growing media attention surrounding the super-soph, Zachary coach Chris Carrier said, “This kid works his butt off and deserves all the accolades he gets.”
Regionals brought him performances of 21.34/45.99/14.87. He calls that his biggest thrill of the year, particularly the 400 time: “It was our State Record. I didn’t know that until after I got done running the 200 and they told me the results.” At State, he captured the hurdles in 14.39, then blistered a 45.74 to break into the top 25 in prep history. A third win came in the 200 with a 21.18w. His triple helped Zachary win the team title.
The 45.74 came as a big surprise to Burrell. “I didn’t think I was running that fast since I started to pull my hamstring when I first exited the first turn,” he explains. “I pretty much finished through on the hurt hamstring. It was lingering the whole time so I didn’t think I actually ran that fast. But they told me it was 45.74. I go back and look at the race and it looks like I was moving pretty fast, but it didn’t feel like I was doing anything different.”
The secret, he thinks, is that he comes to State with a special mindset. “I knew I wanted to break the State Record and the adrenaline was rushing. I was feeling good about that whole day. On State Meet days I just have a different vibe about myself. I just feel different and I’m a little bit more hyper.”
At the Great Southwest meet, he once again used the friendly altitude to clock 46.13 for the win and 20.83 for runner-up honors in the 200. He also competed again in the USATF Junior Olympics, winning titles there in 20.85 and 46.03. In the hurdles, he placed 2nd in 14.04.
Not many national class 400 runners also focus on the high hurdles. When hurdles are involved, the intermediates are usually the choice. Says Burrell of the highs, “That’s what I plan on doing throughout my high school career. I don’t know what I will do in college, but for high school I plan on finishing through.” He adds, “You will probably see me in the 300 hurdles this year.”
Looking ahead to this season, Burrell, who turns 17 in February, says, “I’m just trying to stay healed up and I’m focusing on my form and technique, just trying to get my body right after the football season.” In the fall, Burrell has been a star defensive back, kick returner and even a punter. Will football play a role in his collegiate future? “We’re just trying to decide how we should do it,” he says. “It depends on how my senior season goes.”
“Indoor, I’m really not focusing on it as much as I could,” he says. “But for my outdoor season I will want to run really low 45s, possibly a high 44, in the 400. I want to drop my 200 time down to a 20.4. And be in the competitive range with the hurdles, like the 13-mids.”
Coming to terms with being a prodigy can be difficult. He’s been asked before about being so fast, so young: “When people say, ‘How does it feel?’ I really don’t know how to answer that question yet. But just the general thought of being at this speed at such a young age is a blessing from God. I look at it as I could help others achieve their goals by pushing them and at the same time pushing myself to be the best.”