The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

On every playground, someone is the last to be picked for a team. In every race, someone has to finish last. And on every team, someone is the worst player.

And in Cheyenne, Wyo., that someone was Sam Burley.

Yes, that's right, Sam Burley of the Penn men's track team, the same guy who was recently named an All-American after qualifying for the final heat in the 800 meter run at the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore.

Burley admits he wasn't always a standout athlete.

"I played a lot of sports but was horrible at them," Burley said.

And being from a small town, Burley's exposure to sports was limited.

The rising Penn junior was born in Montana, and lived on a ranch until he was 10.

"Most of my childhood was cows and stuff," Burley joked.

When Burley was in fifth grade, his family and he moved to a small town outside Cheyenne. The change in scenery brought about more opportunities to play organized sports, but Burley didn't find much success at first.

"Even in a small town, I was on the `C' team in basketball," Burley pointed out. "And there were only five people on the `C' team.

"It was basically the five worst kids."

After a one-week stint with the `C' team, Burley decided to look elsewhere for athletic fulfillment.

"I tried baseball, basketball, football, wrestling and soccer. I tried every sport, except for track," Burley said light-heartedly. "So it was a process of elimination. I had to be good at one of them, and it turned out to be track."

But just like his attempts at other sports, Burley struggled in the early going.

"I was actually really bad at track," Burley said. "My freshman year I was the worst on the team, including all the other freshmen. I came in dead last in all three meets that I entered in."

Burley can't explain what kept him going in the sport despite his mediocre performances.

"I don't know, I just didn't [give up]. I really should have quit," Burley joked.

But one year later, Burley began to see some improvement. Over the course of three races in three weeks, Burley dropped 20 seconds off his 800 time.

He ended up being the fourth person on his school's 4x800 meter relay team that year, and the team from East Cheyenne High School emerged as state champions.

That success led Burley to train over the summer, resulting in a few more state titles -- six, to be exact -- during his junior year.

So all that remained for him to do in high school was decide on a place to go after his senior year.

And initially, Burley thought he already had.

"I almost went to the Air Force Academy, but I went on a recruiting trip and it wasn't like what I thought it would be," Burley said.

Burley then explored another option -- a recruitment letter from Penn coach Charlie Powell.

Burley went east on a recruiting trip and found his future.

"I went out, I really liked it and [Penn] was actually the only school I applied to," Burley said.

Burley's high school success has continued into college. The 800 runner qualified for the Outdoor NCAA Championships in both his freshman and sophomore years, and has seen his time fall from a 1:54 in high school to a personal-best 1:48.16 this season.

Burley credits Powell with making him a better runner.

"Coach Powell is an amazing coach, and the bonus is I get along with him really well. He's a great guy, I like him a lot," Burley said. "Coach Powell has the ability to just maximize talent."

Burley's second year of collegiate track almost turned out to be a disaster, however, as he missed a lot of the season with various injuries, including a stress fracture.

"I almost decided to redshirt, but came back so I could help the team at [the Outdoor Heptagonal Championships]."

The Quakers took first place at Heps this season.

"Being able to take that kind of time off and still be competitive, I think I do have a shot at running really well," Burley said. "I haven't stopped improving yet. I don't think I've reached my peak."

After Heps, Burley ran his personal best at the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America Championships 800 trials.

His time was good enough for a spot at Nationals, where he entered as the No. 17 seed in a field of 20.

But that didn't bother Burley, who was confident he would qualify for the final heat of eight runners.

Burley exceeded all expectations in his semifinal heat, taking second place and earning an automatic bid to the finals.

"We went out relatively slow and I was right behind [heat winner] Michael Stember from Stanford," Burley said. "When he kicked in the last 100 meters, I went with him."

And though Burley's time of 1:48.27 wasn't the fastest of his career, he feels that the semifinal heat was the best race he's ever run.

"I felt relaxed through the entire run and felt like I could have gone a lot faster," Burley said.

Burley then ran a 1:48.44 in the final heat, and left the meet with a seventh place finish and as an All-American in the 800.

"I was thrilled," Burley remembered. "I just barely made Nationals so I was very happy when I made finals."

With two years left, though, Burley still has plenty of time to get faster. His personal best of 1:48.16 is the second-fastest 800 time in school history, just 1.06 seconds slower than Robin Martin's time of 1:47.1 back in 1998.

Burley also has every intention of returning to NCAAs.

"If I can stay injury free, I think I should have a shot at the top three."

It's not too likely Burley will be the worst on any track team ever again.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.