Steinert High junior Terris Burton points skyward prior to the seeded heat of the 400-meter hurdles June 9, 2018 at the state Meet of Champions at Northern Burlington High. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

It’s pretty impressive that Terris Burton medaled in the NJSIAA Meet of Champions this year, considering he wasn’t even thinking about track two years ago.

“No sir,” he said. “I was thinking about going to the NBA.”

Ben Simmons, Steph Curry and LeBron James won’t have to worry about Burton’s arrival anymore, but hurdlers in New Jersey may be a bit concerned.

In just his first full season of track and field, the Steinert junior looked like a veteran. He took fifth in the 400 hurdles at the MOC in a personal best 54:03; after winning the Central Jersey Group III sectional and Group III state meets in times of 55.59 and 54.13, respectively. At the Mercer County meet, Burton won the 400 hurdles (56.04) and took second in the open 400. He also helped the Spartans 4×400 relay advance to the Group III meet.

“He got better and better each time and dropped his times,” Steinert hurdles coach Kyle Flanagan said. “From counties to states, he dropped a whole two seconds, which was pretty good. Generally at that point in the season, you don’t see a huge drop in time, but to see him shave two seconds off … and if he cleaned up some things here and there, he could have gone even faster.”

With one high school year left, it will be interesting to see how much better Burton gets. His ascension has been rapid and remarkable.

Terris grew up playing basketball constantly. His brother and father played, and his mom and step-father built a cement court in the backyard for him to practice.

“It was really my passion,” he said.

But during his sophomore year, Burton’s grades were suffering and his mom pulled him off the basketball team to focus on his classroom work.

“I thought I had to find a way to college because my grades obviously weren’t good enough, so I picked up track,” Burton said. “The first year was the hardest by far. You don’t know what you need to push your body to in order to do well in track.”

He debuted during the 2017 spring season, which was uneventful other than running a respectable 60 seconds in the 400 hurdles. At the advice of a friend, Burton joined Al Jennings’ vaunted Trenton Track Club. During one of the summer’s first workouts, he discovered just how difficult the road was to greatness.

Another member of the club, Nottingham’s Boaz Madeus, was coming off a phenomenal senior year and would go on to become an All-American at Rutgers this season. Madeus’ presence resulted in what Burton called “my first major wake-up call.”

Steinert High junior Terris Burton (center, in white) clears a hurdle en route to a fifth-place finished in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles at the New Jersey Meet of Champions June 9, 2018 at Northern Burlington High School. Burton was just one of the local athletes to compete at the MOC. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

“Coach Jennings said, ‘OK guys, we’re going to do a 600, 400, 300, 200 and 100,’” Burton recalled. “I’m sitting there going, ‘Oh my God.’ Then he goes ‘Pick your partners.’ So me being, at the time, the cocky arrogant self that I was, I picked Bo Madeus. Coach said, ‘Are you sure you want him?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I got it!’ I got my butt handed to me every time we did a part of that workout. I actually ended up throwing up right after.”

When contacted on Facebook, Madeus responded with, “Yes, that is a true story” followed by four crying-while-laughing emojis.

Surely, Burton had heard of Madeus before?

“Yeah,” he said. “But I didn’t know how bad I was, and I didn’t know how good he was.”

It only got better from there as Burton soaked up everything that Madeus said and did. The two shared a kindred bond, as Madeus once hoped he would be a college football player until injury sidelined that. Now he had the hoopster-turned-track man asking advice.

“I was hammering him with questions about college about hurdles and everything possible,” Burton said. “He was willing to answer every single one.”

Even when he was not tapping into Madeus’ mind, Burton was taking notes on how his body worked.

“Bo wasn’t always my practice partner; thank God, I would have died every single practice,” he said. “When I first picked him, Jennings told me he’s a hard worker. I tried to take that into account. I was watching him during practices and thought, ‘Man this dude puts himself to the max every single day, and look at the results he’s getting.’ I decided to adopt that. During one workout I passed him, and he told me he got very angry and that made him go even harder. I decided to bring that same anger and passion and grit to practice.”

Fully devoted to his new sport, Burton joined Steinert’s winter track team this year, and did a number of events, including the 55 hurdles, 200 and 400 and high jump. None of those carried over into the spring except the open 400, where he finished second in the CJ III meet during the winter.

Then came another rude awakening.

“Groups was really a wake-up call,” he said. “I was doing good during the season, and I thought I was going to win it. Then, going off, I just see a bunch of blurs go past and I ended up getting last in that race. I knew I couldn’t let that happen again. I started working harder from there.”

By winter’s end, he abandoned the high jump. He never liked the 55 hurdles, so he had no interest in the 110 hurdles in spring. He basically ran the open 400, 400 hurdles and anchored the 4×400 relay.

“He was one of our leading high jumpers, if not our best,” Flanagan said. “Obviously when you’re a new athlete, you see what they’re good at and try to figure out where they should be. He really found his niche and his groove in the 400 hurdles. He enjoyed it and worked hard at it.”

“I really didn’t like high jump,” Burton said. “I fell in love with the 400, and it was conflicting with that. By the time I got done the four, I couldn’t do the high jump.”

As for the short hurdle races, they were a little too short for Burton’s taste.

“I hated the 55 because it was over within a snap of the fingers,” he said. “I like leaning forward because I can come a long way and just really push myself. I think my mentality is very strong. In the last 200, people’s minds die out. I like to think my mind is not set to die out in the last 200. It just keeps pushing, so that’s why I like the 400 hurdles.”

Burton feels he needs to improve on his starts, as he had to come from behind in both the sectionals and states to claim the victory. He doesn’t mind doing that, but knows it won’t always work. That point was made in the Meet of Champions, where he finished fourth in his heat and fifth overall.

“It was very fast,” Burton said. “ I almost thought I had first place because going into the last 100 I started to make a move, but then my skinny little legs died, and before you know it there were three kids ahead of me. But I wasn’t upset from the day at all. I learned that I had to be a little more aggressive in my start.”

Flanagan felt that just qualifying for the MOC and being put in a seeded heat was a positive step forward.

“He’s starting to really kind of settle in and realize how good he is,” the coach said. “After he won groups it was kind of one of those surreal things, ‘Now I’m competing against (East Orange’s Akeem Lindo, the 400 hurdles champ). But we said, ‘No, now you gotta go beat him.’ That was the actualization when he realized he’s really a standout runner. He wasn’t seeded to win the group meet and ended up pulling it out. To be in a seeded heat at the Meet of Champs was the self-actualization that all the hard work paid off and he’s there now with the elite of the elite in the state.”

Burton will continue with the Trenton Track Club doing AAU meets, which Flanagan feels will get him a wider range of looks from colleges by competing on the national circuit rather than just in New Jersey. The coach noted he has already gotten some interest, which should only get better as he improves.

“He’s got more potential to grow, only being a second-year guy,” Flanagan said. “There’s always more you can learn, more you can train. Every year you get stronger, bigger, faster, certainly that’s the common practice of going forward. He’s very hard working and driven. This is his main sport now, he’s found it and he’s willing to go ahead and work and do what it takes to get to the next level.”

And he is no longer mad that Mom took him off the basketball team.

“I was very upset at the time,” Burton said. “But it was the right move. My grades have picked up. I even got to the point where I stopped watching basketball. I became engulfed; I really fell in love with track. I don’t know how it happened, but I’m enjoying it.”

Success has a way of doing that to a person.