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Aug. 31, 2016
Roger Espinoza has endeared himself to soccer fans as a Major League Soccer All-Star with Sporting Kansas City and as an Olympian and World Cup team member representing his native country of Honduras. But when the conversations turn to the people who guided him on his successful path, Dr. Robert Burrell ’70 always gets a mention.
Their friendship now dates back almost 18 years to when Espinoza, then 12 years old, and his family immigrated to the United States and landed in Denver, Colorado. A strong friendship quickly blossomed between Espinoza and Burrell’s son, Roe, when they became soccer teammates. Burrell and his wife, Seal, embraced Espinoza and his family, too.
“They welcomed our encouragement and support of Roger,” Burrell said. “With their blessing, we remained pretty closely engaged with him as he grew up.”
Burrell often picked up Espinoza after school to shuttle him to soccer practices but also took an active interest in his academic success. When colleges began taking notice of Espinoza’s soccer abilities and coaches, recruiters sought Burrell’s summation of the young athlete’s college readiness.
“What we realized at the beginning of his junior year was that he was behind academically as far as college is concerned,” Burrell said. “Keep in mind he came here in sixth grade, not speaking English.”
Realizing Espinoza needed an environment more conducive to his academic needs, Burrell approached a Denver college prep school about accepting Espinoza, even though he did not meet the school’s admissions standards. “I laid out Roger’s story and I said, ‘I’d like you to consider taking him in, but only if you do it realizing he’s going to need a lot of help.’”
The school enrolled Espinoza and he successfully earned his high school diploma. But Burrell says his proudest moment came two years later when Espinoza successfully enrolled in The Ohio State University.
Espinoza had completed his associate degree while playing soccer at Yavapai Junior College in Prescott, Arizona. Subsequently, he was offered a scholarship to play at Ohio State but was two courses short of meeting the university’s enrollment requirements. He completed one of the courses during the summer, but the other was a college algebra course he needed to finish online.
Burrell’s son, Roe, who recently earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, agreed to tutor Espinoza on algebra, and Burrell tried to impress upon his son that he needed to teach the material to Espinoza, not do the work for him. Two weeks after leaving for Ohio State, Espinoza called the Burrells with an update.
“He said he’d done academic advising and they had tested him,” Burrell recalled. “And he said, ‘By the way, I tested out of college algebra.’ It’s probably one of the proudest moments of my life. I was proud of Roger and my son as a good teacher.”
Despite their Honduran roots, Espinoza and his family were no different than the Burrells. They both represented hard-working families seeking education and opportunities for their children.
“They were here, they were working, they were doing the right things and all they needed was a little support as far as planning,” Burrell said. “They didn’t need money, they weren’t looking for anything, and they embraced that support. It’s fulfilling to realize you were giving somebody like Roger the same kind of chances that I got and that my son got just by virtue of who he was born with.”
Espinoza even calls Seal Burrell on Mother’s Day.
“We always told him we didn’t embrace him because he’s a soccer player,” Burrell said. “We helped him and supported him and encouraged him because he’s a good person, and that’s never changed. He has a good heart and a genuineness about him. He’s the same guy he was when he was a teenager.”
Burrell, a native of Mount Ayr, Iowa, recalls with fondness the influence his own mentors had on him and his decision to pursue his bachelor’s degree at Northwest. Burrell followed the advice of his high school principal Vance Geiger, a 1930 graduate, and completed his degree in history.
He went on to complete his master’s degree at Iowa State University and his Ph.D. in higher education leadership at the University of Florida. He built a career in student affairs work at the University of Florida, Southern Methodist University and the University of Denver.
“When I left Northwest I was heading to work in higher education, which was a direct result of my experience at Northwest and the people that I had a chance to know and be around at the college,” Burrell said.
In 1995, he transitioned out of higher education to Cardtronics, a start-up that evolved into a publicly traded financial services company specializing in owning and operating ATM machines in North America and Europe. He retired in 2012 as an executive vice president at Cardtronics, which is based in Houston.
In 2014, Burrell joined the Northwest Foundation Board of Directors, and he is active in the Colorado chapter of the Northwest Alumni Association.
The Burrells remain close to Espinoza and his family today, meeting around Roger’s soccer games several times each season. The Burrells also helped Roger and his father become American citizens, and they have helped support Roger’s younger sister with her education as she completes high school.
Burrell might be considered a hero by some, but he brushes off the notion.
“I’m an accidental hero,” he said. “It’s been terrifically rewarding.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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