October 6, 2015, published in the Orange County Register
The soccer field isn’t just a field to Christina Burkenroad. It’s more than two goals, freshly cut grass, scattered cones, teammates running, coaches shouting and soccer balls whirling into the back of the net.
This is her refuge.
With a Sharpie she wrote a few lines on her Nikes inspired by the Bible verse Ezra 10:4. On top of the lime and pink swoosh: “Rise up, take courage, and do it”; On the inside of the shoe: “Trust in your ability.”
The senior midfielder and reigning Big West Conference Tournament MVP for Cal State Fullerton women’s soccer (8-2-1), has always had to rise up to challenges off the field that never seemed to relent. Years of financial instability that at one point left her homeless have caused Burkenroad to cling to the field even tighter.
“The stadium is my sanctuary,” said Burkenroad, 22. “I definitely consider it my home.”
Burkenroad prays before every Fullerton game. Her thoughts circle back to her mother: to be with her, to give her strength. Burkenroad’s mother passed away when she was 4. Once, after praying before her first Big West Tournament her freshman year, Burkenroad looked up and saw white fluffy spots floating around. Her mom was with her. The feeling seized her body and armed her with newfound strength.
The San Diego native has yearned to access that strength for years, because losing her mother forever altered the course of her family’s life. Her mother’s death caused her father to spiral into a deep depression, struggling to cope financially and emotionally amid the growing needs of Burkenroad and her older brother.
Meanwhile Burkenroad thrived in tennis, swimming, softball (her mother played semi-professionally), basketball and golf before discovering soccer. Falling in love with scoring goals, she never wanted to leave the field.
Unable to make ends meet, her father drove himself and the then-9-year-old Burkenroad to North Carolina to stay with her aunt and four older sons for support.
By 16, she and her father moved back to San Diego, but their financial prospects remained bleak: “Eventually money just ran out,” she said. “Literally down to zero.” The pair moved back in with Burkenroad’s aunt, who had recently relocated from North Carolina to San Diego. Yet soon after, they were out on the street, with nothing but a garbage bag full of clothes.
As a junior at Mission Bay High School, Burkenroad and her father lived out of his Land Rover for several weeks. They showered at a local beach and parked in the beach’s lot at night. She had never prayed so hard in her life as she did in that car: for a home, for consistent meals, for a normal teenage life. Her grades suffered and her hope dwindled. “It was hell,” Burkenroad said. “I thought my life was over.”
But on the outside, Burkenroad was the perfect girl. The one classmates predicted would go far. The one who always had a smile on her face. By that time she had been twice named All-CIF and thrice named all-league. She had set the school record with 27 goals as a freshman, then broke that mark as a sophomore with 35 goals en route to earning Central League Player of the Year.
Few knew her predicament. “She would always make up a little story that things were okay,” said Stacey Haerr, who has known Burkenroad since she was a first-grader. Haerr’s daughter and Burkenroad were childhood friends; Haerr considers Burkenroad like a daughter.
“She was so fragile and just so embarrassed that she was in the position she was,” Haerr said. “She didn’t tell anybody.”
Burkenroad turned to soccer for solace, as it was the one stable place in her unstable life. Practice would start and end at a certain time. The same drills were to be completed. Teammates and coaches embraced her, almost like a family.
“Soccer became her safe spot,” said Sally Custer, a family friend who, like Haerr, considers Burkenroad like a daughter. “It’s a place where she could always shine and she could depend on herself and she could depend on people around her.”
As a senior in 2012, Burkenroad moved in with her best friend’s family. Her prospects brightened and she was named league player of the year that season, totaling 31 goals and 18 assists.
Playing college soccer was always her dream, but nothing more. Burkenroad didn’t have the means to regularly play club soccer – which can cost thousands of dollars in hopes of getting scouted for a college scholarship – but she had raw talent.
“Most of the girls on these teams – I don’t want to say they’ve been coddled – but they’ve had really giant support systems,” Haerr said. “Christina’s really done all this on her own. She didn’t have anybody driving her to practice. She didn’t have anybody spending hours and weekends teaching her how to play soccer. She really did it all on her own.”
After graduating from high school, Burkenroad happened to be playing a game with NOMADS Soccer Club in La Jolla. Most of the girls around her had already signed to play college soccer (players often commit one to two years in advance). Burkenroad didn’t yet have a plan.
The NOMADS coach, Brian McManus, reached out to Fullerton women’s soccer coach Demian Brown about Burkenroad. As a youth, Brown had played for McManus on the NOMADS.
“I said, ‘I think you really need to look at this player. I think she could do well for you,’” said McManus, who is now the head women’s coach at UC San Diego.
“She read the game so well,” McManus said. “She was the kind of player that just went at people all the time. She had so much confidence. You could just see the expression in her – she just wanted to play, she just wanted to go at people.”
Brown decided he’d offer Burkenroad a scholarship before the game even began, based on her warmup.
“When you watch kids, they do certain things. They move in certain ways,” Brown said. “When you look at her, she’s 5-10, athletic-looking, good with the ball – we watched her that game and a game after and offered her a scholarship and thanked Brian the whole way.”
Burkenroad had a full scholarship to college. A new team. A new family. “It was just a miracle,” she said.
The midfielder took her chance and ran with it. With her instincts and technical ability, plus her athleticism and length, the reigning all-region selection ranks fourth in Titans history with seven game-winning goals. She’s also tied for seventh in points (50) and tied for eighth in goals (19).
Totaling six goals and four assists in 2014, she helped the Titans win the Big West regular-season and tournament titles. The team advanced to the NCAA Division I Tournament in 2013 and 2014.
Burkenroad has been even more dominant this season. The senior ranks second on the Titans (8-2-1) with six goals and is tied for first in the conference with five assists, while her 17 points ranks third in the conference.
“I feel strongly that she is becoming, if not already, probably one of the best 1 v. 1 attacking players in the country,” Brown said. “Because when she gets out wide 1 v. 1, you might stop her once or twice in the game, but she’s going to go at least 15 times and you’re not going to stop her every time.”
Though coming to Fullerton turned her life around, it has not been easy for Burkenroad to leave her lifestyle behind.
Moving from place to place growing up, she didn’t have much structure. She didn’t have someone telling her to complete her homework or expecting her to bring home her grades. Once she came to Fullerton, she had to teach herself how to be a student: how to prepare for exams, how to manage papers, how to organize assignments, all the while juggling Division I soccer – a difficult feat for any student.
She’s had a few scares where she had to take summer school to retain her eligibility. She’s had moments where she’s lost her focus amid social engagements and outside distractions, Brown said.
But Burkenroad managed to pick herself up, get back on track and work harder. Her grades have improved, and she now eagerly shows her coaches her marks. She’s graduating this year with a degree in advertising and aspires to play professional soccer.
“Other people would give up, just say ‘forget it’ and walk away. But she didn’t give up,” Haerr said.
Burkenroad said her father is doing better now and regularly attends her home games. She still carries the weight of all she has endured, but on the soccer field, it’s almost as if she can shed the burden. Even if only for 90 minutes, Burkenroad is free.
“There’s no use in worrying about it or stressing about it,” Burkenroad said. “Because I’m in such a good place now. Nobody can take this away from me.”