Jul 17, 2021

It's especially cruel.

When Bobby Roundtree was injured in a swimming accident in May of 2019, there were a lot of prayers. When the first reports came out, all we were told was that he was that he had suffered a "severe spinal cord injury" from a dive off a boat and that he was in critical condition at a hospital. The prayers weren't "I hope he can walk again." The prayers were "please God, let him live."

And he did. I remember seeing something on Twitter about him being out of surgery and stabilized. It might have even been a report that he was upgraded from critical to serious condition. We didn't know many more details other than "successful surgery" and "stabilized," but it didn't matter. He was going to survive.

That's what made his appearance at the Northwestern game in November of that year so amazing. There were some "what a tragedy, seeing this once great athlete confined to a wheelchair" reactions, and yes, that's true, but it was also a miracle. There was so much joy from his teammates that day. Bobby made it back to the locker room.

So to find out today that he passed away, it's just so incredibly cruel. We rejoiced that he pulled through after the accident, we cheered when he made it back on the field, we sent encouragement when he tweeted videos from rehab, we believed him when he said he would walk out of the tunnel again, and no he's gone.

How is it possible that this is the path his mom, Jill, is asked walk? I remember reading the article from Steve Greenberg in the Sun Times last fall where she talked about getting no information that day - just that he was in a terrible accident and she needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible. That drive is every parent's worst nightmare - not knowing if her son is even alive - and I'm sure she experienced the tremendous relief of finding out that he was injured but alive. I cannot imagine what that relief feels like after a long drive to the hospital like that.

So for her to have that moment of relief, and then for her to dedicate the next two years to his rehab, and then to lose him suddenly and without warning? How can anyone endure that kind of pain?

And his teammates. I cannot imagine the pain that Jamal Woods, Dele Harding, Quan Martin, and Khalan Tolson are feeling. I know that those four were especially close to Bobby (and I'm sure I'm missing several names). Tolson and Roundtree are both from the St. Petersburg area (Bobby was from Largo), and I know that they were very close. Quan is from the west coast of Florida as well, and I often saw that group of Tampa-Fort Meyers-Naples Illini players hanging out a lot. Jamal Woods and Bobby arrived in the same class, at the same position, and were, from my observations at camp, extremely close. I cannot imagine what those guys are feeling today.

As for Harding, his 2019 story was so incredible. After Bobby's accident, he dedicated his senior season to his friend. And with the 97 sticker on his helmet, he went from unknown linebacker to first-team All Big Ten. Second in the nation in tackles. Turned around a defense that had finished 128th out of 130 teams the season before and sent the team to a bowl game. Put away the UConn game with a clinching interception. Put away the Rutgers game with a pick six. Saved the Michigan State game with a last-man-to-beat tackle (keeping MSU to 3, not 7 on their final drive).

And when they beat Wisconsin on a last second field goal? From the locker room, Harding told Bobby on FaceTime that the win was for him:

I've watched that video so many times, both when it came out and today. "Hey, it's Bobby" can destroy me like nothing else. This team - the team that hadn't beaten a ranked opponent since 2011 and was reminded weekly that what they were attempting to do was impossible - pulled off the upset over #6 and then called their injured teammate from the locker room so he could join the celebration. It made me cry then, and now I can barely get through it.

When I wrote about Bobby's injury in May of 2019, I made a reference to the movie Remember The Titans. When their star, Gerry Bertier, is paralyzed in a car accident, Julius Campbell visits him in the hospital where he delivers the powerful line "you can't be hurt like this - you're Superman." It fit Bobby perfectly. How can Bobby Roundtree be hurt? Defensive MVP as a sophomore, future All American, future NFL draft pick. He's Superman.

Tonight, my thoughts go to the final scene of Remember The Titans. It's based on a true story, and Gerry Bertier really was paralyzed in a car accident his senior year of high school. That scene with Julius in the hospital - I'm sure that played out nearly exactly the same with teammates and coaches who visited Bobby in the hospital after his accident.

In the final scene of the movie, we're told that Gerry Bertier died at age 27. In real life, it was a second car accident in 1981, this time with a drunk driver crossing the centerline and hitting his car head on. The final scene is the team, nine years after their championship, gathering together again for Gerry's funeral. It's unbearably sad - the team that gathered in the hospital waiting room to await news of his first car accident now must gather at the cemetery after his second car accident.

And it's also what this team must now endure. I don't think I can bear the thought of Illini players at Bobby's funeral. They thought they lost him, and then he survived, and now they've lost him. My heart goes out to these guys.

I know I'm supposed to be balanced out by the Kofi news, but I just haven't an ounce of emotion in that direction tonight. I went to dinner with my wife, put my phone to the side, and didn't even know about Kofi until maybe 45 minutes after the announcement. At some point I'm sure I'll find the excitement in that and write about it, but tonight, my heart breaks for Bobby's friends and family. So much promise, both before and after the accident, and now he's gone.

I think that's what makes this news so impossible to digest. When I think through the moments from the first time I heard Bobby Roundtree's name until today, they were moments consistently filled with promise. I went to the Signing Day ceremony in 2017 and Mike Phair couldn't stop talking about the kid who had just verballed an hour before - Bobby Roundtree. I could tell after talking to three coaches that they all felt like he was the best recruit in the class. Then he's the first Illini true freshman to start the first game at defensive end in decades. He's the future superstar. He makes several all-freshman teams and is then voted defensive MVP after his second season. A football career full of promise.

And then he's injured. He survives, but he's paralyzed. That begins a long journey of trying to walk again, with workout after workout at the rehab facility posted on social media. His life took a horrific turn, but his rehab story continued to inspire so many. A second chance story full of promise.

And now that's gone, too. So impossibly unfair.

Rest in peace, 97. You didn't know this would be your final tweet, but I promise to always remember.


Tolkien73 on July 16, 2021 @ 11:04 PM

Thank you, Robert.

I remember sitting in my office, seeing the news that Bobby Roundtree had been injured. It was a gut-punch. We had put so many hopes on him. He was going to be the anchor of the defensive line.

And now, today...

All I can hope is that his example serves to help others.

Only the good die young.

IlliniJoe81 on July 16, 2021 @ 11:34 PM

So sad. I really thought he would walk again just because of his pure determination. Every now and then I would check in and try to show some love even after he was out of the headlines. I saw his name on a message board earlier today and thought maybe he was walking.

Things were probably more grim than we all wanted to believe. Sometimes there are no more gains to be had and you can't overcome some obstacles. He gave it all he had to recover even without a happy ending waiting for him. To keep fighting against an impossible situation is truly heroic.

If you approach life with the same attitude when you are on top of the world and when you are on the bottom then you are a special human being. He deserves to be in a better place now and I hope he rests in peace. Let's never forget to keep fighting and earn our weekend.

TheGreekIllini on July 17, 2021 @ 12:26 AM

I honestly couldn't handle this news, and I am not family and have never even met him. I truly cannot imagine the pain of his family and teammates. He was clearly one of the most loved individuals to be part of this program... and I just have no other worst. I hope he rests peacefully, and I will have his family in my thoughts for the rest of my life. 97 strong forever.

uilaw71 on July 17, 2021 @ 07:33 AM

Words fail, but you captured the heart of this Seventeener.

firet92 on July 17, 2021 @ 10:33 AM

Thank you for writing the words I struggled to find, Robert.

Dr. Chim Richalds on July 17, 2021 @ 10:44 AM

Incredibly well said Robert. Thank you for representing the feelings of so many of us, as always.

Lou-a-villini on July 17, 2021 @ 01:34 PM

Medical novice hereā€¦. Has anyone heard the cause of death? His rehab sessions showed so much promise, especially two years after the accident.

IlliniKat91 on July 17, 2021 @ 02:37 PM

Word is cardiac arrest, but there's a lot that can cause that.

Bear8287 on July 17, 2021 @ 02:27 PM

Thanks Robert. I saw the banner and probably like many others had immediately hoped for some good news about Bobby's rehab. Thanks for the words and caring. A reminder to us all of the strength of Bobby's character and to appreciate every day.

ktcesw on July 17, 2021 @ 04:36 PM

Superb, heartfelt, truly significant words, Robert! All Illinois students and athletes are hurting right now. Thanks for words that are able to ease the pain just a little!

MinnIllini on July 18, 2021 @ 10:33 AM

Just gutted. RIP Big Bob.

Duce20 on July 19, 2021 @ 09:10 AM

I put his picture as my avatar on twitter and it was going to stay there until he walked again. I suppose he's walking in heaven now. This is devastating.

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