CHAMPAIGN — A month ago, I wrote to Bobby Roundtree on Twitter, asking him if we could talk for a story I planned to write.
On Tuesday afternoon, Bobby answered me back:
“Sorry I’m just seeing this.”
I followed up, “Thanks for getting back to me. I’d like to talk whenever you have time” and included my cell number.
Sadly, we won’t get to do that interview: Bobby passed away Friday in Florida.
He was 23.
My heart sank as two words came out: Oh, no.
Four years ago, Bobby was the future of Illinois football.
Recruited from Largo, Fla., he had the game and the look of a young Simeon Rice. Bobby even wore the same number: 97.
Bobby was a standout as a freshman and even better as a sophomore. He led the team in sacks and tackles for losses while being named defensive MVP. A star in the making.
He was on the way to being an early entry in the NFL draft after his junior season. With his size and athletic ability, he would have been an easy pick.
It all changed May 18, 2019, when Bobby suffered a severe spinal injury in a swimming accident near his Florida home.
I was told it was bad. Career-ending, for sure. And life-altering.
Almost immediately, Bobby went to work to get better. With the full support of then-Illinois coach Lovie Smith, Bobby set short-term and long-range goals. Given his determination and effort, walking again seemed inevitable. Really, nothing was off the table.
You felt optimistic about his chances for recovery because of character and spirit.
Bobby made an emotional return to Champaign-Urbana for the 2019 regular season finale against Northwestern. He surprised his teammates with the visit.
The rest of the Illini were always in his corner. They were there as friends, teammates, brothers, family members. Whatever he needed, they were going to try to make it happen.
Leaving a legacy
Of course, the Champaign-Urbana community and Illinois fans everywhere are mourning Bobby’s sudden passing.
It has been a difficult last year with the loss of iconic basketball coach Lou Henson and track coach Gary Wieneke. The two greats lived long, successful lives and have their names all over the athletic campus.
Bobby’s time here was so much shorter. But so very impactful.
It will be great if the school can come up with a proper way to honor Bobby beyond wearing a 97 sticker on their helmets in upcoming seasons.
Illinois has retired two football numbers in its history: Red Grange’s No. 77 and Dick Butkus’ No. 50. Obviously, two of the greatest ever in the game and so deserving of the honor.
Bobby’s perseverance and attitude make me think he is a great role model for future Illinois football players. With that in mind, the athletic department should consider either retiring No. 97 forever or make it a special jersey that goes only to the best of the best.
And I’d keep ROUNDTREE on the jersey, no matter who is the current wearer.
Savor the moments
Bobby’s death reminds us what we all already know: Life is way too short. It’s a blip. A blink of an eye. And we aren’t guaranteed the next second, day, week, month or year.
From the first moment I met Bobby his freshman year, it was clear he wasn’t going to waste any time.
Confident but not cocky. Friendly and kind.
The type of person who put others ahead of himself. A good guy who was a loyal friend. And they returned that loyalty.
It is going to be difficult for his teammates to move on. They looked forward to more visits. His courage and commitment inspired them.
The season Bobby got hurt, his team ended a five-year bowl drought. Certainly, his constant presence in their hearts and minds pushed them.
He wasn’t on the field for the upset win against Wisconsin, but he was part of it afterward via FaceTime in the locker room with his teammates. He wasn’t there for the comeback win at Michigan State, but the Illini couldn’t have done it without him.
The players made sure he stayed connected with the program. That wasn’t going to change.
And it won’t change going forward. #97Strong will be there for the opener against Nebraska and the second game, too.
Rest in peace, Bobby. You’ll be missed. And never forgotten.
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at email@example.com.