College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

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Defensive Line coach Austin Clark talks with Illinois' defensive lineman Moses Okpala (69) during football training camp at campus rec fields in Urbana on Monday, August 5, 2019.

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In his 30th year on the Illinois football beat, AP Top 25 voter Bob Asmussen is on call 24/7. Submit your questions BY CLICKING HERE and he’ll chase down answers.

URBANA — When the season starts, it’s going to be obvious who Khalan Tolson is thinking about. It will be written on his protective tape and cleats. And printed on a helmet sticker: “97.”

Bobby Roundtree.

“I think about him every day,” Tolson said. “I see Bobby as my big brother. We used to literally do everything together. If he went somewhere, I would go with him. Kind of like my mentor. He was always there for me.”

The Illinois linebacker wants to return the favor.

Tolson, a native of St. Petersburg, Fla., was with Roundree at the time of the swimming mishap on May 18.

Roundtree, a junior defensive end who led Illinois with 7 1 / 2 sacks last season, suffered a severe spinal injury.

“I was very hurt when the accident happened,” Tolson said. “But I’m keeping my head up. This year is all for Bobby.”

After initial surgery and recovery in Florida, Roundtree is now doing rehab in the Chicago area.

Tolson chats with his friend often.

“We talk about everything,” Tolson said. “What we ate to how the team is doing to what’s going on around school. Stuff like that.”

Of course, the Illini miss Roundtree. On and off the field.

“He just brings that energy to the whole defense,” Tolson said.

Roundtree’s work ethic was legendary. He was always ready and willing to do more.

His attitude continues to have an impact on the Illini.

“It definitely helps us work harder because we know what we’re playing for at all times,” Tolson said.

Tolson and his teammates can’t wait to see Roundtree return to campus.

“That’s going to make everything better,” Tolson said. “When he comes back, we’re going to grow even stronger.”

Tolson and the Illini are optimistic about Roundtree’s recovery. So is Roundtree.

“He is definitely in good spirits,” Tolson said. “We keep him laughing and joking around.”

Roundtree’s athletic ability and mentality will help his recovery.

“He’ll handle it better than the average person. No. 1, because he’s an athlete, he knows what it takes and how it is, how hard you have to work,” Tolson said. “And No. 2, just having a strong mindset.”

Support system

Roundtree and the Illini are teammates for life.

“We’re 100 percent behind him,” Tolson said. “He knows we’re here.”

What does Tolson want others to know about Roundtree?

“Bobby is a great person, a loving dude,” Tolson said. “He is very social, very cool, very chill person.”

Second-year defensive line coach Austin Clark remains heavily connected to Roundtree. He was in Florida after the accident and spent time at the hospital.

“You can’t replace Bobby Roundtree on the field, in the meeting room, as a person,” Clark said. “He’s the greatest human being I’ve ever met in my life.”

Clark and the players look forward to a reunion. In Champaign-Urbana.

“It’s huge and it’s huge for him,” Clark said.

“It’s going to be a relief,” Illini defensive lineman Jamal Woods said. “It should bring a smile on everybody’s face.”

Clark will do anything to help.

“I’m just here for Bobby,” he said. “Whatever he needs. Whatever his family needs. Just like Coach Lovie Smith is, our athletic director Josh Whitman and our entire football team. That’s part of our job as coaches. Whenever something happens, we’re here for them.”

Roundtree’s accident adds perspective for the players and coaches. Yes, winning is important. But there is more to life,

“You can’t take a second for granted,” Clark said.

Close-knit group

On a football team, players often hang out by position. The quarterbacks stick together. Offensive lines are known for it.

No different for defensive linemen.

“They care about each other,” Clark said.

Woods is one of the guys trying to fill the void left by Roundtree.

He started the first four games in 2018 before an injury ended his season.

Woods visits Roundtree whenever possible.

“He’s trusting the process,” Woods said. “He’s trusting in his doctor, so everything should go smooth.”

Woods learned from watching his teammate.

“We’ve got to follow his footsteps,” Woods said. “He always wants us to have the same energy in camp without him. He trusts the D-line.”

Roundtree treated practice like a game.

“He was always playing real hard,” Woods said.

The Illini plan to honor him with their effort.

“We know that he would want us to win,” Woods said, “so that’s what we’re going to have to do for him.”

Even the new guys, who never played with Roundtree, are feeling his presence.

“We watch his film all the time,” Southern Cal transfer end Oluwole Betiku Jr. said. “Every day we have meetings, we talk about Bobby. We know we all have to hold it down for Bobby.”

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.