Bobby Roundtree, the former Illinois football player who inspired thousands after he was left paralyzed after a swimming accident two years ago, has died.
The team confirmed the news on Friday afternoon in a tweet.
"The Illini Family has lost one of its inspirational leaders with the passing of Bobby Roundtree Friday in the Tampa area," the tweet read.
Roundtree was 23 years old.
A tweet from We Believe In Me, an organization based out of Tarpon Springs, Fla., a nonprofit organization that helps high school athletes aspire to play sports in college, on Friday afternoon shared the news first publicly of Roundtree's death.
Brenda McCarthy, the founder of We Believe In Me, told The News-Gazette by phone on Friday afternoon Roundtree died at his home on Friday morning. Roundtree's mother, Jacqueline Hearns, was with him.
"I just talked to him on Thursday," McCarthy said. "He was fine. He was not sick. He just stopped breathing. His mom did what she could do, and they called 911, but the paramedics couldn't revive him."
Definition of perseverance! I know you in a better place. I love you bro. 97strong forever!— Rondo#️⃣9️⃣ (@dele_harding) July 16, 2021
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said in a statement on Friday afternoon he and everyone else connected with the Illini are "shocked and saddened" by Roundtree's death.
"From his first day on campus, Bobby was a leader," Whitman said. "His work ethic, competitive fire and drive for excellence set him apart. Following his tragic accident, those same qualities allowed him to tackle his new challenges with the same vigor and determination that we had seen on the football field. In doing so, he continued to bring light and inspiration to the lives of those around him — and, in fact, to so many people who had never had the pleasure of meeting him.
"In the face of incredible adversity, he demonstrated he was, and always will remain, a true champion. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. We will support them, and our players, coaches and staff who knew him well, as we struggle to understand this terrible news and, ultimately, look to celebrate the remarkable young leader we have lost."
Roundtree played two seasons at Illinois in 2017 and 2018, making a contribution immediately. A defensive end, he made 11 starts as a true freshman during Lovie Smith’s second season and contributed 50 tackles and four sacks.
The native of Largo, Fla., was even better in 2018. He again started 11 games at defensive end and was an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection by the media after making 66 tackles, including 7 1/2 sacks.
Those efforts his first two seasons put immense expectations upon Roundtree entering his junior season. But he suffered a severe spinal injury during a swimming accident on May 18, 2019 that left him in a wheelchair.
“Bobby Roundtree is exactly what you want in a student-athlete,” Smith said in a statement two days after Roundtree’s accident. “He is a hard worker, dependable, a dedicated student and a leader. This is devastating to his teammates, the entire Fighting Illini family and his family and friends. We will give Bobby all the support possible as he battles through his recovery. Please keep Bobby and his family in your thoughts and prayers.”
Rip to my dawg man. 97.— Kendrick J. Green (@The_fridge53) July 16, 2021
McCarthy said her organization, which Roundtree was a part of growing up, helped in the immediate days after his accident.
"We took turns rotating at the hospital and sleeping there with the family to help them however we could," McCarthy said.
With the help of Smith, a trust was established in Roundtree’s name in late October 2019 to help with his medical expenses.
A month later, Roundtree was back at Memorial Stadium, watching the Illini play Northwestern to end the regular season. He was kept in the loop through FaceTime calls after big wins that season, which culminated in a RedBox Bowl trip after a four-game Big Ten win streak.
Illinois kept his locker that season and rallied around the #97Strong in reference to Roundtree’s number.
“Unbelievable, you know?” Illinois offensive lineman Alex Palczewski said after Illinois and Northwestern played on Nov. 30, 2019 in Champaign. “I’ve FaceTime’d him and I saw him (at Big Ten) media days, but to be able to see him actually here meant the world to me. It was unreal to be able to see him.”
Roundtree often posted videos to his social media accounts of his rehab. In fact, he had one that generated 33,000 views of him working out on Monday.
“Stay humble and keep elevating,” Roundtree wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
Roundtree spoke publicly to reporters about his accident in a May 2020 Zoom call. He spent the first several months after his accident at the Shirly Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago and returned to Champaign in January 2020. By last spring, he had regained the use of his arms and hands.
“I’ve been told I’m going against the odds,” Roundtree said last spring. “Even when I was in the hospital at Shirley Ryan, I had a therapist pull me to the side and said nobody thought I would be moving this quickly or even in a manual chair pushing myself around. They just told me whatever goal you have, just keep it. When somebody tells me I can’t do something, I’ll prove them wrong and show them I’ll be able to do it.”
McCarthy said even after his accident, high school athletes that were part of her organization would light up whenever Roundtree was around.
"His ability to speak and inspire was crazy," she said. "The kids gravitated towards him. He was just electric, and he mentored so many boys in our foundation."