CHAMPAIGN — Brandon Wildman walked into his first class at the University of Illinois in August 2017 a few minutes late.
Only one seat remained.
So Wildman, a Monticello native and former high school quarterback for the Sages, sat down. Next to him? Bobby Roundtree.
That was Wildman’s introduction to the Illinois football player who would go on to inspire so many lives after this chance encounter.
“We talked throughout the entire class,” Wildman told The News-Gazette on Friday afternoon. “We were walking back to the dorms, and we kept walking next to each other. We were going the same way.”
The pair entered Wassaja Hall together. Rode the elevator up. Got off on the same floor.
“It turned out,” Wildman said, “we were living right next to each other.”
The two became close friends. Eventually roommates, sharing an apartment at 112 E. Green Street in Champaign.
Which is why Wildman, along with thousands of others, had a hard time comprehending the news once it started circulating Friday afternoon on social media.
Roundtree had died Friday morning. He was 23 years old.
Paralyzed for the last two years after a swimming accident in May 2019 left him with a severe spinal injury, Roundtree was in Florida on Friday morning, according to Brenda McCarthy. McCarthy is the executive director of We Believe In Me, a nonprofit organization that helps mentor high school athletes with the hopes of them attending college.
Roundtree was associated with the group, and McCarthy told The News-Gazette on Friday afternoon she had spoken with Roundtree on Thursday.
“He was fine,” she said. “He was not sick. He just stopped breathing.”
Roundtree’s mother, Jacqueline Hearns, was with him.
“His mom did what she could do, and they called 911,” McCarthy said, “but the paramedics couldn’t revive him.”
McCarthy’s organization sent out a tweet early Friday afternoon announcing the news. A few hours later, the Illinois football team confirmed the stunning news with 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.
‘His ability to inspire was crazy’
Roundtree signed to play at Illinois on Feb. 1, 2017, part of Lovie Smith’s first full recruiting class. He was a late addition to the class, committing shortly before signing day.
But he made an immediate contribution on the field. A 6-foot-5, 255-pound defensive end, Roundtree started 11 games as a true freshman during Smith’s second season, finishing with 50 tackles and four sacks.
The native of Largo, Fla., was even better in 2018 as a sophomore. 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.
By that point, Wildman and Roundtree’s friendship had grown. Much like Roundtree’s potential and aspirations of a potential NFL career. The friends planned to live in one-bedroom apartments by themselves for the 2019-20 school year, but were still close.
“We were still going to live in the same apartment complex, but he and I were both ready to live on our own,” Wildman said. “For me, it was more just because it was my senior year coming up, and for him, it was because he was going to leave after that next season and shoot for the NFL.”
Then, tragedy struck. First for Wildman, whose father Michael, died in April 2019.
Roundtree was there to pick his friend up. However he needed in handling the situation.
“He just said he had my back and tried to make me laugh,” Wildman said. “His personality was always smiling and always happy. He always just tried to look at things on the bright side.”
Even after Roundtree’s own life-changing accident. Confined to a wheelchair, Roundtree was determined to walk again some day. He regained the use of his arms and hands by last spring.
“When somebody tells me I can’t do something,” Roundtree said in May 2020 when speaking publicly with reporters for the first time since his accident, “I’ll prove them wrong and show them I’ll be able to do it.”
Roundtree’s penchant to bring out the best in people, particularly high school athletes she worked with at her organization, was not lost on McCarthy on Friday. Even amid the life-changing events Roundtree dealt with the last two years and even while she came to grips with the news of his death.
“His ability to speak and inspire was crazy,” McCarthy said. “The kids gravitated towards him. He was just electric, and he mentored so many boys in our foundation.”
He ‘brought out the best in everybody’Roundtree loved to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines. That was clear to see by any Illini fan during his two seasons on the field.
But he was more than just a football player, Wildman said.
He loved to cook. He loved music. Loved cutting hair. And he loved to make others around him laugh.
“Our personalities were very similar,” Wildman said. “We talked football, obviously, but he had his own Instagram Live/Snapchat cooking show. We called him Chef Bobby.”
The tributes to Roundtree on Friday afternoon poured in swift and frequently. Former Illini linebacker Dele Harding, the team’s leading tackler in 2019, was close to Roundtree. He, along with former teammates Jamal Woods, Tymir Oliver and Kenyon Jackson, visited Roundtree on Christmas Day 2019 when Roundtree was at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago.
“I dedicated that season to you,” Harding wrote on his Twitter account. “You showed me how to push.”
Former Illini Dre Brown, the team’s leading rusher in 2019, echoed those sentiments.
“Bobby brought out the best in everybody around him,” Brown wrote on his Twitter account. “His work ethic, character and energy was second to none.”
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman had similar thoughts in a lengthy statement released through the university on Friday afternoon.
“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.”
‘Bobby Roundtree is family’
Wildman, who graduated from the UI last spring, was still dealing late Friday afternoon with the raw emotions of his close friend’s passing.
“I had talked to him about a week ago,” Wildman said. “He was doing fine and seemed in good spirits. When the accident first happened, I tried to give him as much space as possible because I know what it’s like after something big like that happens. We stayed in touch, but man, I wish, looking back now, I had done more.”
Smith set up a trust in Roundtree’s name in late October 2019 to help with medical expenses. More than $100,000 was raised to help.
“It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever been through in sports,” Smith told The News-Gazette in early June 2019. “Bobby Roundtree is family. I’m his coach, but it’s a lot more than that.”
Roundtree meant so much. To so many people. In so many different walks of life. He was a standout football player, then a motivational figure based on his social-media posts detailing his recovery.
But one aspect stands out most to Wildman.
It’s what he, and many others, will try to do in the coming days, weeks, months and years.
“He attacked every day and truly believed he was going to get back to walking again,” Wildman said. “My biggest thing is I hope people don’t forget about him. Because I know I won’t.”