CHAMPAIGN – He was always there in spirit, but they wanted to make sure that he was able to be present in some way to celebrate a historic moment.
With just two wins in their first six games, Illinois stunned then No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23 on a last-second field goal in Champaign on October 20, 2019. After fans flooded the field at Memorial Stadium to celebrate, Lovie Smith and his players retreated to the locker room for their own party to celebrate the triumph.
Of course, Bobby Roundtree was included in this party.
The defensive tackle, who was still recovering from a spinal cord injury suffered that May that took away his ability to walk, joined the celebration through FaceTime. Players jumped around when he popped on the screen, with a few players taking the phone and talking to him briefly one-on-one.
During that season and into 2020, this became a tradition for Illini players following games. It was an impactful part of their gameday routine from a player who left his mark before and after the accident.
“Just to see that our brother was still watching us through the TV, cheering us on, it helped us in the long run,” said Illinois defensive lineman Jamal Woods. “He gave us support to go out there on the field and do what we had to do.”
That encouragement is just part of the legacy that Roundtree left on the Illinois football program, one that’s being remembered after his death at the age of 23 on July 16th. It’s something that Woods reflected on following his death in an interview from Champaign, remembering his days when he was roommates with Roundtree in their early days at Illinois.
“He used to always talk to me, before we’d go into practice or anything like that, telling me we’ve got to keep our head up, and we can get it,” said Woods. “Even when the accident, he kept that same mentality. He called me before games and tell me that ‘Bro, you’ve got to go out there and get your money. You’ve got to go out there and do what you’ve got to do.’
“Just hearing his voice and just being in contact with him throughout the seasons I was playing without my brother, it just helped me out in the long run, because I knew that the brother was still just trying to get me right, still inspiring me to go out there so I could do what I know that I could do with his help.”
Another way Roundtree managed to motivate his teammates and others in the program was his effort to improve himself, first on the field as a freshman and sophomore. In 2017 and 2018, the defensive lineman had a combined 12 1/2 sacks and was one of the rising stars on Smith’s rebuilding Illinois’ defense.
“Just his hard-working mentality, man, it was so different,” said Woods, and he saw that after the injury in May of 2019 that took away his ability to walk.
While Roundtree would get the chance to visit with players on occasion, including a pregame speech before Illinois’ 2019 finale against Northwestern at Memorial Stadium, most of the time he was working to regain strength in his legs.
Josh Frydman profiled the rehab work he did while in Chicago, Champaign, and in Florida in an attempt get back to full health late in 2020. Players like Woods saw that and were just as inspired as they were when he wore the pads.
“His dedication to trying to get himself right was always amazing to me because I knew people who probably would have failed at that situation, who would not even want to put in the work that he was putting in to get better,” said Woods. “Just to see him throughout these two years, just busting his tail off, to get to the spot he wanted to be. It’s kinda sad he can’t do it no more because the work he was putting in was different.
“You’ll never see anybody trying to put in the work he wanted to put in.”
Hence why his memory will live on after his death with the players and coaches that knew him and the program as a whole. Bret Bielema, who never coached Roundtree and has only been in Champaign since December, already understood what he meant to those around Illini football.
“As soon as I took the job, until I received the news last week of his passing, just been overly impressed with who he is, what he represents, and the lives he touched in a short amount of time,” said Bielema, who mentioned Roundtree in his opening remarks at Big Ten Media Day in Indianapolis earlier in July. It was immediately well known to me how much of an impact he had on our team, obviously when he was a player, a great player.
“But also during his time of recovery and the way he fought and the way he battled up until his passing last week is truly special.”
It will continue to be for those who wear the orange and blue for years to come.