Death is a tough thing to wrap your mind around, which is strange because dying is a thing intrinsic to human life. This past weekend, I traveled with my family out to Colorado to remember my grandmother, who passed away in January 2020 at the age of 89. Anyone would tell you that 89 years is a perfectly normal age for someone to live to, but it was still difficult to say goodbye. How do you wrap your head around someone dying at just 23?
Let’s try. I think that there is a bit of a train of thought to grieving over someone who passed away. The first step is the remembering part, a category I’ll title “What Was” so it’ll match the others. This usually leads into the second step, a very complex one I’ll title “What Could Have Been.” Focusing just on this part is possibly the most dangerous, but when someone dies so young, it is hard not to get lost in all the possibilities of what if their life wasn’t cut short. However, it still can serve a purpose and inform the third and most important step of the grieving process: “What Will Be.”
Some things are returning to normal. Illinois fans will be gathering by the hundreds and thousands to watch their teams play, but one person Illinois fans all knew won’t be there. It’s time we grieve together.
What Was: Bobby Roundtree chose Illinois.
There’s a measure of people in the world that do not like sports, and as someone who loves sports wholly, completely, and deeply, this baffles me. Want to feel just about every emotion possible for a human? Pick a team and give it a few years (although it can happen in just a couple of hours). Love petty drama? Every sport has it, but look no further than Formula One. Want to watch people do stuff you could only dream about doing? If you’re an unathletic guy who’s 5-foot-10 on a tall day like me, just watch one Illini basketball game, and Kofi probably will dunk multiple times.
Sports have a wall of rules, numbers, and machismo that can be a barrier to some, but beyond that, it’s horrible, messy, complicated, beautiful, inspiring, and about a billion other things all at once. It’s all deeply human, just ratcheted up and all out there in the open for everyone to see.
College sports is more horrible, more messy, more complicated, more beautiful, more inspiring, and two billion other things all at once, but two things make it much more special than just about everywhere else. First, it’s absolutely massive. There are teams/schools everywhere in America. Each team has its own traditions and diehard fans that make it unique. Second, each player chooses where they want to play. At one point or another, every college athlete that’s on your team looked at your cult and decided that they wanted in. They weren’t traded or loaned there. They, for whatever reason, wanted to be part of it.
It might’ve been the promise of early playing time. It could’ve been the intrigue of playing for a legendary NFL coach. It could’ve been the challenge of rebuilding a program from one of its worst stretches. It could’ve been the charm of the sticky floors of old Kam’s. Whatever the reason, Bobby wanted to be a Fighting Illini.
What Was: Bobby Roundtree was GOOD.
Like, GOOD. The 3-star defensive end out of high school more than lived up to the billing. I could throw stats at you, but I just remember him and Isaiah Gay taking over the Western Kentucky game his freshman year. He was in line to be Illinois’ next NFL draft pick. If you’re a fan of a more fortunate program that stumbled over here, this doesn’t sound like much, but Illini draft picks are few and far between. Those Illini that make it to the NFL, especially in recent years, are legendary in Chambana.
What Was: Bobby Roundtree had an accident.
Alright…deep breath…In May 2019, Bobby was back home in Tampa and suffered a spinal cord injury. I don’t remember all the details (and honestly, I don’t want to go look them up), and I do not want to speculate. The main takeaways from this are spinal cord injury, a loss of motor function, particularly in his legs, a completely altered life, and no more football.
What Could Have Been, Part 1
It’s not always death that makes people ponder “what could have been.” A setback or a change of plans will suffice at times. Often, it comes with alongside another feeling: regret. Shoot, as I’m writing this, I’m staring down what should be my final semester of undergrad at the University of Illinois. I’ve changed my major, been out of school for a year somewhere in the middle of it all, and made plenty of decisions I’ve regretted along the way. I can’t help but wonder how much better things would be if I had just chosen differently, or if some things that were outside my control just didn’t happen.
So I’d be remiss if I just skipped over considering what would’ve happened if that accident didn’t happen in Tampa. How much would Bobby have improved the Illini over his last 1 or 2 seasons at Illinois? Which round would he get picked in? How good of a pro would he have been?
Regret, considering what ifs, following hypotheticals that at one point seemed just within reach…these are all an important step in self-improvement and making sense of things, but we can’t dwell too long on it…
What Was: Bobby Roundtree was an inspiration
…because Bobby didn’t.
With a few exceptions, I (and I assume most other fans) will love anyone that puts on the orange and blue forever. However, there’s a special place in my heart for any athlete that no matter how horrible things are going while they’re an Illini, they just continue to give their all. If you want a relatively run-of-the-mill player that encapsulates this, it’s Malcolm Hill going through the endgame of Groce’s time at Illinois. A game? The comeback at Michigan State. If you want a 10-minute video, Black Cat and the Illini defense will provide. If you need something more recent, go to that replay stuck in your mind of Devon Witherspoon’s shoestring tackle.
It’s looking at a bad situation and making the most of it. It’s the reason why in the early 20th century, the Illinois Illini became known as the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Bobby didn’t just make the most out of his situation. He did it with a smile. He attacked rehab with a passion, and it was tough not to crack a smile when his videos came across your feed. If someone can be that positive, that motivated in the face of what he was going through, why couldn’t you do the same with your lesser problems?
I’m not going to be naïve and assume that he didn’t play the what if game and get a little pessimistic from time to time. What’s inspiring is being able to get out of that train of thought and get back to work making things better.
And you can’t tell Bobby’s enthusiasm and drive didn’t have a direct effect on his teammates. The first thing his friends did after getting back to the locker room after pulling off that monumental upset against Wisconsin was facetime Bobby.
Inspiration is often subjective, but facts are facts. Bobby was an inspiration.
What was: Bobby Roundtree died July 16, 2021.
He was 23 years old.
What Could Have Been, Part 2
(deep breath, again) Yeah, this one is tough to consider. We don’t know if more time would’ve allowed Bobby to make a full recovery. We do know that more time would’ve meant more positivity, more inspiration, and a better world in general.
It’s tough to figure out why Bobby had to go, but I’m reminded of a quote about the 1977 plane crash that claimed every member of the Evansville Purple Aces basketball team:
Dan Heierman, a 1981 graduate of the University of Evansville said in From the Ashes, “I guess about the only explanation we seemed like at that time we came up with was — God wanted a truly first-class Division I team in heaven and,” he briefly pauses. “He needed the whole team.”
With Bobby, either God needed a darn good pass rush, or God needed to be inspired.
What Will Be
Just like everyone grieves in their own way, each person can choose to honor someone in their own way. I’m not quite self-righteous enough to tell everyone how they should individually remember or honor Bobby, so I’ll just share what I’m going to try to do.
I didn’t know Bobby outside of watching him on the field and seeing his videos cross my feed. Like most Illini fans, I was more or less a distant admirer. Chances are Bobby won’t be on my mind every single day, but I do hope I’ll think of him every so often. Every time I start to feel anxious about something big, I hope I’ll think of Bobby. As I’m racing to the finish for my undergrad degree, I hope I’ll be thinking of Bobby. As I face down a seemingly impossible challenge, I hope I’ll think of Bobby. I don’t think I’ll take all of it on with as much positivity or enthusiasm as Bobby would’ve, but I’ll try my best to put on a happy face and give it all I have.
Seeing that the Illinois athletic department isn’t an individual, I feel fine telling them what to do. The worst thing to happen would be for Bobby to fade out of the general Illini consciousness slowly and completely. The athletic department needs to honor him some way, whether that’s retiring his number or giving it to a player as a sign of respect. That way, years down the road, when a kid in Memorial Stadium asks what’s so special about 97, some old, weary Illini fan can wistfully smile and explain what Bobby means.
There are a few ways that answer could go, some trailing off about how good of a player he was, maybe a mention of how miserable the program was when he chose to hop on board, maybe something about his setbacks and what he did in response. The amount of details will be different every single time, but the answer will generally be the same: Bobby was everything you want a Fighting Illini to be.