Friday is a day I never will forget, and I’m sure Illinois fans won’t either.
On one hand, I was prepared. Star center Kofi Cockburn, who was named a consensus second-team All-American last season, was set to make his college decision at any moment. The 7-footer would return to the Illini for a third campaign on the basketball court or head to Kentucky or Florida State, the other programs he considered while in the NCAA transfer portal.
As I’m sure every other Illinois beat writer did, I already had written a story about Cockburn coming back to Champaign. That way, if that turned out to be Cockburn’s choice, all I had to do was officially publish the story to our website and watch it spread like wildfire.
What I didn’t anticipate, however, is that a few hours before Cockburn’s announcement, as Illini fans held their breath, I’d be writing another story that would take it away.
Former Illini defensive lineman Bobby Roundtree died Friday. He was 23.
And then Cockburn, a 21-year-old, returned.
They are two significant moments in Illinois athletics history — on completely opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.
It was early afternoon Friday when Twitter started to fill with the news of Roundtree’s passing, and I didn’t want to believe it. But when the football team made the announcement, it became all too real all too fast.
One of the things about death, at least for me, is that there always seems to be a memory that I didn’t know I had. A memory I thought I’d forgotten. Really, it was tucked in some crevice of my mind until the grief brought it back.
In Roundtree’s case, it was a memory on the field, but not the one you’re thinking of at Memorial Stadium. It happened a few blocks away at the Illinois Center Playfields, which are used in the fall for intramural football.
A few years ago, while I was a student at Illinois, I was also an official for intramural sports. It was a fun job and an easy way to make money, but perhaps one of the funniest memories I have — which I was reminded of unfortunately because of Roundtree’s untimely death — is how he tried to sneak into a game.
There aren’t that many rules for intramural sports at Illinois, but one is that Illini athletes can’t play the same (or similar) sports in which they participate for the university. And despite being 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds, Roundtree really tried to convince me and my coworkers that he wasn’t on the football team, even though he was donning Illinois gear from head to toe.
It was a hilarious moment because when I told him he couldn’t play, he broke out in this sheepish smile and laugh as if he knew how unfair it would be. I mean, could you imagine Roundtree in a flag football game? Of course it’s a noncontact sport, so there’s no tackling, but there also isn’t much of an offensive line either because players aren’t allowed to use their hands to block.
So again, who’s stopping him on a pass rush, without using their hands? It’s an impossibly humorous scenario, especially when you consider the trajectory of Roundtree’s career at the time.
My encounter with him occurred in the fall of 2017, just before he emerged as a star during his first two seasons at Illinois. After a strong freshman campaign, the following year, 2018, he recorded team highs of 12½ tackles for loss, 7½ sacks and seven pass breakups en route to being named a Big Ten honorable mention pick by the media.
‘God had other plans’
It became clear that Roundtree was destined for a professional career, and this was supposed to be the year when it all came together. He shared those thoughts via Instagram on May 1, the last day of the 2021 NFL draft.
“First off I just wanna say congrats to all of the guys going to the next level. This would’ve been the year I prepared all my life for, the 2021 Draft,” he wrote. “God had other plans, I just wish I could’ve seen what round/pick I would’ve been. I’m preparing for the league in another way. Young ones, get after it. Make your dreams turn into reality.”
On May 18, 2019, Roundtree suffered a spinal cord injury in a boating and swimming accident in Florida. He became an incomplete quadriplegic, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, and the injury ended his football career.
He no longer was able to walk on his own, a goal he was determined to accomplish again. But what sticks with me more than that is Roundtree’s infectious smile and laugh. The same smile and laugh he displayed when he tried to sneak into an intramural football game in 2017 are the same smile and laugh I saw years later in the videos he constantly posted during his rehab.
In May 2020, just over a year after his accident, Roundtree spoke to the media about how much his life had changed. One of the statements he gave during that interview, which I came across for the first time over the weekend, will resonate with me forever.
“God gives his hardest battles to his strongest warriors,” he said. “There was a reason why I got hurt. I don’t think everybody would handle this as I am. I’m grateful that I’m still here and able to get strong every day.”
And although Roundtree didn’t stay as long as any of us would’ve preferred, I have to think that a man like him, with such an unbreakable spirit, never can truly be gone.
A few hours after his death, the cause of which was not disclosed, I found myself reading a bunch of stories and social media posts about him and Cockburn — the two main topics of the Illini universe Friday. The word “legacy” came up quite often in the things I read about Cockburn, as his return adds to his already illustrious career in Champaign and makes the Illinois men’s basketball team one of the top programs in the country.
However, I feel pretty confident in saying that Roundtree has an undeniable legacy, too, that Illini fans will cherish long after his death. That smile and laugh are permanent reminders that regardless of what he did on any field, Roundtree was larger than life.
And just as I shared my memory, I’m sure there are countless others who have done — and will continue to do — the same.