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Illini standout Bobby Roundtree surrounded by love and support after ‘severe’ spinal injury

Roundtree had been No. 1 on Lovie Smith’s list to represent the program in the media this year. Why? He checked all the boxes for what an Illini player should be.

Penn State v Illinois
Illinois’ Bobby Roundtree chases a ball-carrier in 2018.
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Bobby Roundtree remembers feeling “burned out, tired, dehydrated.” It was his third college game, in September 2017, and Illinois got blown out 47-23 by USF in Tampa, Florida, about 20 miles from the defensive end’s Largo home.

During the game, Roundtree tried not to think about the roughly 40 family members and friends who were in the stands at Raymond James Stadium to watch him play. The lopsided score embarrassed him. But it was the love and support he felt from them afterward that made him feel better.

“They brought a smile to my face,” he recalled a year later. “They cheered me on. They cheered for us because we’re there for each other, no matter what.”

How dearly Roundtree, 21, will need his support system now.

He has been surrounded by loved ones at Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor, Florida, since suffering a severe spinal injury in a weekend swimming accident near Largo. He underwent surgery Sunday and was able to eat solid food and speak Monday — the first steps on what could be a long road to recovery.

Mom Jacqueline Hearns, who goes by Jill, hasn’t left Roundtree’s side. Illini coach Lovie Smith, there with defensive line coach Austin Clark and other members of his staff, also has kept vigil. Smith has encouraged family members to go home in shifts for rest, showers, etc., while the coaches hold down the fort at the hospital.

Smith himself plans to stay at least until Friday. After that, he’s thinking of a quick trip home to get some clothes, then a return to Florida. But all plans are fluid at a time like this.

“Bobby Roundtree is exactly what you want in a student-athlete,” Smith said in a statement released by the school. “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.”

Roundtree has been as good a player as Smith has had at Illinois. He led the team with 12½ tackles for loss and 7½ sacks as a sophomore in 2018 and was projected as an all-Big Ten player and NFL draft prospect.

But he has meant far more to his teammates, coaches and program than statistics can convey. As Smith has met with football communications staff to discuss which players to feature in the media heading into the 2019 season, Roundtree has been No. 1 on the list, checking all the boxes for what an Illini player should represent. Big Ten Media Days in Chicago in July was a sure thing.

“I wish all our guys were like Bobby,” Smith said during one of those media-planning discussions.

The road in front of Roundtree has changed, but the goodness inside him hasn’t. And his support system only grows stronger.

I’m just sayin’

For most of the six innings each pitched Monday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ Yu Darvish clearly outperformed the Phillies’ Jake Arrieta. The visitors got the win, though — 5-4 in 10 innings — and it was largely a testament to Arrieta’s competitiveness. It’s that competitiveness the Cubs miss, more than whatever magic remains in the 33-year-old’s right arm.

Darvish now has two quality starts in nine career starts at Wrigley. Arrieta has 43 quality starts in 60 career starts — all but one of them as a Cub — at Wrigley. And Arrieta’s 2.29 ERA there is the lowest ever by a right-hander with at least 300 innings pitched.

Of course, those numbers largely reflect Arrieta’s historically great 2015 season and his All-Star year in 2016. As his detractors are quick to point out, he isn’t quite the same pitcher anymore.

It’s impossible to quantify that competitiveness, though. Another reminder could come in October.

• Game 2, NLDS, Arrieta vs. Kyle Hendricks at Wrigley. Come to think of it, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia may be more likely. Then again, if the Cubs don’t straighten out their bullpen, can they really win their division? And would it be Hendricks after Game 1 starter Jon Lester, or maybe Cole Hamels instead? No chance the Phillies would open with Arrieta over Aaron Nola, is there?

But now I’ve wandered way the heck off into the weeds, as is my way.

Let’s try that again: Arrieta vs. Hendricks in October.

Discuss.

• Heading into Tuesday’s Game 6 of the NHL Western Conference finals between the Blues and Sharks, I asked the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews for his pick to win the Stanley Cup.

Tough to pick against the Bruins, who’ve already secured a spot in the title round, he said. But Toews is doing it. He’s rolling with the rival Blues.

“I think the time off for Boston could end up hurting them,” he said.

Do you dare to go against the Captain?