Bobby Roundtree, former Illinois football star, dies at 23

Roundtree starred for the Fighting Illini before a tragic accident in 2019 left him paralyzed.

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Bobby Roundtree in 2020.

Bobby Roundtree in 2020.

Photo by Jill Hearns

Bobby Roundtree, the former Illinois defensive end whose football dreams came to an end when he was paralyzed in a diving accident two years ago, died Friday in the Tampa Bay area. He was 23.

The Illinois football program announced Roundtree’s death Friday afternoon. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Roundtree, a star on the Fighting Illini defense for two seasons, had his life changed May 18, 2019, when he suffered a severe spinal injury while jumping off a boat in the Intercoastal Waterway near his home in Largo, Florida. He was left an incomplete quadriplegic, with considerable use of his upper body but not of his legs or fingers.

Roundtree had a long rehabilitation stay at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago, where he accomplished milestones such as going from lying down to sitting up and moving from a power wheelchair to a manual one. After returning to Florida, he stepped up his workouts while remaining an Illinois student, using a stylus with an attached mouthpiece to study remotely.

Physical therapists and strength-and-conditioning coaches in Chicago and Florida raved about Roundtree’s work ethic and attitude. Roundtree often posted motivational messages and videos of his workouts on social media. In one posted Monday, he pulled himself into a standing position using attachments on his hands to grip vertical bars and with the support of a trainer facing him and pulling on a harness.

Just Thursday night, he wrote on Twitter, “Stay humble and keep ELEVATING.”

Before his injury, Roundtree was determined to make it to the NFL. He’d led the Illini in sacks and was named the team’s best defensive player as a sophomore in 2018 and was a legitimate draft prospect.

He hoped to make life easier for his mother, have a family of his own and do lots of traveling. He imagined owning two homes, one on the beach and the other with lots of land for four-wheelers and a nice pool and hot tub.

“Just living comfortably,” he said late last year.

Roundtree gave his first extended one-on-one interview to the Chicago Sun-Times close to a year and a half after his injury. He pledged to walk again — “I know I will,” he said — and, in the November 2020 feature, opened up about his loneliness, frustrations, desire to inspire and his ultimate goal: independence.

“Just being able to wake up and get myself dressed, not need help to use the restroom, to brush my own teeth,” he said. “I would like to be able to feed myself. To just get out and be working, doing stuff I don’t need no assistance for.”

Roundtree had many tattoos. The one that meant the most to him in the last years of his life was on his right biceps: “Focus on the Mission.” He got it before his high school graduation to motivate him at Illinois. It came to represent so much more than that.

The “mission” helped him get through the challenges of a pandemic that, among other things, made rehab move more slowly at times than he wanted.

“Everything that I like and want to do, it just makes me want to go harder,” he said. “I try not to talk about it a lot, don’t put my head there. It doesn’t make me sad or anything. I just try to stay sane and hungry.”

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