clock menu more-arrow no yes
Bobby Roundtree at home in Clearwater, Florida.
Bobby Roundtree at home in Clearwater, Florida.
Photo by Jill Hearns

Filed under:

Down, but never out

A year and a half after a life-changing accident, paralyzed former Illinois football star Bobby Roundtree opens up about loneliness, frustrations, the desire to inspire and his ultimate goal: independence.

The boats dropped anchor in the Intracoastal Waterway near John’s Pass in Madeira Beach, Florida, hundreds of folks gathered for a sandbar party. Music thumped. Alcohol was in abundance. Many revelers jumped off boats and into the water. Bobby Roundtree did it once, twice, several times. But then the tide went out. The water shallowed. Roundtree, Illinois’ star defensive end, jumped one time too many.

It was May 18, 2019, when Roundtree’s body — and life as he knew it — was shattered. In an instant, a 21-year-old who’d become a fearsome pass rusher as a sophomore and dreamed of playing in the NFL went from prospect to paralyzed. Football, gone. Walking, gone. Independence, gone. All of it, replaced by an alien blend of sadness, uncertainty and, indeed, new ambitions.

Roundtree intends to walk again.

“I know I will,” he says.

At the moment, he wants to tell his own story. A pending civil suit brought by Roundtree in Pinellas County, Florida, a copy of which was obtained by the Sun-Times, makes it difficult for him to discuss his accident, but he has an open well of thoughts, feelings and hopes about life as he knows it now. And he’s sharing it on his own, unfiltered by coaches, public-relations staff or anyone else at Illinois, a desire he made clear in a recent text exchange — initiated by him — that began, “When are we going to do that story?”

“They’re dealing with football,” he says. “And I want to do this for me.”

NOW 22, ROUNDTREE LIVES in Clearwater Beach, Florida, with his mother, Jacqueline Hearns, who goes by Jill. Roundtree’s younger sister, Zhane, and her two children also are there. Jill wanted them all hunkered down together during the pandemic.

Roundtree is an incomplete quadriplegic. He has considerable use of his upper body but not of his legs or his fingers, which limits him in myriad frustrating ways. He loves to work out and does so as often as he can — “That’s how I let things out and feel better,” he says — but a COVID-19 world has kept him inside the house far more than he wants to be.

“I believe I could’ve been further along strength-wise, could’ve been more independent,” he says. “I also feel if the COVID wasn’t around, others would be able to come see me more.”

He’s still an Illinois student, taking a few classes and pointing toward a major in sports management, but he isn’t having an easy go of it academically. If he could use his fingers rather than a mouth stick— a mouthpiece connected to a stylus — school would be so much more enjoyable.

“It’s just a lot,” he says. “I was good with school before. I would always try to turn in work a few days before it was due. Now it’s tough and it’s frustrating.”

He’s still a part of the Illini football family, watching all the games he can and keeping in touch with teammates and coaches here and there, but he doesn’t feel as connected as he used to. Football, school, life — maybe they’ve all just kind of gotten in the way. It’s not the easiest thing for him to express and explain.

“I guess I feel kind of left out a lot,” he says. “When I was up and moving, playing football, everyone was around me, everybody loved me. Then something like this happened. A lot of guys — friends, coaches —they don’t reach out as much. Some of them say they don’t know what to say when they reach out to me. I tell them I understand.

“I just kind of keep it in. I tell my mom I don’t understand why some of them don’t reach out to me more. She says, ‘You’ve got to keep pushing. You can’t be upset. Just keep pushing.’ ”

Penn State v Illinois
Roundtree chasing Penn State’s Miles Sanders in 2018.
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

HEARNS WAS PANICKING. She was picking up Chinese food for dinner when she got the call that her son was in a hospital in St. Petersburg, 10 miles from John’s Pass. She was in Clearwater, about twice that far away.

“They wouldn’t say if he was dead or alive,” she says, “just that it was serious and I needed to get there.”

When she arrived, a doctor took her into a room adjacent to her son’s, sat her down and filled her in. Roundtree couldn’t feel anything below his chest. But she could hear him in his bed answering questions — he’d given the hospital her number — and the sound of his voice steadied her. Before long, she was joined at Roundtree’s bedside by former Iowa and NFL safety Marcus Paschal, who was Roundtree’s coach at Largo (Florida) High School.

“Me and his mom were the first two to see him,” Paschal says. “That really weighed on me heavily.”

Within a couple of days, Illini coaches now with him, too, Roundtree was out of surgery and being told he might never walk again.

“He just kept telling me, ‘I’ll be OK, mom. I’ll be OK. I’ll walk again. I’ll be back on the field,’ ” Hearns says. “I trust and believe he’s going to walk again.”

ROUNDTREE PREFERS NOT to recount the events of his tragedy or to comb through the details of his suit against Garrison Martin and his companies USA Coastal Marine and USA Coastal Yacht Sales, as well as the Mad Beach Dive Bar and the Mad Beach Craft Brewing Management Company. With respect to his wishes, we will do so only briefly here.

According to the complaint, the defendants organized and hosted the John’s Pass Sandbar Party, invited Roundtree and used his name and likeness as marketing tools. Martin picked up Roundtree in his car, stopped to purchase alcohol on the way to John’s Pass and then drove them out to the party in his boat.

It was Roundtree’s first time to the sandbar, according to the complaint, and he was “inexperienced with boats, tides, water depths, sandbars, and the intracoastal waterway.” Martin provided “excessive amounts” of alcohol on the boat, including to Roundtree.

It was off Martin’s boat that Roundtree jumped. According to the complaint, witnesses got an injured Roundtree — who was listed at 6-5, 255 in his sophomore season — back onto the boat, where Martin attempted to dissuade guests from calling for emergency help and refused to transport him to shore.

Marine units from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s office sped out to his aid instead. Martin declined to comment for this story.

ELEVEN TATTOOS ADORN Roundtree’s body, the most prominent one covering his full chest with the words “In God We Trust” surrounded by feathers and clouds. On his right ribs sits “Jill” with a crown over it, befitting a queen. On his right arm sleeve, “Dream Chaser” is written. On his right biceps, one he got before his high school graduation: “Focused on the Mission.”

That last tattoo has a deeper meaning to him now. The mission has grown. It boils down to one word above all others: independence.

Illinois v Iowa
Roundtree sacks Iowa’s Nate Stanley in 2017.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

In 2017, Roundtree was the first Illini true freshman defensive end in 37 years to start a season opener. In 2018, he led the team in sacks, tackles for loss and passes broken up and won the team’s Dick Butkus Award as its top defensive player. With good reason, he believed he’d make it to the NFL.

He looked forward to owning a couple of homes, one on the beach, another with land all around him. Four-wheelers, a nice pool, a hot tub. Lots of traveling with family.

“Just living comfortably,” he says.

Life is anything but comfortable for him now. At night, Roundtree listens to music — Kevin Gates, Jackboy, Kodak Black — until sleep takes him. He dreams about independence.

“Just being able to wake up and get myself dressed, not need help to use the restroom, to brush my own teeth,” he says. “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.”

He imagines being back on his feet, a father, and playing basketball with his child. He hopes to be married someday, but for now he’s single — “I don’t want to bring anything on somebody else,” he says — and focusing on his health.

“I get lonely because I can’t go out and do what I used to do,” he says. “But I just listen to music, be on Instagram looking at everybody else having fun. It kind of brings me back to the situation I’m in, but it also makes me want to push harder.

“I do get jealous, but that just makes me want to go hard again. Everything that I like and want to do, it just makes me want to go harder. 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.”

And the four-wheelers, the pool, the hot tub and all that? He still wants it all. He’s on a mission.

AT HIS STRONGEST, Roundtree could bench 225 pounds 17 times and squat 400 pounds. They weren’t NFL Scouting Combine-level numbers, but he was still early in his college career. He wasn’t an elite recruit or a physical monster coming out of Largo.

“He really didn’t understand what he had as a player,” Paschal says. “But I leaned on him, and he trusted me. He got himself on a track to be great.”

At Illinois, Roundtree hit the ground running and worked at the highest level. It was rare and precious. As he sees it, he was well ahead of the curve.

“I feel like some guys on the team don’t love football like I do,” he says. “Some guys don’t take it as serious. I took it very serious. I really wanted to play in the NFL. I wanted to be a leader.

“When you love it and actually put time into it, you listen to coaching and put in extra work outside of what the team has to do. You’re just having fun. You’re competing and don’t have to watch somebody else play. You want to be out there, don’t want to be on the bench. That’s what I didn’t understand about some guys.”

Roundtree’s work ethic and drive became evident to Shoshana Clark, a physical therapist at Chicago’s Shirley Ryan Ability Lab. He rehabbed there after leaving the hospital in Florida and worked with her for approximately six months on little, enormous things like going from lying down to sitting up and, eventually, moving from a power wheelchair to a manual one. Roundtree built up arm strength, core strength, balance and endurance. At first in the manual chair, he’d go 5-10 feet and be exhausted. Before leaving, he could tool around the whole joint like it was a walk in the park.

The power chair? He has it at home in Clearwater. It might as well be an end table, because he never, ever uses it.

“Especially for someone of his level of injury, I feel like he exceeded my original goals for him,” Clark says. “It was wonderful to work with him. You can definitely tell he has that athlete mentality. If he has a goal, he’s going to work toward it extremely hard every day.”

In Florida, where he has been since July, Roundtree’s rehab came under the care of strength and conditioning coach Khahn Vo.

“Literally every single time he came in, he was ready to work — no complaints,” Vo says. “One of my favorite guys I’ve ever worked with. You could always tell he had a different mindset from anybody in the center because he aspired to be a professional athlete. He was a perfect guy for our program.”

Roundtree is determined to get into the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the program at the University of Miami famously known for late Pro Football Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti’s leadership. The pandemic keeps messing with his mission, but there’s a lot of dog left in him. Know that.

HEARNS IS SWEATING, but this happens routinely when she loads her son into their Land Rover using a contraption called a Hoyer Patient Lift. She is 5-9, strong and endlessly devoted to the son she describes as a best friend, but she is his sole caregiver. That means waking him up and giving him his medicine, fixing him breakfast, feeding him, cleaning him, clothing him, taking him to therapy, showering him — it never stops.

She’s fine with that. More than fine, really.

“I’m maintaining,” she says, “and Bobby helps me stay positive.”

Bobby and Jill in the Land Rover.
Photo by Jill Hearns

Hearns, 42, was a certified nursing assistant in her 20s and later became a certified medical assistant, so this is a bit up her alley. But she is unable to work, her mornings, afternoons and evenings spoken for.

“I just try to go about our life the best way I can, you know?” she says. “I try to stay positive even though I might be a little depressed. But I try to keep him moving. I don’t think about what it looks like in other people’s eyes. I just care about Bobby.”

She is Roundtree’s hero and champion. He never liked to need anyone, to ask for help, but she makes it easy. He sees her, though. Sees her pain. Sees her exhaustion. Sees her sweat.

“I just see that she’s hurt just because I’m her first child and going through something like this,” Roundtree says. “I see her frustration. I try to keep her calm and tell her I’m OK, not to worry.”

Finances are a daunting issue. Hearns has created a GoFundMe account separate from the one through which Illinois’ athletic department has raised over $132,000; hers was created Oct. 14 and has raised over $16,000. The family requests that donations be made to their account. Roundtree posted the link on his Twitter account the day it was created, adding, “All help is better than none, thank you all.”

He also posted it on Instagram, writing: “Last year May of 2019, I was in an accident that changed my life. It’s been a long challenging year for me. Missing out on last football season and being in the hospital for 7-8 months. Going through ups and downs but it’s made me stronger. I been fighting through pain every day to get closer and closer to the old me. I been proving so many wrong and will continue to.”

“I would just like to thank everybody that has donated and prayed for him,” Hearns says. “It means a lot to me, and I’m sure it means a lot to him.”

AN ANIMAL SCIENCES CLASS got Roundtree’s juices flowing in the summer of 2018. He was scared to touch animals, but he loved the instruction and the spirit of it all. He was engaged, interested, inspired. If only he could feel the animal hair on his fingers now.

He wants to engage others, inspire them. And he does. He might be a bit disconnected from his Illini brethren, but his boys from home feel him every day.

Roundtree is on what he calls an “unfinished journey.”
Photo by Jill Hearns

Indiana defensive end Tramar Reece wears No. 97, Roundtree’s number. It’s just a coincidence, but Reece was constantly compared with Roundtree when they played together at Largo.

“At first, it was just a number,” Reece says. “Now it’s something that connects us.”

Reece’s mother died just as his college offers started to roll in, and Roundtree became his sounding board and confidante. Roundtree also turned out to be the better player. Reece, a senior, still takes reps with the Hoosiers’ scout team. He has thought about quitting.

“But I couldn’t do that to Bobby,” he says.

TCU’s Jaquaze Sorrells was a couple of years behind Roundtree at Largo but became a more sought-after recruit. During the two seasons they were teammates, he looked at Roundtree as a measuring stick, even a rival. That has changed completely.

“I think about things Bob can’t do,” Sorrells says. “I think about it the most when I’m really tired of football, when I feel like I gave my all and nothing is working for me. I always think about him. Bob is a hard worker. He’s always going to do what he can to maximize his ability. Thinking about him gives me the motivation to keep going.

“Before [the accident] happened, we were sitting and talking about his future plans, goals, going to the league. I’m not going to lie, that’s on my back. I’m carrying that on my shoulders. When I do go to the league, he’ll understand that I did that for us.”

Alonzo Gibson, Sorrells’ older brother and Roundtree’s high school classmate, didn’t see his college football dreams come true. He’s working a 9-to-5 now.

“Bobby is one of the strongest mental persons I know,” Gibson says. “He’s mentally tough, and he’s still got that happy spirit. And I love him. I want to be there for him until the end. Bobby makes me a better person. You think about stuff. Bob’s in a wheelchair. It’s not that bad for me.”

Paschal has been similarly impacted by Roundtree.

“I know the upside that Bobby had in front of him, but Bobby still has that upside,” he says. “And I feel like I have more upside as a coach because of him.”

A few days after our last conversation, Roundtree texted a request to add these words to his story:

“Thank you to everyone that’s been a part of this unfinished journey. Keep pushing me! I want to continue inspiring everyone all over. Reach out, I don’t bite.”

Roundtree isn’t sure how closely they’re paying attention at Illinois, but he’s making a difference and leaving a football legacy. Searching for his independence. Trying to get into the Miami Project. Leaning on his mom. Living in a crowded home. Doing his best to take classes. Trying to be who he was. Trying to be who he wants to be.

And telling his own story.

Chicago Sky and WNBA

Fans revel in Sky winning 1st championship: ‘They’re at the helm of Chicago prominence’

Halas Intrigue

Halas Intrigue Episode 188: Aaron Rogers owns the Bears

Chicago

Sky fans excited about WNBA buzz in Chicago during championship run: ‘It’s our time’

View all stories in Sports