Illini’s Bobby Roundtree: ‘I don’t want to just do for myself. I want to look out for others.’

The former standout defensive end is living his present out in the wide open and intends to do the same with his future. An important step came with his first media appearance since he suffered serious injuries to his spinal cord in a swimming accident one year ago.

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Bobby Roundtree with coach Lovie Smith late last season.

Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

There’s not much Bobby Roundtree can say about the details of his life-changing swimming accident last May near his home in Largo, Florida.

Pending legal action makes it next to impossible. Painful memories don’t make it any easier, anyway.

“I try not to remember what happened a year ago or any of that,” he said Friday on a Zoom call with dozens of reporters. “I want to think positive. I don’t want to have [any] negative thoughts.”

But Roundtree, 22, a former standout defensive end at Illinois, is living his present out in the wide open and intends to do the same with his future. An important step came with his first media appearance since he suffered injuries to his spinal cord that have limited his upper-body mobility and strength and left him unable — for now — to move his legs.

“It’s been a long ride,” he said, “and it’s not finished yet.”

On a day when his school announced that it was preparing to begin returning student-athletes to campus as early as June 3, Roundtree was in the gym in Champaign for an hour and a half — another day of grinding, as he has been doing since returning to campus in January following a long rehabilitative stint at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Streeterville.

Roundtree has been sharing videos of his workouts, accompanied by inspirational messages, on Twitter. They’ve included arm, back and shoulder exercises on resistance machines, reps on the bench press and upper-body push-ups.

Illini teammates and fans have been deeply moved. Those closest to Roundtree have been, at times, blown away.

“I’ve been told I’m going against the odds,” he said. “Even at Shirley Ryan, people said that nobody thought I’d be moving this quickly or in a chair pushing myself around.

“When somebody tells me I can’t do something, I’ll prove them wrong and show them I can do it. It might take me a couple tries.”

According to Illini football trainer Jeremy Busch, Roundtree has avoided the kind of emotional lows that might’ve set him back in his recovery.

“That’s who he is to his core,” Busch said. “And, obviously, it’s his best asset throughout this.”

Roundtree once had realistic goals to make it to the NFL as a player. His takeaway from losing the on-field piece of his football life: Always have a backup plan.

For Roundtree, that plan involves walking again, traveling and regaining his independence. It might also involve coaching football, an idea that sounds better to him the more he thinks about it. And there’s this: his desire to help rehabilitate others with similar injuries, especially those for whom the cost of care is an obstacle.

“I don’t want to just do for myself,” he said. “I want to look out for others.”

Looking out for others begins with a message that happens to carry a little extra weight during a pandemic:

“There’s a reason for everything, and hard times don’t last forever,” he said. “There are people out there who have things worse than [you]. Be grateful for what you’ve got going on and keep pushing through it. It won’t last forever. And just find something throughout your day that’s positive, that’s going to keep you going. You’ve got to stay hungry. You’ve got to keep that juice.”

As Roundtree sees it, there are no failures, only lessons. The biggest thing he has learned is that he’s a lot stronger than he ever realized.

“God gives his hardest battles to his strongest warriors,” he said. “There was a reason why I got hurt. Anybody else, I don’t think [could] handle this as I am.

“I’m grateful that I’m still here and able to get stronger every day, grateful to have my family, my mom, my team and the whole Illini Nation behind me. It’s going to happen.”

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