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‘We’re trying to be like Bobby’: As Roundtree rehabs, Illini move forward in hope-filled camp

Before his spinal-cord injury, Roundtree was one of the best and most admired Illini players. Teammates were wowed by a motor that never seemed to shut off. Months later, watching video of him on the field, they still are.

Penn State v Illinois
Bobby Roundtree in action last season.
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

CHAMPAIGN — After four days of training camp, Illinois’ football team paused Tuesday for its annual media day. Players mugged for cameras on the Memorial Stadium turf. They discussed their hopes and dreams for the 2019 season. A seven-year stretch without a winning record doesn’t seem so terrible when the weather is warm and the sky is as blue as an ocean of possibility.

But Bobby Roundtree isn’t here. And that hurts.

‘‘It’s definitely very difficult at times, especially on the field,’’ said senior Tymir Oliver, who started alongside Roundtree on the defensive line in 2017 and ’18. ‘‘Luckily, though, we are in contact with him. I just FaceTimed with him over the weekend.’’

Roundtree, 21, is a patient at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, formerly the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The native of Largo, Florida, was transported there from a Tampa-area hospital in June to continue his rehabilitation from a severe spinal-cord injury suffered during a swimming accident in May.

There has been no official update about Roundtree’s condition, but the situation is grim. The hope is that he’ll be able to return to Champaign as a student sometime this school year.

Coaches, teammates and other representatives of the school have paid many summer visits to a player who would have been as good as any on this Illini squad. Roundtree was the team’s most disruptive defender and its best pass rusher as a sophomore and was on the radar of NFL scouts.

‘‘We will miss an outstanding man and outstanding football player, an outstanding leader, just everything about Bobby Roundtree,’’ coach Lovie Smith said. ‘‘We’ll miss him. But the way our team can honor him is with its play. He’ll always be involved and be close this year.’’

Before his injury, Roundtree was one of the most well-liked and admired Illini players. Linemates were wowed by a motor that never seemed to shut off. They still are.

‘‘We watch film and say: ‘OK, look at the way he’s running on the field, relentlessly pursuing the ball. We have to be like that, too,’ ’’ Oliver said. ‘‘I definitely see it on our whole D-line — we’re the closest group — [when] we watch tape together on us now. We’re out there hustling, man. We’re trying to be like Bobby. You can just tell, man, Bobby’s presence is still here.’’

Defense hasn’t been a strong suit at Illinois in a long time. Winning games hasn’t been, either. But it’s that time of year when a football team can begin to change in earnest. The forecast calls for brighter days ahead.

Roundtree is a big part of it all.

‘‘It’s a lot tougher for a lot of the guys, not having Bobby on the field with us,’’ said senior Jamal Milan, a Raby alum. ‘‘At the same time, it’s just another reason to go out there on the field and play our hearts out. Because we know Bobby would do the same thing for us if he could.’’

Just sayin’

It sure is nice to see Ben Zobrist in uniform again as he works his way back to the Cubs after months out of action. How long will it take the 38-year-old switch-hitting utility man to get back up to speed? Any chance he’ll have reinvented himself as a catcher? Or as a closer?

Hey, it can’t hurt to ask.

• HBO’s ‘‘Hard Knocks,’’ merely the greatest sports documentary series ever, is back — and not a minute too soon.

‘‘I’m really not into dreams anymore, OK?’’ Raiders coach Jon Gruden barked at his players. ‘‘I’m into nightmares. You guys with me on that? You’ve got to end somebody’s dream. You’ve got to take their job. You’ve got to take their heart.’’

Gruden put his signature wild-eyed emphasis on ‘‘heart,’’ with extra spittle. Somehow, it’s hard to picture Matt Nagy going that dark.

• I’d pretend to be more excited about the Bears’ preseason opener Thursday against the Panthers than I am about ‘‘Hard Knocks,’’ but I don’t think I could pull it off. Wake me when Mitch Trubisky and Khalil Mack are too busy to play ‘‘Words With Friends’’ on their phones in the pregame stretch line.

• Oh, look, another five minutes has passed. Has Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson won Northwestern’s quarterback competition yet?

• Best line of the week goes to Blackhawks president John McDonough. Little did I know that when I got him on the phone and asked how he was doing, I was setting him up for an Alex DeBrincat-quality one-timer.

‘‘Everything’s great,’’ he said. ‘‘We haven’t lost a game in four months.’’

You’ve got to give it to the guy.