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Bobby Roundtree keeps climbing past the pain

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Bobby Roundtree steadied himself on a standing device. The former Largo and Illinois standout stood there for a moment, his face covered by a mask, before raising a fist in triumph during one of the video segments he posted last month on social media.

“We finally made it this far,” Roundtree said. “There is more to come, but it feels good.”

More than a year ago, Rountree was in a hospital bed, the result of a swimming accident near the docks off John’s Pass that required spinal cord surgery. It left him, at least for now, in a wheelchair. 

Before the accident, the goals were all related to football. A former two-sport star, Roundtree developed into a ferocious pass-rusher, first at Largo, then at Illinois. As a sophomore in 2018, he won the Dick Butkus Outstanding Defensive Player award after leading the Illini in tackles for loss (12.5), sacks (7.5) and pass breakups (7). His play made him a viable NFL draft pick.

Photo credit (including above feature): Illinois Athletics

Now, the ambitions are different. 

Roundtree wants to be independent. He wants to travel. He wants to coach, maybe even start his own rehabilitation center. 

Most of all, he wants to walk again. 

“I just want to show everybody that anything’s possible,” Roundtree recently said in his first interview (via Zoom) with reporters since the accident. “You can be on top of the world and something happens, things might not go as planned, but there’s something out there for everybody.

“This injury isn’t going to overcome me. I’m going to beat this and be successful.”

After the accident, once the surgery was over, Roundtree woke up to machines beeping in every corner of the room. His mother, Jacqueline Hearns, kept saying he was special, that he was beating the odds. 

Friends and teammates were there, too, including former East Lake standout Jake Hansen, now a starting linebacker with the Illini. 

The coaching staff also came to the Tampa Bay area to be by Roundtree’s side. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith practically lived at the hospital, even while preparing for the 2019 season. 

The bond between the player and coach has always been strong. After all, Roundtree was one of the marquee names in Smith’s first recruiting classes. 

“Everything that Lovie said during the recruiting process, about being a family, he stuck by,” Packers coach Marcus Paschal said. “You could see it during Bobby’s injury and hospital stay. I don’t know of too many other college coaches who would have done what he did. That was big.”

In June of last year, Rountree was transported to a rehabilitation center in Chicago. He had lost 70 pounds. He could barely raise his right hand, much less do push ups, after the surgery. 

Roundtree ignored conservative prescriptions for recovery, continuingly defying odds. Before long, he was manually pushing himself in a wheelchair. His triceps muscles were developing.

None of this came as a surprise to Jeremy Busch, the head athletic trainer for Illinois football. 

“After this injury you watched a person that eventually was at the worst point in his life, and yet he doesn’t acknowledge that to where it beats him, but he acknowledges it to motivate him,” Busch said of Roundtree. “He’s truly your idea of hope and inspiration on a daily basis. He’s gone from the simplest of struggles to absolutely overcoming everything that you put in front of him.”

Roundtree also was determined not to stay in football exile. He kept in contact with teammates. The coaching staff included him in meetings, virtually. 

The grit Roundtree showed through the grueling stages gave the Illini inspiration. A sign was displayed on the top of a tunnel that the players would touch before heading out to Memorial Stadium. It read: 97 Strong (referring to Roundtree’s number).

Illinois became the feel-good team of college football. The wins kept coming, often in dramatic ways. 

A field goal as time expired was the difference when the Illini handed the Badgers, ranked No. 6 at the time, their first loss in October of last season. It was the Illini’s first win over a ranked opponent since 2011. Afterward, Illinois players recorded videos of their celebration and sent them to Roundtree.

Three weeks later, the Illini rallied from a 21-point third quarter deficit to beat Michigan State 37-34. 

“I would do anything for the kid,” Hansen said of Roundtree. “He’s been a huge inspiration.”

Roundtree attended last year’s regular season finale, his first game at Memorial Stadium since the injury. He led the team in a pregame prayer. 

Bobby Roundtree Illinois Football vs. Northwestern in Champaign, Illinois November 30, 2019

And Roundtree still is part of the team. His locker remains untouched. 

“Having the team I have now I wouldn’t trade them for anything,” Roundtree said. “They’ve been very supportive. They know I’m going to work. I know they’re going to work. We’ve got each other’s backs.”

The Illini faithful have shown financial support, too. A Gofundmepage created by the university has already raised more than $131,000 to help offset some of Roundtree’s medical expenses. 

“With everybody so behind me and pushing me, that makes me want to go harder,” Roundtree said. “The support of everybody fundraising and everybody donating that means a lot having that support. I don’t have a million dollars to help me through this all. People are giving their last pennies to help me out. That’s just a lot of love right there, and I appreciate everybody for that.”

Roundtree keeps posting video messages of his progress. He bench presses. He does core work. He rolls on to his side. 

As for his legs, they still feel heavy. There still is nerve pain. Stil, he continues to work, often stretching his legs as if he is going on a run. He also pedals on a stationary bike to create movement and puts his feet on a vibration plate in hopes of rejuvenating the nerves. 

“I’m just looking at ways to be creative to get back to where I want to be,” Roundtree said. 

The next step for Roundtree is to take some on his own. 

“When somebody tells me I can’t do something I’m going to prove them wrong and show that I’ll be able to do it,” Roundtree said. It might take me a couple of tries, but I’m going to do it.

“I want to show everybody that anything is possible, no matter the situation.”

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College football: Athlete update

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The top performances from former area stars in week five of the college football season. 

DB Dane Belton, Jr., Iowa: The former Jesuit standout had one of the Hawkeyes’ six interceptions in a win over Maryland.

QB Devin Black, Sr., Bethune Cookman: The former Armwood standout accounted for 258 yards (131 rushing, 127 passing) and two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) in a loss to South Carolina State.  

DL Zachary Carter, Sr., Florida: The former Hillsborough standout recorded three tackles and a sack in a loss to Kentucky.  

QB Austin Day, Sr., Marist: The former Clearwater standout threw for 149 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Valparaiso. 

RB Jerome Ford, Jr., Cincinnati: The former Armwood star ran for 67 yards on 17 carries in a win over Notre Dame. 

RB Dominic Gonella, So., North Dakota State: The former Bloomingdale standout ran for 37 yards on seven carries in a win over North Dakota. 

WR Travell Harris, Sr., Washington State: The former Jesuit standout had seven catches for 46 yards in a win over California. 

DB Kym-Mani King, Jr., Iowa State: The former Mitchell standout recorded three tackles and picked off a pass in a win over Kansas. 

RB Keyvone Lee, So., Penn State: The former American Collegiate standout ran for 74 yards on eight carries in a win over Indiana. 

DB T.J. Limehouse, Jr., West Florida: The former Armwood standout recorded a team-high 16 tackles in a win over Delta State. 

LB Micah McFadden, Sr., Indiana: The former Plant star recorded eight tackles in a loss to Penn State. 

QB Braxton Plunk, Jr., Mount Union: The former Plant City standout threw for 313 yards and five touchdowns in a win over Otterbein. 

QB Tyler Riddell, Fr., East Tennessee State: The former Chamberlain standout threw for 268 yards and a touchdown in a win over Wofford. 

WR Mike Roussos, Sr., Columbia: The former River Ridge standout averaged 19 yards per kickoff return and 15 yards per punt return in a loss to Princeton. 

RB Deon Silas, Fr., Iowa State: Ran for 30 yards and a touchdown on three carries in a win over Kansas. 

RB Brian Snead, Jr., Austin Peay: The former Armwood standout ran for 73 yards and a touchdown on seven carries in a loss to Tennessee State. 

TE Michael Trigg, Fr., USC: The former Carrollwood Day/Seffner Christian standout had two catches for 51 yards and a touchdown in a win over Colorado. 

RB Treshaun Ward, Fr., FSU: The former Tampa Bay Tech standout accounted for 95 yards (66 rushing, 29 receiving) in a win over Syracuse. 

LB Kee Whetzel, Sr., West Florida: The former Countryside standout recorded 10 tackles and a ½ sack in a win over Delta State. 

WR Mario Williams, Fr., Oklahoma: The former Plant City star had three catches for 29 yards in a win over Kansas State. 

LB Stephon Williams, Jr., West Florida: The former Calvary Christian standout recorded five tackles and 1 ½ sacks in a win over Delta State. 

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College Football

Iowa State now a hotspot for local football recruits

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Since arriving at Iowa State five years ago, Matt Campbell has guided the program to four straight bowl appearances, including a Fiesta Bowl win this past season that vaulted the Cyclones to No. 9 in the final AP poll, the highest ranking in school history. 

That success is due in part to the talent accumulated in Florida, especially the Tampa Bay area. 

There are currently five local players on the roster, all of whom were recruited by Campbell’s staff. Anthony Johnson, a former standout at St. Petersburg, starts at cornerback. Two other defensive backs, T.J. Tampa (Lakewood) and Kym-Mani King (Mitchell), should get significant playing time this season. 

It does not end there. 

This offseason Iowa State had perhaps its biggest haul of local talent with three offensive stars — Wiregrass Ranch quarterback Rocco Becht, Tampa Bay Tech receiver Greg Gaines III and Berkeley Prep athlete Xavier Townsend — all committing to the Cyclones as part of the 2022 class.  

Gaines is a four-star recruit while Becht and Townsend are both three-star prospects according to 247Sports. The addition of that trio helped the Cyclones’ current recruiting class rise to No. 5 in the Big 12 and No. 23 nationally. 

The recruiting efforts are not just limited to the staff. Becht, who committed in April, said he tried his best to get more offensive talent from the area to join him. 

“I talked to Greg and Xavier everyday,” Becht said of his recruiting pitch to that duo. “I was on them from the beginning.”

Rocco Becht

Iowa State’s staff also zeroed on those targets — and the area.

“The Tampa Bay area is a huge priority,” said Cyclones assistant head coach/linebackers coach Tyson Veidt, who recruits locally. “Some of our best players are from there and it has helped us develop some all-around continuity.”

Iowa State has a knack for landing playmakers in the bay area, particularly on the defensive side. It started more than a decade ago with linebacker Jeremiah George (Clearwater) and defensive back Leonard Johnson (Largo), both of whom played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their NFL careers. 

There has been even more of an emphasis on the area with Campbell and his staff.

That comes from experience. 

Before taking over the Cyclones, Campbell was an offensive coordinator (2009-11) and head coach (2012-15) at Toledo. During his time with the Rockets, the program landed several prospects from the area, including former Lakewood star Bernard Reedy, who went on to play in the NFL. 

In fact, Campbell had at least one local commit in each of his recruiting classes as Toledo’s head coach. That helped the Rockets rank among the top two recruiting classes in the MAC in three of the four years during Campbell’s tenure. 

The trend has continued at Iowa State. 

And it is having an impact, especially with the camaraderie among locals. 

“Well, of course, the decision was for me and my future as a student athlete,” said Townsend, who committed to the Cyclones on Sunday. “But it was icing on the cake knowing a couple of my boys are coming up with me.”

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College Football

Lakewood’s Amari Niblack commits to Alabama

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Lakewood’s Amari Niblack had offers from 15 schools entering this week, including Florida, Florida State, Georgia and LSU. 

Then Niblack went to a camp at Alabama and picked up an offer from the Crimson Tide. 

That was all the three-star prospect needed to make up his mind. 

On Thursday, Niblack announced on social media that he committed to Alabama. 

A 6-foot-4 pass catching target, Niblack can play receiver or tight end. This past season, he had seven receptions for 126 yards and two touchdowns according to the stats listed on MaxPreps. 

This is the second straight season Alabama has landed an area receiver and the third time in the past five seasons the Crimson Tide has picked a local skill player.

Agiye Hall, who starred at Armwood and Bloomingdale, was part of the 2021 class. He was an early enrollee and has already made an impact with several highlight-worthy catches in the spring game. 

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