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.
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.
More on Bobby Roundtree
The News-Gazette: Roundtree leading Illini from afar: ‘He’s a brother for life’
Chicago Tribune: Illinois football player Bobby Rountree vows to walk again
Sports Illustrated: ‘He’s been making been making giant steps’: Roundtree returns to Illinois campus
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.
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.”