CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Cross another goal off the list for Bobby Roundtree when he arrived at Memorial Stadium Saturday.
For the first time since suffering a tragic swimming accident in Florida in May, Roundtree returned to the University of Illinois campus.
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith made a promise to Roundtree that he’d get him back to campus for a football game during the 2019 season and fulfilled that promise in the regular-season finale against in-state rival Northwestern.
“It’s kind of hard to express into words, a lot of us have been there the entire time with Bobby,” Smith said. “I’ve seen him from the first night he had that accident (up to now), he’s made so much progress. He’s gotten his strength up, working daily. If you saw what he does on a daily basis to get himself back here on campus, you’d have to be pumped up.”
Similarly to when he made an impact on the field as the Illini’s best pass rusher, Roundtree made an internal impact on his teammates as Smith pushed his wheelchair into the locker room during the pre-game preparations.
“A lot of emotions were also in the mix as well, a couple of guys seeing him for the first time,” Illinois senior linebacker and co-captain Dele Harding said. “We dedicated the season to him, so seeing him in person was definitely emotional on my behalf."
The players in the Illinois locker room getting ready for the battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy were amazed and astounded to see their teammate being pushed into the center of the locker room by their fourth-year head coach.
“I was speechless,” Harding said. “Nobody had no idea.”
Players have taken trips this fall to visit Roundtree as he continued his physical rehab at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago in Chicago and Smith has said Roundtree has been present and involved in team meetings via FaceTime and Skype.
A fundraising campaign on a Gofundme website page was created by the university with an original goal of raising $97,000 for the former No. 97 in an Illinois jersey to help offset his medical costs. Turns out, folks have already surpassed the original goal after a few days. As of December 2, 2019, $120,647 has been raised and Illinois officials have set a new goal of $197,000. None of those things, while important for Roundtree’s checklist to return to normalcy, were as emotional as seeing his physical presence before the regular-season finale.
“It’s truly a miracle, just the condition he was in and to see where he’s at now, he was talking and smiling. It’s so inspirational, honestly,” Illinois senior tailback Dre Brown said. “It kind of fits this team, just a bunch of fighters and the Fighting Illini also. It was just really nice to see him."
In the midst of a 29-10 loss to Northwestern, Roundtree was honored and shown on the video board waving in the far side corner of the north end zone at Memorial Stadium.
“He probably shouldn’t even be alive and the fact that he’s here in our locker room is amazing,” Brown said. “It was just eye-opening, like, wow, this is bigger than football. We got to enjoy that moment."
Last season Roundtree led Illinois in tackles for loss (12.5), sacks (7.5) and led all Football Bowl Subdivision defensive linemen in pass breakups with seven. Before the accident, Roundtree has goals of being drafted and playing in the National Football League. Now, after suffering a severe spinal injury, the list of priorities has obviously changed and Roundtree is hoping to be back on campus to resume classes in the spring semester of his third year at Illinois.
“The goal for Bobby is to walk again," Smith said. "You see the progress that he’s made. An awful lot went into that. Shirley Ryan Center does really great. So many people have done such a great job with him. He’s been making giant steps.”