Campus & community, People, Profiles, Events at Berkeley

Joe Roth: A life that keeps on giving

By John Hickey

Joe Roth and a referee

Joe Roth and a referee
It’s been 40 years since Jack Clark was in a huddle with Joe Roth, the left tackle and the star quarterback both tasked with moving the California Golden Bear offense down the field.

Someone on the offensive line, not Clark, had just jumped offside, costing the Bears five yards.

Clark expected Roth, the team leader, to snap someone’s head off. That didn’t happen.

“All these years later, I still try to connect with it,” Clark, currently the much-honored Cal rugby coach, says. “There is a tendency in the huddle to single out the guy who cost us on the play. It was late in the season. A big play.

“Then Joe got us back in the huddle and says, `Everyone, relax. It’s just a football play.’ I wanted him to say `Knock it off! Focus!’ But he had a different idea.”

Clark and his teammates didn’t know it at the time, but Roth was painting on a larger canvas. Three months to the day after his last game as the Bears’ quarterback, Joe Roth was dead. A recurrence of melanoma, identified that September, sprinted through his body, ravaging it to the point where doctors suggested the amputation of one, and then both of his legs.

Roth said no. He was going to die, and he was going to die in one piece, and he did, on Feb. 19, 1977.

Joe Roth on the cover of the 1976 NCAA media guide
Looking back on that one moment in the huddle, Clark has long been in awe of what that moment in the huddle meant – then and now.

“I think at that point he knew his cancer had returned,” Clark says. “His perspective was one that none of us had. We didn’t know what he knew.”

Tomorrow, the Golden Bears host UCLA. Every year since 1977, Cal has designated the home football game against either USC or UCLA in memory of Joe Roth. Four decades after his death, for one Saturday a year, the memory of a man whose talents were snuffed out by cancer will be celebrated by generations who never saw him play.

Athletic greatness isn’t the whole of the Joe Roth story. Not even close. For those who knew him, Roth exemplified everything good about humanity, not just everything good about college football. They like to point out that nine days before his death, he turned in a paper for one of his classes. Two days after he did, he would never be able to walk again.

“Joe wasn’t all about football,” Gary Graumann, one of Roth’s backup quarterbacks that season, says. “During his last days, he was still going to class. He gave one standing talk called “Don’t Quit” in a rhetoric class I had with him that brought the entire class to tears. He embodied what it means to be a student athlete. He firmly believed he was going to graduate. He wanted that more than anything, more than football even.”

Who was Joe Roth? Think of another former Cal quarterback, say Aaron Rodgers, and you’ll get the idea of Roth’s skill set. As good as Rodgers was, he was never on the cover of the NCAA’s preseason football media guide. In 1976 Joe Roth was. Coming off a great junior season, Roth was seen as the likely first pick in the NFL draft.

One of the last things consensus All-American quarterback Steve Bartkowski did before he left Cal for the No. 1 spot in the 1975 NFL draft was to help recruit a replacement quarterback.

“Joe Roth was my recruitment project,” Bartkowski, who would spend a decade as the quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, says. “I knew we were getting a good one. He reeked of dedication. There are some very good players who don’t have that extra confidence a great quarterback has to have. That wasn’t Joe. You have to believe in yourself, and he was at the top of the list in that regard. On top of that he was an incredibly winsome guy. There’s no one who ever said a bad word about him. He was a great teammate and a great friend.”

The Bears started the season with road games against Georgia and Oklahoma, both losses. Next up was Arizona State, then a non-conference game for a Cal team still in the Pacific-8 conference. Dr. Jerome Patmont took Roth aside on the flight to Phoenix. He broke the news to Roth and coach Mike White that tests had revealed that melanoma, a cancer that Roth hoped he’d beaten a couple of years earlier, had returned.

Tracy Lagos and Joe Roth at Winter Formal 1975

Tracy Lagos and Joe Roth at the Winter Formal in 1975

Fred Besana, the Bears’ backup quarterback and Roth’s roommate on the road, saw the quiet conversation and wondered what was going on. Later that evening he was in the room when Roth broke the news to his parents.

“When we got to Phoenix and the hotel, I could tell things were different,” Besana says. “We’d gotten beat in the first two games, but he had played great. Then there was the awakening. `Oh, man, it’s back.’ And when that stuff comes back, it’s more virulent than the first time.”

Virulent, yes. But also private. Roth didn’t want anyone’s pity. So while the doctors knew, as did the coaches and his family, college roommate John Matlock and Besana, no one else did. Oh, there was one other person who knew, sort of. He was seeing Tracy Lagos McAllister.

“I was in the Delta Gamma sorority, and several of my sisters knew him,” McAllister, who went by Lagos at the time, says. “One day a group of us were walking on the sidewalk after a game – you know how uneven Berkeley sidewalks can be – and he was right in front of us. I tripped and practically fell right into him. The sorority sisters I was with introduced us.”

They “didn’t really date,” she says, “but we really hung out all the time.” And after telling his parents, he told his girlfriend a version of what was going on.

“When I first knew him, he told me about a previous bout with cancer,” she says. “He’d had a mole while playing in junior college and had it removed. He wanted to explain to me the scar on his neck. I hadn’t even noticed it. But now I think he’s cured. Fast forward a year, and just before the ASU game, they told me they had found something on his lung. And he told me it turned out to be a flaw on the film.

“That was really tough, but he really didn’t want anyone to know, and he didn’t want me to know. But there were rumors, and I confronted him about it. I wanted to be there for him. He didn’t want to make a big deal about it.”

As a measure of his physical decline, Roth, the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy when the season began, had a QB rating of 139.9 as a junior. But he was in and out of the lineup as a senior and that number was down to 98.8. He played in discomfort, but he didn’t want to make his plight known.

After Lagos wormed the truth out of Roth, she says the two of them would go out at night and sneak into the Berkeley Marriott to use the hot tub, which alleviated his pain somewhat.

Joe Roth on the field with his arms in the air
And still he kept playing. He was getting critiqued for the drop off in his play, but he kept quiet and played as much and as well as he could.

“He was getting some bad press,” Phil Schaaf says. Schaaf, who never met Roth and attended Cal in the early 1980s, teamed with another contemporary Cal student, Bob Rider, to make the 2014 documentary of Roth’s life, Don’t Quit: The Joe Roth Story.

“By that time, he’d lost strength and couldn’t hold food down,” Schaaf says. “Even then, almost no one knew he was dying. There’s a picture of him 14 days before he died. He looked great. That’s how malevolent cancer is. It took him so quickly.”

Tracy Lagos McAllister can attest to that.

“I took him to my sorority formal about two weeks before he died,” she says. “And he really looked good. He was thin from what the disease was doing, but otherwise he looked really good. You would never know how ill he was.”

Clark, whose Orange Coast team got beaten by Roth in the 1973 California community college state championship game, first got to know Roth when the quarterback tried to help with his recruiting Clark to head to Berkeley. From the beginning, Clark was in awe of Roth, as were his teammates.

“There was an otherworldly regard among us for Joe,” Clark said. “There has to be context for saying that. He was the best player on the team, and we had to figure how he was such a modest, decent, friendly, dignified guy. He had this great bit of humility. That’s where things didn’t match up.

“He was this guy who had every right to feel like he’s apart from everyone else, and he’s so common and level-leaded and part of the team. And if you told me that Joe was alive right now, that’s how I would talk about him.”

Bartkowski never played with Roth. Still, there was a connection.

“(Head coach) Mike White told me we had to have this guy,” Bartkowski said. “We got to know each other a little bit. And I knew we were getting a good one, and not just because he could spin the ball down the field. He had incredible confidence that Cal was the place he wanted to be. He loved the school. He loved the academics.”

Although his numbers were down, the scouts still like Roth as a prospect; he was invited to three postseason all-star games, and he finished ninth in the Heisman voting. Even so, hiding his condition was becoming difficult to the point of impossible.

Mike White would say later of that time “Joe’s story is probably the greatest secret in the history of college athletics.”

At the Hula Bowl, the Los Angeles Times’ Skip Bayless broke the story of the return of Roth’s melanoma. There had been suspicions, but the reality was a punch in the gut to the football program and the school at large.

“There was nothing but shock and sorrow,” Besana said. “For a bunch of young men between 18 and 22, that’s a shocker. You think `not that guy.’ Everybody’s been through a grandparent, maybe. But not that guy. That can’t happen.”

After the season ended, he spent some time at UCSF getting chemotherapy. It helped a little, but not a lot. At some point he was told he had three months to live. And then it was back to his Berkeley apartment, off to the all-star games and back to school. In his final football game, the Japan Bowl, with the news about his condition having broken, he was 5-for-6 passing.

Back in school, Roth continued to look toward the future. With Roth out of the quarterbacking picture, the Bears were recruiting another young star-to-be. Rich Campbell, who would be an All-American as a senior, was lured to Cal in part by Roth. Campbell was playing golf with Besana, Graumann and quarterback Eric Anderson, among others. And midway through the round Joe Roth showed up.

Trailer of the 2014 documentary of Roth’s life, Don’t Quit: The Joe Roth Story

Earlier that day, he’d met his girlfriend for what would prove to be the last time.

“I saw him just before he went golfing,” McAllister says. “He was wearing a pullover light blue sweater I’d given him for Christmas. It hit how distended his stomach had become.”

Graumann said “It was warm for a winter day.”

“He had a sweater on,” he says, “and he rolled it up and just above the stomach, I could see something was going on. His stomach was bloated. But for Joe, it was `hey, just another day.’’’

Soon he’d be back in the hospital. It was then that the suggestion was made that his life might be saved by the amputation of one leg.

“If I remember correctly, that (the removal of one leg) was OK,” Besana said. “But in the time between that decision and the actual surgery, the other leg had the same thing happen. When they said both legs needed to come off, he vetoed that.

“Nope. It was time to go home.”

He checked out of UCSF and had to be carried up three flights of stairs by his teammates once he got back to Berkeley.

Once he got there, he found a telegram from Tony Dungy, a Hula Bowl teammate who would go on to play and coach in the NFL.

“Joe, am very sorry to hear that you have been laid up. Meeting you and being with you for those three weeks was a great experience for me. You’re an amazing dude, and I wanted to let you know that I’m thinking about you. Hang in there, Joe. We are all pulling for you. Best wishes always – Tony Dungy.”

Joe Roth died the next day.

“Joe’s family and his friends, they walked through it with him at the end,” Bartkowski said. Here he was afflicted by the terrible debilitating disease, and he was an absolute stud through the whole thing.”

The next year, the Bears would wear a memorial patch honoring Roth with the words “Faith, Humility. Courage” and his number, 12. He was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

In addition to the Joe Roth Memorial Game, Cal recognized Roth by retiring his No. 12. No other number has ever been retired. In the San Diego area he comes from, there is a Joe Roth Award for the high school player who best demonstrates courage and a Joe Roth Memorial Award that goes to the San Diego County junior college football player who best exemplifies high academic standards and athletic excellence. The Japan Bowl named its MVP award after him. At his old school, Granite High in San Diego, the player deemed by the coaches without regard to position, who best exemplifies Rothian characteristics of humility, decency and class is given the No. 12 to wear all season.

Cal has a Joe Roth Award that goes to the Cal football player who best demonstrates courage, attitude and sportsmanship. And there are a number of Golden Bear football players have been able to take advantage of the Joe Roth scholarship fund.

And while he never graduated, he was posthumously awarded the Berkeley Citation, which goes to a wide range of people, academics and non-academics, whose accomplishments in their fields and their contributions to the university are manifestly “above and beyond the call of duty.”

As for his teammates?

“We were immensely sad for the longest time,” Clark said. “Most of us hadn’t been around death, not like that. Now-a-days you would talk to somebody about it. Not so much then. Everybody broke down at the services for Joe at Newman Center. There were people falling apart, quite literally falling apart.

“And this is the time of year when it all floods back.”