Revisiting Joe Roth’s legacy

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Haley Williams/Staff

In every photo I’ve seen, Joe Roth wears this whimsical, genuine smile on his face. It’s the kind of broad, generous grin few people can wear naturally.

I’m a 21-year-old college student who was born 15 years after Roth died. I can’t pretend to have known him, but in every description, every account I’ve heard, he’s that quiet, humble leader everyone around him looked up to. He’s the quiet leader everyone around him wanted to emulate. He’s the kind of person who could wear that smile.

It’s that personality — that relentless optimism — that the documentary film “Don’t Quit: The Joe Roth Story” portrays perfectly.

The film, which draws on interviews from more than 40 people, is the most comprehensive chronicle of Roth’s life and legacy to date. It’s also the last chance creators Phil Schaaf and Bob Rider had at getting all the material they needed — several of the people interviewed have passed away since the project began in 2009.

The 85-minute documentary is not a sob story. It’s a celebration of Roth’s life and legacy with the exact kind of sincere, trustworthy tone that comes through in his smile. In that sense, the film portrays the character of Roth himself — always positive and genuine.

But the movie is not a picnic. Let’s face it — Roth dies at the end. But his life is an inspiring story, and the film portrays with appreciation the values Roth exhibited.

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Phil Schaaf / Courtesy

In 1975, Roth’s first year on UC Berkeley’s campus, he was seen as the savior of a program that hadn’t reached a Rose Bowl in 27 years — and hasn’t reached one since. As a junior transfer from Grossmont College in San Diego, he lit up the field, leading the Bears to an 8-3 record — just one win shy of that elusive trip to Pasadena, California.

In a game against Washington, Roth threw for 380 yards and four touchdowns. The quote he gave the media after?

“The receivers were open — I just had to throw the ball.”

It’s like this over and over and over again. Roth’s humility isn’t uncommon for athletes, but his was unique in that it never cracked, never showed a glimpse of an inflated ego underneath, especially not during the next season in 1976, when Roth was diagnosed with melanoma — the most serious form of skin cancer — for the second time in his life.

The film chronicles how even his closest friends and teammates had no idea Roth was sick during the 1976 season. Even as his weight dropped and his play sunk with it, the closest people in his life just thought he was going through a funk.

And that’s exactly what Roth wanted. He never wanted to be anything other than himself, which was a football player. Even after Roth’s cancer became public in January 1977, he remained committed to remaining the same person he had always been.

“Dying is not so tough,” Roth is quoted as saying. “For the last three years, I’ve lived with the realization that the next day might be my last. I’m lucky to be here as long as I was, so don’t feel any pity. A lot of people younger than me and older than me have to face up to this sort of thing. I’m nothing special. I’m Joe Roth, a student and a football player.”

Roth threw his last collegiate pass five and a half weeks before he died Feb. 19, 1977. His number — 12, after Joe Namath — is still the only number retired by the Cal football program.

This year, Joe Roth’s legacy carries a little extra weight.

Cal — as in the football team, the campus, the community, everyone — is still less than a year out from the passing of Ted Agu in February. Agu, like Roth, carried that same sort of carefree smile with him. He also inspired his teammates and everyone around him.

There’s no drawing parallels between the two. These situations are unique. But with the Joe Roth Memorial Game drawing ever closer, it’s easy to see the comparison.

It’s rare that a college team loses a current player. The players on this year’s team are carrying a weight with them that is similar to that carried by the team’s immediately after Roth’s passing in 1977.

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Phil Schaaf / Courtesy

Ron Coccimiglio is the assistant director of football operations for the team now and was a freshman on the Cal football team in 1976. He said he sees in this year’s squad a similar character to that of the ones he played with during his years at Cal.

“It’s kind of lost through the years, and now, all of a sudden, you have a tragedy where our guys don’t want it to end in a tragedy,” Coccimigilio said. “They’re doing what Teddy can’t do anymore.”

A flag with Agu’s number — 35 — will go out before the game Saturday. It’s gone out before every game this year, home and away, each time carried by a different player on the team. When you see that flag and you see the No. 12 decal on the side of the stadium behind it, you’ll feel the legacy these two players have left.

“It wasn’t until after (Roth) died or after he found out that he had cancer that you really claim to grasp the full effect of what he was going through — that he made that decision,” Coccimiglio said. “He wanted to be known as Joe the football player. … You just wanted to emulate so many of his qualities.”

Don’t Quit: The Joe Roth Story” is showing at 7:30 p.m. in Wheeler Auditorium on Friday. Tickets are free, but any donations will go to Camp Kesem, a nonprofit, student-run organization that provides a free, weeklong summer camp for children who have been affected by a parent’s cancer.

Riley McAtee covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee