Usually on Thanksgiving Day, I try to do a story on a Cal athlete who gives back to the community. There have been many fun stories over the years with a behind the scenes look at student/athletes and their good will toward less fortunate people.
This Thanksgiving, though, I decided to do a story on Joe Roth, the Cal quarterback who died of cancer shortly after his final game at Cal. That was 30 years ago this week. It’s a story worth telling and I hope you enjoy it in tomorrow’s (Thursday) Contra Costa Times.
As a writer, when you do interviews for a story like this one, you learn some much more than your readers. In a newspaper format, it simply is impossible to pass along all the information that you gather. In this instance, there were many stories that touched my heart that just couldn’t be included. I will say that having lost several family members to cancer, I have a new-found respect for coach Mike White. From all accounts, the character he showed during this tragedy was extraordinary. Living with a person who is dying of cancer is an extremely grueling, horrible experience. And yet, there is a strength that comes out of such an experience that should be cherished.
So here are a few things I couldn’t fit into the story.
Cal rugby coach Jack Clark, who was an offensive tackle during Roth’s senior year of 1976, talked about how Joe Roth always was so cool in the huddle. Of course, Roth was pretty sure he had unbeatable cancer during his senior year.
Clark said, “I remember one day at practice, somebody jumped off sides the second time in a row. Everyone was screaming and yelling. In the huddle, Joe says, let’s get it together. Joe said, relax guys. For a moment there, I was thinking, geez, Joe, you should be yelling at somebody. We were a good team used to executing. But Joe never overreacted.”
Clark surmised that a guy facing cancer wasn’t going to get too bent out of shape by a penalty.
Clark remember the funeral service for Roth. “I will never, ever forget,” Clark said. “They played “Do You Believe in Miracles” That was the song. I almost have to pull off the road when that song plays on the radio. It was so sad to see all that promise cut down before our eyes.
Fred Besana talked about Roth’s courage in fighting the illness. “He had a clot in his leg and he was going to have them remove it,” Besana said. “He was fighting. But then there was a clot in the other leg, and it was time to go home (to die).”
Besana said that his respect for coach Mike White grew by leaps and bounds during that time. “You always have nefarious thoughts about coaches,” Besana said. “But the coaches were exceptional (concerning Joe). This one came from the heart.”
Cal assistant, and future head coach, Roger Theder said that his best quarterback was Steve Bartkowski, but Roth had the quickest release. Theder told a story about a guy who brought his invention from UC-Davis. It was a series of lights that lit up, meaning open receiver. A quarterback would drop back, then hit the targets as they lit up. Theder said Roth was amazingly quick at hitting the targets.
Theder also talked about how quickly Roth made friends. When the news was announced that Roth had cancer, Theder said Roth got an immediate call from Tony Dungy, who had met Roth at the East-West Shrine game.
Lena Roth, who now lives in Washington, still calls her son just a “plain, ordinary kid.”
Roth was a Punt, Pass and Kick champ as a 12-year-old.
For those of you who have read this far (and even those who didn’t), I wish you a wonderful holiday.