Former Cal football coach Mike White called it, “the biggest secret in the history of college athletics.”
Even White didn’t know during the fall of 1976 that Joe Roth, his All-America quarterback, was playing out his senior season while battling an aggressive strain of malignant melanoma. By February 1977, just 21 years old, Roth was dead.
Roth’s remarkable tale — the way he lived and the way he died — unfolds in “Don’t Quit: The Joe Roth Story,” a documentary film five years in the making by Cal grads Phil Schaaf and Bob Rider.
The 85-minute film, which made its debut in April at the Newport Film Festival, had its first Bay Area showing Wednesday night in front of about 300 Cal fans at Memorial Stadium.
The home crowd — including his former coach and a handful of ex-teammates — watched as Roth arrived in Berkeley from Grossmont junior college, became almost an overnight star who won friends with his low-key charm, then silently labored through his final painful months.
“In the end it has nothing to do with the sport,” Schaaf said. “Instead, it’s about humam elegance in the face of unfathomable adversity. In Joe’s case, it’s against this backdrop of athletic greatness.”
Schaaf, director of “Don’t Quit,” interviewed dozens of people for the film and got a consistent picture. No one had a bad word to say about Roth. “The great thing about this project,” he said, “is if you left Joe’s name on a voicemail, people called right back.”
Two weeks into his senior season, Roth got word from doctors that the cancer he fought off two years before had returned. Roth deflected questions from his teammates, telling them he was fine.
Fred Besana, who lost his starting quarterback position to Roth the year before, could see the difference. Roth had passed for 663 yards in Cal’s first two games in ’76 before the disease took hold. “It was never the same,” Besana said.
Roth’s cancer didn’t become public news until after the season, but he still planned to play in three all-star games for which he’d accepted invitations. At the Hula Bowl in Hawaii, he met Minnesota quarterback Tony Dungy, who would go on to become a Super Bowl-winning coach.
Roth’s physical decline was evident, but Dungy was captured by Roth’s grace.
“You can live a long time and not impact people the way Joe Roth impacted people,” Dungy is quoted saying on the film’s website. “I was only around him for three and a half weeks and I still use him as an example 30 years later. That’s someone special.”
Lena Roth, who wrote a book about her son in 1984, said Joe just wanted to be like everyone else. “But he was different,” she said.
Perhaps especially at the end, when he kept smiling for his teammates, never complaining, never wanting them to feel sorry for him.
“He made everybody feel better about him dying,” Besana said. “It was a gift.”
Schaaf said he expects “Don’t Quit” to be released in the fall during football season, although the filmmakers still are negotiating with various outlets. For updates on distribution plans, go to www.JoeRothfilm.com.