Tuesday, December 19, 2006


The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place,
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields were glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland brief than a girl's.

A.E. Housman, "To An Athlete Dying Young"

I remember reading in the newspaper that Joe Roth, Cal's All-American quarterback, had died. There was a big article in the Oakland Tribune and a black-and-white version of the above picture with his squinting smile and shaggy brown hair. I remembered that he had just played in some all-star games a month earlier. It didn't make sense. I was old enough to know that 21 was a very young age to die. Like any little kid, I wondered if I would die that young.

In mid-February 1977, Joe Roth lay dying in his Berkeley apartment. His family asked a priest to go and comfort Joe. The following is excerpted from "Joe: His Fight for Life" by Joe's mother Lena Roth:
"While Father Hunt sat with Joe that night, he had a short but serious, private talk with him. In the past when he had been with the dying, Father Hunt had found that they usually wanted to straighten something out -- a feud with someone, a lie they had told, or something they had stolen. He asked Joe if he had anything he wanted to straighten out. Joe said "no." He asked Joe if there was anyone who had not come that he would like to see. Joe said, "No, they've all been here." Father Hunt could see that Joe did not want to die, but he was not afraid."
Joe Roth died at 3:55 pm on Saturday, February 19, 1977, exactly thirty days after he honored his invitation to play in the Japan Bowl. He had played knowing that he was very sick, and would likely die. He had known this for his entire senior season. The tests at UCSF that confirmed his mortality the week after the Big Game were just a formality.

Athletic Director Dave Maggard delivered the news of Joe's passing to fans who had packed Harmon Gym for that night's Cal-Washington basketball game. The stunned crowd observed a moment of silence that, according to those who were there, lasted an eternity - broken only by the occasional sound of sobbing. Forty miles away, the crowd at Maples Pavillion also stood in silence to honor Joe's memory.

Three days later he was laid to rest. The Newman Center could not accommodate the throngs of mourners, who stood outside and strained to hear the speeches and blessings.

Today, every Golden Bear passes Joe's locker, which has been preserved as he left it, and hears how Joe faced death as he faced life - with head held high, always thinking of others. And hopefully they leave the locker room as better people, if not better players.


At 2:26 PM, Blogger Pete Morris said...

How could you not make Joe Roth #12?!

I'm looking forward to your Top Ten, since with names like Lynch and Roth, you're really getting into the big guns. It's probably safe to say we'll soon be seeing names such as Jensen, Morton, Kapp, White, and Muncie. But with 13 still to go, could we also see still more names from the current team (Mebane? Hughes? Jackson??), from earlier in the Tedford era (Phillip? Arrington?), from SoCal losers of the Super Bowl (Ferragamo? Binn?), or even from the ranks of the kickers (Wersching? Brien? Longwell?)

At 4:28 PM, Blogger Tightwad said...

Not telling. And you're right, we should have made Roth #12.

At 10:59 PM, Blogger T. said...

If Ziv Gottleib isn't your number #1, I'm declaring the whole thing false and ordering you to start over.

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Tightwad said...

I'll give you one clue - it's not Ziv. Not Vedder, either.

At 1:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never heard about the reaction of the Maples crowd the night Joe Roth's death was announced. This is why the rivalry is the best one in the country: a combination of intensity, perspective, and respect.

At 1:43 PM, Blogger Tightwad said...

Can't say I was there, but it was documented by others. I do remember how big a shock Roth's death was - no one outside the "family" knew how sick he was. The story wasn't "broken" until after the season, and then he was gone in February.

At 10:07 PM, Blogger ff24789 said...

Wow, I just came across your site and I am thrilled to find your list of 50 Greatest Golden Bears. I want to clarify one fact in your blog about Joe. The color photo you have for him was not in black and white in the Oakland Tribune article announcing his death. There are two b/w photos in the article--one action shot and one of him smiling as stated. I have an original copy of the sports section dated Feb. 20, 1977. The photo you show is from Lena Roths book about her son and was originally taken by Sports Illustrated. Any chance you have other pics of Joe?

At 11:17 PM, Blogger ff24789 said...

Brick Muller will be #1 on your list.

At 9:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was in the 8th grade in 1976 and saw Joe Roth play against my Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. He was magnificent in defeat as he shredded the Georgia defense with his accuracy. Who was this guy?

Only a few short months later, the sad news appeared in our local newspaper in Athens of Joe's passing. I remember how stunned I felt when I learned of this. It was perhaps the first time in my then-young life that I considered my own mortality. From what I saw that day long ago, he was an incredible talent.

At 12:58 PM, Anonymous Old Blue said...

I was at Harmon Gym for the Cal-Washington basketball game the night Joe's death was announced. The moment was poignant, then as a Cal senior and still today as an Old Blue.

I remember that very long moment of silence and the tears that flowed by so many around me. And while my memory might betray me here, my heart distinctly remembers the Straw Hat Band played "Hail to California".

Your blog offered me this opportunity to reflect, now 30 years after Joe's death. I am grateful for what Joe did on the football field to unify us as a community. He inspired my own leadership, taught me about humility, and by his example reminded me of our bright future of possibilities and our mortality.

At 9:35 AM, Blogger charlie said...

As a young boy growing up in the Bay Area, my two heroes were Joe Roth and Phil Smith, the USF basketball player. I so much wanted to be just like both of them. So at the age of 10, hearing of Joe's death, I cried for days and hoped that Phil would be okay. Phil was, but he died just a few years ago at the age of 50. My heroes are gone, but they inspired me with their courage. Long live the Bears, long live the Dons.

At 12:02 PM, Blogger A said...

Wow, I'm crying. He died a year before I was born, but what can I say, I love my old school and always feel connected to all those great 'Californians' who made it what it is.

At 4:03 PM, Blogger James said...

Barry Switzer said he was the greatest college QB he ever saw. Chuck Muncie said he would have been as good as any QB he played against or with.

Sports Illustrated called him the next Joe Namath. He was so great; but an even better person.

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