There is only one number retired in the history of Cal football. That is the number 12 of Joe Roth. The lion's share of Cal fans know the story of Joe Roth, a young quarterback who led the Bears to be co-champions of the Pac-8 in 1975. He was a man with courage beyond his years, battling cancer as he played through the 1976 season. He was a Playboy preseason All-American in 1976, and less than a year later, he was gone. Roth had melanoma, something with a five year survival rate of 98% today. Almost 40 years ago, that percentage was much lower. For his valiance in fighting the disease in private, Roth is a hallowed name in the annals of Cal history. Roth is honored every year through the Joe Roth Memorial Game, against whichever LA school Cal plays at home. To tell his story further, Don't Quit: The Joe Roth Story was made.
According to the filmmakers, this documentary has been in the works for the past six years. They interviewed a number of people, ranging from the family of Roth, to former coaches Mike White and Paul Hackett, and even bigger names like Tony Dungy and Dick Vermeil. There were many people willing to share their stories about someone they held in the highest esteem. The film went into great detail about the life of Joe Roth, much more than the basic outline of the story that everyone knows. The filmmakers took the time to get as close to a whole picture as they can get.
The picture of Joe Roth is formed through stories of times past, archived footage of games and interviews, and the letters saved by close friends and family. It starts with Roth's first game against San Jose State, where he engineered a comeback with two minutes left and 89 yards to go. Three passes later, capped by a 46 yard bomb to Wesley Walker, Cal had a 27-24 victory and the legend of Joe Roth began. We get the portrait of Joe Roth growing up, raised by parents and his much older siblings. Since he wasn't highly recruited, he went to Grossmont Junior College, played his heart out, and had his first encounter with melanoma.
Cancer has become a highly talked about topic in the arena of sports. People like Stuart Scott, John Tuggle, Jim Valvano, and Lauren Hill have been inspirations for a number of people. Joe Roth should be mentioned within the same breath as that group. He was 19 when he got his initial diagnosis. Think of the maturity level of the average 19 year old. While many college kids are out trying to do any number of normal college things, Roth was pondering his own mortality. He overcame that first round of cancer, led Grossmont to a state championship, and came to Cal.
From there, the rest of the story is well known. Roth leads the offense to record setting numbers in 1975, including putting a beatdown on defending champion USC. He's hyped up in 1976 a great deal. Gil Brandt, former Cowboys scout and Al Davis confidante, said in the film that Roth would have been a top ten pick in the draft. He has two excellent performances in losses to Georgia and defending champion Oklahoma. The cancer comes back. It metastasizes, giving him lesions all over his body. His play suffers, and he hides the cause from his teammates and family for the whole season. The story of the remainder of his career is made up of anecdotes from all the people he made an impact on. There's players from Oregon, USC, Nebraska, and even Minnesota who played with Roth during the postseason all-star games near the end of his life. It's a testament to the number of people he befriended while his body continually betrayed him. He earned the respect of guys like Dick Vermeil and Tony Dungy.
Now, 38 years later, we reach the most poignant part of the movie. We know the ending. Joe Roth passed away on February 19, 1977. He was 21 years old. This broke quite a few people in the film, even after all these years. Mike White breaking down was absolutely devastating, and there were not too many dry eyes for those in attendance. Roth is still a relevant figure after all these years.
Roth's story is incredibly well put together. The six years it took to make the film gave it an excellent polish. They told the story of a young man who lived with much more courage than anyone would expect of a 21 year old man. He had lived by three words, humility, courage, and faith. He had all those attributes in spades. I hope this story can get a little more recognition nationally, as Don't Quit is another story that can provide inspiration to those dealing with cancer. I heartily recommend the film, and if you have opportunity to see a screening, take it.
Further information about the film can be found here.