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By Jim McGill, Staff Writer
Posted Feb 19, 2017
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2017 BearInsider.com


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Today marks the 40th anniversary of the passing of one of the true all-time legends of Cal Athletics -former Golden Bear quarterback Joe Roth. In honor of Roth's passing, we're re-running a story and video that ran before the Joe Roth Memorial game in 2015 between Cal and USC, including interview footage with Roth's mother Lena before she passed away in recent years.

His story was one for the ages. A story that if life rewarded those who richly deserved it would've ended so much differently.

Joseph Lawrence Roth was born on May 29, 1955 in Mercy Hospital in San Diego to Lawrence and Lena Roth, who had moved to San Diego from Missouri in 1939 to work for a company that would later become aerospace and defense contractor General Dynamics.

Joe's older brothers John and Tom would come along a few years later, with Joe a late addition to the family, 14 and 11 years the junior of John and Tom.

Joe's older brothers and parents provided a nurturing environment for him and his mother Lena credited his siblings with helping shape the wonderful character that so many people would come to know and love in coming years.

 

"I left in 1963 to go to school," said Roth's brother, Tom. "Joe was around 7-8 then so I mainly spent time with him in the summer after that.

 

"Playing quarterback at Washington State, I think he looked up to that, to be able to play at that level of competition. I think that motivated him."

 

Roth grew up playing sports year-round, with baseball and basketball joining football on his list of favorite activities. He participated in the national Punt, Pass and Kick competition and started at quarterback for Granite Hills High School as a senior in 1973. No scholarship offers came for Roth so he decided to play for local Grossmont College in El Cajon.

 

"Joe was kind of a late-bloomer in sports and he was a little bit too skinny to be recruited out of high school,said Roth's brother, Tom. "But when he was at Grossmont, he grew and had success there."

 

"The first bout with melanoma showed up at that point.

 

"That's a serious diagnosis. When he was diagnosed, they didn't start patients with chemotherapy. They had surgery and they just tried to remove all that they saw. And they monitored after with chest x-rays. Then if it came back, they kind of chased it with chemo."

 

The doctors caught the malignancy early enough that Roth and his family thought he was in the clear, leaving Roth extraordinarily thankful for his new lease on life.

 

Cal Hall of Fame rugby coach Jack Clark played against Roth as a freshmen when his Orange Coast College squad squared off against Grossmont in 1974 before joining him as a teammate at Cal where he played offensive line for the Bears while also starring in rugby.

 

"We played in the state championship game when I was at Orange Coast and he was at Grossmont. He picked us apart," said Clark.

 

"We went on to win the mythical national championship the next year so we were a good team but he was just absolutely lights-out.

 

"All the things we learned about him -the quick release, the catchable balls and most of all -the accuracy- all of those were on display.

 

"I didn't see him again till my recruiting trip the next year but it was arranged right away to get me with Joe.

 

"When Joe Roth says he wants you to come block for him, that's what you do."

 

Beyond his respect for Roth as an athlete, Clark -and countless other teammates- came to appreciate Roth off the field even more.

 

"Joe was authentic," said Clark. "He was true to himself. Always had a smile on his face. Levelheaded and nice to everyone. He was a competitor on the field but really easy to be around. Maybe the most straight-up kind of guy you'd ever be around. You just couldn't imagine Joe not doing the right thing."

 

After a successful sophomore season at Grossmont, BYU and Washington were hot on Roth's trail and a scheduled official visit to Washington, near his brother Tom, could well have resulted in the Cal Hall of Famer ending up a Husky, but it was not to be.

 

"One of my assistants, Max McCartney -his recruiting territory was the San Diego area and he had a real close friend at Grossmont that out of the clear blue contacted us," said Cal head coach Mike White. "We weren't really looking for a quarterback since we had Fred Besana.

 

"It was just one of those miracles that happened. We looked at the film from Grossmont and high school.

 

"This coach told Max that Joe was getting on a plane to fly to Washington the next day and Max headed to San Diego right away.

 

"Joe never made that trip. He was actually getting on the airplane and Max talked him out of it and coming up to Berkeley instead and the rest is history.

 

"He came up and I was so impressed with him. From the very first minute I met him, he displayed unbelievable maturity and insight into his future.

 

"We'd always had a lot of junior college players be successful and always did well by them so I think that helped us. So one thing led to another and he was at Cal.

 

"He was able to get in for spring practice so that helped, too."

 

Much like heralded future Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who quietly put together a strong season at Butte College before his arrival at Cal and stood out in fall camp, yet didn't start till a few games into his college career for the Bears, Roth didn't start right away, either.

 

"We didn't anoint him a starter right away or promise him anything. By the time he came up to Cal, he was almost recruiting us, saying, 'I want to go to Cal. I want to get my degree there and I want to play pro football and I think this is the best opportunity for me to meet my goals.'

 

"He had to earn everything. We didn't make him the #1 quarterback or start him right away. He had a rocky spring playing with kids he didn't know and learning the timing of all the things he had to do as a quarterback in our system.

 

"So Fred (Besana) started the first two games and by the Washington State game, we put Joe in on the third drive and he went in there and gave a really good account of himself.

 

"After a couple drives, it was pretty obvious what we had in Joe. The thing I always point to in a quarterback is temperament -a leader who's not too up or too down.

 

"We felt we had a guy who had unbelievable potential as a quarterback. Some guys can throw a football but there aren't many that can truly pass a football and have the anticipation and timing and the ability to throw different types of passes to different types of players and be successful.

 

"I've been around a lot of great quarterbacks, like Joe Montana and so many others. Joe was just that accurate. There have been very few quarterbacks, especially in recent history that are passers that are truly masters of their craft -all the intangibles."

 

The season started slowly for the Bears in '75, losing consecutive games to Colorado and West Virginia before Roth made his debut in the third game.

 

The Bears got hot from that point on, winning eight of their last nine games, with only a stumble to UCLA keeping them from their first Rose Bowl appearance in 16 years -a streak that has now stretched to a maddening 58 years in 2017.

 

Despite the loss in Pasadena, the Bears were still in position to play in the coveted bowl game after thrashing USC and Stanford but USC played a lackluster final game against rival UCLA and lost, giving the Bruins the tiebreaker over Cal.

 

The Bears led the nation in offense behind a strong offensive line and balanced offense, with future NFL star Chuck Muncie at running back and future pro Wesley Walker and Steve Rivera at receiver, rushing and passing for exactly 2,522 yards respectively.

 

"We'd really taken it to Stanford and USC that year but losing to UCLA put us in the position we were in," said White.

 

"USC had a contingency plan. Even though we finished with a co-championship and USC finished in 5th, they still went to the Liberty Bowl.

 

"Bowl games make your program successful and give you credibility, but back in those days, if you didn't win the league, you probably didn't go a bowl game so our year ended disappointingly."

 

It was during his initial season at Cal that Joe met close friend and confidante John Matlock through a fortuitous set of circumstances that brought them together.

 

Matlock had kicked and played quarterback in high school and heard about an open tryout for kicker for the Bears.

 

Trying out on a gusty day, Matlock could get nothing behind his kicks, paling in comparison to freshman and future pro Jim Breech, who ended up being one of the few kickers in NCAA history with more than 50 field goals.

 

"Joe and Mike White were up in the stands, laughing, like 'This guy is toast,' said Matlock.

 

"So I went up and told Mike, 'Thanks for the opportunity. I think you've got your guy.' Of course, Jim Breech went on to kick 14 years in the NFL.

 

"Somehow I'd said something to Mike about my housing situation and Joe was unhappy with his roommate situation so Mike said, 'Hey, Matlock here needs a roommate.' So Joe said, 'Let's get together and talk about it.' So we went to Top Dog and talked about it and he decided to rent the other room in our apartment."

 

The two hit it off and became fast friends, with Roth relishing the chance to get away from football and just be a regular joe, so to speak.

 

"He loved life," said Matlock. "He was just a great guy.

 

"I've been very blessed to have a person in my life like Joe. He wasn't just a peripheral acquaintance. He was my roommate and my close friend.

 

"We cooked together, played darts together, pulled pranks together. He stayed with my family. We just had just a great connection. His thing was he wanted to be away from football with his down time. I was very blessed to have that opportunity."

 

Though their friendship was based largely off the field, Matlock couldn't help but be a little starstruck -at least initially-by his new roommate.

 

"My number in high school as a third string quarterback at Bullard High in Fresno was number 12," said Matlock. "I had this vicarious experience -a dream come true, living with someone who was also number 12 who was an All-American, who was going to be drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. Gil Brandt was always sending all this stuff to Joe.

 

"And the girls -they were always out for Joe."

 

It took Matlock months to shore up the courage to ask his roommate about the scar on Roth's face, fearing the worst for his close friend.

 

"I knew about the cancer from before he was at Cal and I was concerned because I came from a medical family," said Matlock.

 

"A couple months after he moved in, I finally asked him about the scar he had from his operation earlier. He sat me down and told me the whole story. He just felt so blessed to be alive because they'd told him back at Grossmont if he had any cancerous cells after the operations, it could've been real trouble."

 

Roth came back for the 1976 season as a Heisman hopeful but his cancer returned in a major way during the season, though friends, family and teammates were unaware as Roth continued to play through the pain.

 

Though weakened, Roth still finished 9th in the Heisman voting but by the end of the season, it became impossible to hide his condition.

 

"I remember when he came home from the Stanford game and he threw up in the bushes and we talked about it," said Matlock. "I said, 'Joe, you've got to go see the doctor. It doesn't sound good given your previous medical history."

 

Roth made the dreaded trip to UCSF where he got the news that would change his and countless other lives forever.

 

"Mike Friedman, who's been a longtime friend of mine -he actually saved my aunt's life," said Matlock.

 

"I was there with Joe's brother Tom, Mike White and Mike Friedman when Joe was told he had weeks -maybe a couple months to live," said Matlock. "It broke my heart. I loved him dearly. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about him and what he could've done in life. He just had such a great life ahead of him. He was just such a great human being.

 

"After the bad news, he said he wanted to keep it private and do his best to beat it, so with that being his wish, that's what we respected.

 

"We came back from UCSF and he was just in shock, essentially having a 90-day death sentence.

 

"There were four letters waiting for him and he asked me to read them to him. One was from the Shrine game and we already knew he'd be playing in that. Another one said he'd been selected as the starting quarterback at the Hula Bowl. The third said congratulations, you'll be the starting quarterback at the Japan Bowl. And the last one was from his mom, Lena, saying they were looking forward to visiting with him at Christmas.

 

"That was the only time I just saw him break down and cry. I just gave him a big hug and told him I was there for him."

 

"He was diagnosed as stage three or stage four," said Roth's brother, Tom. "That's some deep water, medically.

 

"They said they got it all earlier but you know how that goes. Then the chemotherapy was fairly ineffective at the end. It ended up moving into the bones and spread throughout his body and the medical people never caught up with that."

 

Roth declined rapidly, trying his best to maintain some form of normalcy in his life. Despite his physical condition, he played in all three All-American games, including his final athletic endeavor in the Japan Bowl, just a month before he passed away.

 

Incredibly, Roth acquitted himself well, completing 5-of-6 passes in the game and winning the admiration of the host nation as well as as world, as the news of his courageous fight had broken after the Hula Bowl.

 

"Finally when were at the Hula Bowl about three weeks after the diagnosis, Skip Bayless, who wrote for the LA Times at the time, kept knocking on the door, trying to interview Joe, so I met with him in the lobby," said Matlock. "And with things starting to get out, we decided that he'd be the one to break the story."

 

After returning, Roth continued to go to class and stay in his apartment, though every day became a greater and greater struggle.

 

Finally, he had to check back into UCSF when his condition became unmanageable.

 

"When I went to visit him at UCSF, he told me he wanted to come back and spend his last days at the apartment," said Matlock. "I told him if he got the blessing from Mike Friedman, that was fine. So I moved out for a couple days so his sister-in-law, Kim (Tom's wife), who was a nurse, could stay over and administer morphine, because he was in a lot of pain."

 

It didn't take long for Roth to pass, leaving a campus stunned by his quick decline and ultimate demise.

 

The University of California and countless others had lost a treasure.

 

"Joe was a really brave individual based on how he handled himself throughout the entire situation, with a lot of grace and a lot of determination and focus," said his brother Tom. "But with malignant melanoma, you can't just say, I'm going to beat this thing. I'm young and strong.'

 

"It's a tough disease and it will kill anybody. But he lived his life and carried himself well and chose to not discuss his personal struggle with most and hold things close to the vest."

 

Roth was being touted as the number one quarterback to be taken in the draft and possibly the number one pick overall but his legacy goes far beyond the gridiron.

 

People who knew him revered him as perhaps the kindest, most genuine person they'd ever encountered. And when the deck was stacked against him, his character never wavered -a true example that everyone can emulate in life and in athletics.

 

"Joe was a gentleman," said his brother Tom. "He didn't rub anyone the wrong way. He was nice. He was kind and took joy in life and that's how he treated other people.

 

"He was a young kid that had an incredible year at Cal then had an incredibly bad disease and ended up dying.

 

"He didn't want to die. We didn't want him to die. He was looking death right in the eye and didn't blink. He set a good example of how to be strong and how to stay strong under the worst of circumstances. He delivered. He went out on his terms.

 

"He was a really nice kid. Easy to be around. He had a sense of humor. You don't want to lose those kind of folks.

 

"He should've lived a long life and influenced a lot of people. He didn't get to, but he influenced a lot of people while he was here and to this day because of how he handled himself."

 

"We just all couldn't believe we'd lost him, said Clark. "Of all people for this to happen to...Joe. He's literally the best guy you'd ever know. In what world would a guy like Joe be dealing with this? There was a lot of frustration and a lot of sadness.

 

"How is there not a statue of him on campus?

 

"He was a remarkable man, above and beyond athletics," concluded Clark.

 

A sturdy Golden Bear if there ever was one.

 

*** In 2009, we were fortunate enough to interview Joe's mother Lena in her home at Wenatchee, Washington. She since passed on the 35th anniversary of her son's death in 2012.

 

The embedded video below contains much of that interview along with clips the producers of the fantastic Joe Roth documentary Don't Quit allowed us to use as well as video clips and highlights from Roth's friend and roommate John Matlock.

 

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