FLASHBACK: Top QB in 1977 NFL Draft died two months before draft

By John Breech | CBSSports.com

Joe Roth during an interview in 1976. (Twitter/@JoeRothFilm)
Joe Roth during an interview in 1976. (Twitter/@JoeRothFilm)

The first name NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle announced at the 1977 NFL Draft belonged to Cal quarterback Joe Roth, but it wasn't because the one-time Heisman candidate was the No. 1 overall pick. It was because the NFL decided to start the draft by honoring Roth with a moment of silence.

Roth, one of the projected top picks in 1977, had died of cancer two and a half months before the draft's first day on May 3.

"Joe's story is probably the greatest secret in the history of collegiate athletics."

That's what Mike White had to say about Roth when he talked to the Orange County Register in mid-April. White coached Roth for two seasons at Cal before moving on to Illinois (1980-87) and eventually the Oakland Raiders (1995-96).

Roth's college football career began at Grossmont Community College in Southern California, where he was first diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 1974. In 1975, with the melanoma seemingly gone, Roth transferred to Cal to compete for the starting quarterback job that was left vacant when former Cal starter Steve Bartkowski was selected No. 1 overall by the Falcons in the 1975 NFL Draft.

Cal's new transfer quarterback didn't win the job though.

Roth didn't become the starter at Cal until the fourth week of the season, but after he won the job, he never let it go. The Golden Bears went on a roll under Roth, winning seven of their final eight games to finish 8-3. Cal's run included four wins over top-20 teams in the final four weeks of the regular season.

The Golden Bears would end up winning a share of the Pac-8 title and finishing the 1975 season with the No. 1 overall offense in the country.

By the time the 1976 season rolled around, Roth was on the national radar. After a September game between Oklahoma and Cal, Sooners coach Barry Switzer called Roth, "The best I've ever seen as a coach."

At some point during the season though, Roth's cancer came back -- but he didn't tell anyone.

After the season, Roth had a biospy done -- and in December 1976, he was told he had 90 days to live. A 21-year-old was told he had 90 days to live. Roth found out all of this less than a month after finishing ninth in the Heisman voting.

Despite the fact that he was growing weaker, Roth still insisted on playing in several college all-star games. At the Hula Bowl in January 1977, Roth finally announced that he was sick.

One of his teammates in the Hula Bowl, Tony Dungy, would later send Roth a telegram that Roth received just one day before his death.

The man who could have been the top overall pick in the draft died on Feb. 19, 1977, just 34 days after completing 5 of 6 passes for 75 yards in the Japan Bowl, a game where Dungy was also his teammate.

Former Colts coach Tony Dungy became friends with Joe Roth in January 1977. (Cal Athletics)
Former Colts coach Tony Dungy became friends with Joe Roth in January 1977. (Cal Athletics)

Roth's story has faded over time, but two filmmakers are trying to bring it back. Don't Quit: The Joe Roth Story will be unveiled on April 27 at the Newport Film Festival in Newport, Calif.

 
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