Sunday, April 27, 2014, will be emotional for Cal Berkeley alums, fans, and anyone who knew the late Cal quarterback, Joe Roth. Don't Quit: The Joe Roth Story will debut at the Newport Beach Film Festival at the Regency Lido Theatre. It is a film filled with hope and inspiration, directed by Cal alums Bob Rider and Phil Schaaf.
The Newport Beach Film Festival has been the launching pad for many successful documentaries. I helped Gregg Schwenk, co-executive director, resurrect the festival some years ago. Gregg and Todd Quartararo have done a brilliant job turning it into a showcase for the best in new feature, documentary, and short films.
Joe Roth came to the Cal football program in 1975. Blue-eyed and blonde, with a great smile and natural people skills, he seemed the natural replacement for his predecessor, quarterback Steve Bartkowski, who was the first overall pick in the 1975 NFL draft.
Coach Mike White had assembled as gifted a roster, especially on offense, as any college program in the country. Mike is charismatic and warm, a one of a kind raconteur, and has a brilliant offensive mind. He assembled an epic group of coaches. Paul Hackett, offensive coordinator, went on to be head coach of the University of Pittsburgh and USC. Walt Harris also was head coach at Pittsburgh, and later at Stanford. Both went on to hold assistant positions in the NFL. Al Saunders went on to be head coach of the San Diego Chargers. Roger Theder has coached generations of quarterbacks.
In Joe’s first season, he led Cal to a co-Pac 8 championship. The offense led the nation and was perfectly balanced between the running and passing game, to the exact yard. Imagine a team with Chuck Muncie as the running back, Wesley Walker as a WR, Steve Rivera as the other WR, and Ted Albrecht anchoring the line. Cal Berkeley was a football juggernaut, all while Joe Roth battled with black mole cancer, otherwise known as malignant melanoma, the most deadly of skin cancers. It recurred during the 1976 season, but Joe didn’t talk about it and gamely carried on.
Most draft prognosticators projected Joe as the very first pick in the 1977 NFL draft. He threw with laser like accuracy and had great field command. He travelled in January of 1977 to the Tokyo Bowl All-Star game, but the cancer had progressed. He actually flew back to Hawaii to the Hula Bowl Game, but clearly couldn’t play. I still cherish a photograph of Joe, Mike White and me sitting on the beach in Hawaii. Joe looked healthy, but the cancer continued to progress. He never complained, he continued to inspire everyone around him.
In February 1977, he passed away. The Cal community was overcome by grief.
Directors Rider and Schaaf have assembled a "who's who" of Cal football and NFL and college coaches to speak to his amazing values and character. Had it not been for the quality of that Cal team, I might never have succeeded in representing athletes. My former clients: Ted Albrecht, Eric Anderson, Steve Bartkowski, Fred Besana, Jim Breech, Steve Rivera, Duane Williams, and many others pay tribute to how unique Joe was. Steve Bartkowski said of the film, "It's every bit as great as 'Brian’s Song' to me."
In an era where parents and fans are often discouraged by the off-the-field behavior of collegiate and professional athletes, Joe Roth’s story of courage and determination speaks strongly to the incredible power of positive role-modeling. "Don't Quit: The Joe Roth Story" reminds us of this remarkable athlete and reaffirms the power of character and values.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.