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CHICAGO – Before talking tackles and tailbacks Thursday at the Big Ten kickoff, three Illinois football players focused on something even more important – a teammate.

The Fighting Illini’s Reggie Corbin, Nate Hobbs and Alex Palczewsk joined coach Lovie Smith in visiting defensive end Bobby Roundtree in the Chicago facility where he continues to rehab after suffering a severe spinal injury in May.

The injury occurred in a swimming pool near his family’s home in Largo, Florida, where the junior underwent surgery in late May before being transferred to the Chicago facility for a lengthy rehabilitation process.

“To hear what happened, it was shocking,’’ junior cornerback k Nate Hobbs said. “You never expect anything like that. Just like that, he’s in a hospital and everything you’ve been working toward, it’s changed.’’

Offensive lineman Alex Palczewsk said the visit put things into perspective.

“Football didn’t seem very important earlier today,’’ the junior said. “To see him there, to see him working hard to get back to doing things we all take for granted, it really hit home. He’s coming along, doing well, but that situation, it makes you think.’’

Palczewsk walked away appreciating the opportunity to compete and do the things he has always done to prepare for a season.

“To have that taken away so suddenly like that, I can’t imagine that but sometimes, that is how life works,’’ Palczewsk said. “It’s not always fair.’’

The Fighting Illini players also found strength in the strength Roundtree showed after they walked into the facility to see the 6-foot-5, 255-pound honorable mention all-Big Ten selection, unsure about what to expect.  

“To go there and see the fight he is showing, to see him smile and know that he’s going to be back (on campus) with us, that meant everything. To see he’s doing better, that means a lot to us,’’ running back Reggie Corbin said.

Smith described Roundtree as a fighter, saying he is making good progress.

During the formal news conference portion of Thursday’s kickoff, the fourth-year Illinois coach prefaced his remarks by thanking his Big Ten peers and fans for the support that they have given Roundtree in the months since he suffered the injury near his family’s Florida home.

“It all has meant so much to him, his family, to all of us,’’ Smith said. “We’re looking forward to the day when he can return to Champaign and join us on campus again. He’s fighting hard to get back. That’s going to be a great day.’’

A starter in 20 of his 24 games over the past two seasons, Roundtree led the Fighting Illini with 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss last season while finishing third on the team with 66 tackles.

His teammates recalled how hard Roundtree was working during the offseason to help Illinois’ defense make much-needed improvements during the upcoming season.

Now, they push themselves on a daily basis to deliver on the expectations Roundtree had for the Fighting Illini team.

“It is motivation, understanding that something you love so much like football can be gone an instant,’’ Hobbs said. “You’ve got to make the most of every chance you get on the field. That’s what we all want to do. We’re doing it for Bobby and because we know he would want it that way, we’re doing it for ourselves.’’

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