Cal football: 15 greatest quarterbacks in Golden Bears history

Jared Goff, California Golden Bears. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Jared Goff, California Golden Bears. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images) /
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California Golden Bears
California Golden Bears. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images) /

Joe Roth‘s time with the Cal program was short, yet unforgettable. After graduating high school in 1973, he played at first in junior college for Grossmont College in his hometown of El Cajon, California. Roth would lead Grossmont to a state championship in 1974 before transferring to Cal.

Initially a backup, Roth would take over after a few games into his junior season. Cal would go on to be Co-Pac-8 Champions in that 1975 NCAA season with Roth as the starting quarterback. He completed 55.8 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He averaged 8.3 yards per attempt and mustered a 139.9 passing efficiency during his first year with the Cal program.

Roth was expected to contend for the Heisman Trophy entering his senior season. He would end up being named an All-American as a senior and finished in ninth place for the 1976 Heisman Trophy, but that’s not what Joe Roth’s story is all about.

Shortly after the 1976 NCAA season, Roth revealed that he had been diagnosed with melanoma midway through the season. It was terminal, as his cancer metastasized, stemming from a mole he had removed from his face a few years before. Roth would agree to play in the 1977 Hula Bowl and the 1977 Japan Bowl, upholding his previous agreement to play in both, knowing full well how quickly his health was deteriorating.

Roth made sure to sign an autograph for every kid that wanted one during his 30-minute session after the Hula Bowl. By mid-February 1977, Roth was hospitalized. He refused to let the doctors amputate his legs because he “didn’t want to die in pieces.” Roth wanted to live out his last days in his Berkley apartment among his friends and family. He passed away on Feb. 19, 1977, at the tender age of 21. Had he not succumbed to melanoma, Roth would have almost certainly been selected in the 1977 NFL Draft.

Commissioner Pete Rozelle held a moment of silence before the 1977 NFL Draft in Roth’s memory. In the decades since Roth’s passing, Cal has retired his No. 12 jersey, the only one in Golden Bears history. The Joe Roth Memorial Game is played annually versus either USC or UCLA, whichever Pac-12 rival plays the Golden Bears in Berkley that year. Roth’s legacy proudly lives on with the Cal football program with the Joe Roth Award handed out annually to the player who “best demonstrates courage, attitude and sportsmanship.”