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When the Colorado Buffaloes reigned supreme, Rashaan Salaam was the king and helped mark a high point in the school’s football history
hey called themselves “Nine Deuce.” The recruiting class of 1992 was an embarrassment of riches. Colorado coach Bill McCartney’s list of freshmen included 20 high school All-Americans. Many were headed toward the NFL: Koy Detmer, Rae Carruth, Heath Irwin, Shannon Clavelle, Chris Naeole, Matt Russell.
And they all looked up to Rashaan Salaam.
“Everyone wanted to be like him,” Russell said.
Salaam — who learned the game playing eight-man football in San Diego before tearing through the college ranks to win the 1994 Heisman Trophy — was found dead Monday night in the parking lot of a Boulder public park. His death is thought to be a suicide. He was 42.
His shadow of influence on college football, especially within a distinguished fraternity of former Buffaloes players, never faded. Salaam was the best player on a team full of stars.
The leading light of Colorado’s 1992 freshmen class, Salaam tore through the Big 8, helping to lead the Buffaloes back into national championship contention in 1994. He plowed forward for 2,055 yards as a junior that season — just the fourth college player to surpass 2,000 yards — despite sitting out the fourth quarter in five games and barely playing in two other third quarters.
“He was a dominant player,” said Russell, a former linebacker at CU and now the Broncos’ director of player personnel. “He was one of the best I’ve ever played against: high school, college or pro. He was fast, big, strong, tough, mean. He gave everything he had.”
Salaam’s arrival at Colorado was a long shot from the start. He dominated the eight-man ranks for La Jolla Country Day School in San Diego, but big-school college football is something different. McCartney, though, saw a chance to remake his team after running a conservative wishbone option offense. Two years after winning a national championship, Colorado needed something new.
Enter Salaam, a speedy upright runner who could break away in the open field.
His running style had a clear lineage.
“Mine is Tony Dorsett,” Salaam told The Denver Post in 2014. “That was my childhood hero. My first number I ever wore was 33, and I always wanted to be like T.D.”
Salaam confounded defenses, including his own. Chad Brown, a linebacker at Colorado and teammate in 1992-93, described Salaam’s running style as a kind of hybrid snake-charmer.
“He wasn’t a jitterbug, he wasn’t a pure speed back. He just had a great ability to make you miss,” Brown said. “He made you not aware of how fast he was. And then he would lull you to sleep when he needed to make you miss before throwing a move at you.”
Between 1990 and 1996, Colorado won a national title, Alfred Williams and Russell won the Butkus Award, and Deon Figures and Chris Hudson won the Thorpe Award. Salaam’s Heisman Trophy was something else.
“So many folks saw us come up and win a national championship and still wonder if Colorado was a legitimate program,” Brown said. “All that was solidified and capped by Rashaan winning the Heisman. If you’re going to be a school that has pride in its football program, well, now we had a national championship and a Heisman Trophy winner.”
Colorado’s 1994 season was a benchmark. In McCartney’s final year as coach, the Buffs dominated a difficult schedule, taking down No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 4 Michigan, No. 16 Texas, No. 22 Oklahoma and No. 19 Kansas State. McCartney had used the stockpile of elite talent in the 1992 freshman class to open up Colorado’s offense into a freewheeling, high- flying attack. Talent was spilling off the field, led by Salaam.
Against Michigan, Colorado trailed by five points with six seconds remaining when Stewart heaved a Hail Mary pass 64 yards to Michael Westbrook to win after time expired, 27-26.
But focus your eyes on the replay and you’ll see Salaam level a key block right before a would-be sack on Stewart.
“He cared about his friends a lot. He would do anything for you,” Russell said.
After the Chicago Bears drafted Salaam in the first round in 1995, he rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns. At 21, he was the youngest NFL rookie to run for more than 1,000 yards. An ankle injury set him off course, though, and he never reached that height again.
But if Salaam’s memory survives in just one football play, let it be a tackle when Brown’s Steelers faced the Bears on a frigid day in Chicago:
“I’d missed a few games before that with a high ankle sprain,” Brown recalled. “And at some point during the game, I tackled him and he got up and said, ‘I’m just so happy to see you out here!’
“Those are words that are rarely said on a football field,” Brown said. “And in the midst of my pain and the cold weather, I couldn’t help but laugh and smile and tap him on the head and say, ‘I’m happy you’re out here too, man.’ “
Denver Post staff writer Nick Kosmider contributed to this report.
Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam, pictured in 1994 posing with his Heisman Trophy at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York, was found dead Monday night in a park in Boulder. He was 42.
Rashaan Salaam playfully poses as a Heisman Trophy, which he won in 1994, during a photo shoot prior to the announcement of the winner.