Best of the best T

When the Colorado Buf­faloes reigned supreme, Rashaan Salaam was the king and helped mark a high point in the school’s foot­ball his­tory

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Groke

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.

As­so­ci­ated Press file

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.

John Leyba, Den­ver Post

Rashaan Salaam play­fully poses as a Heis­man Tro­phy, which he won in 1994, dur­ing a photo shoot prior to the an­nounce­ment of the win­ner.

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