Salaam car­ried more than ball

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - Mark Kiszla: mk­is­zla@den­ver­post.com or @markkis­zla

In the end, did Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner Rashaan Salaam know how many peo­ple loved him?

“I called Rashaan three or four days ago. Hadn’t seen him in a while, and I just wanted to check how he was do­ing. Left him a mes­sage. And he never called me back,” for­mer Univer­sity of Colorado team­mate John Hessler said Tues­day, when the shock­ing news of Salaam’s death at age 42 spread through the Buffs fam­ily like wild­fire.

Po­lice found his life­less body in a Boul­der park less than 2 miles from Fol­som Field, where a quick, pow­er­ful run­ning back cre­ated the im­pres­sion he could out­run any­body and noth­ing could stop him as Salaam rushed for more than 2,000 yards in 1994.

Salaam died alone on a Mon­day night nearly 22 years from the an­niver­sary date of his proud­est foot­ball mo­ment, when a CU ju­nior wrapped the Heis­man in a blue blan­ket, gen­tly placed it on the first-class seat next to him and flew back to Colorado.

“He was the most pow­er­ful man I ever saw with a foot­ball in his hands,” re­called Hessler, who was a red­shirt fresh­man yet to play a down for CU when Salaam led the Buf­faloes to an 11-1 record. “Rashaan Salaam was a beast. Back then, when I watched Rashaan run, I hon­estly thought: ‘Did some­body make a mis­take? Did they send me straight from high school to the NFL?’ He was that good.”

Po­lice sus­pect Salaam killed him­self. His mother said Salaam left be­hind an ap­par­ent sui­cide note. No mat­ter what’s ul­ti­mately re­vealed as the cause of death, the rest of us are left to ask: Why?

“He had a happy heart,” said Bill McCart­ney, the CU coach that struck gold in Cal­i­for­nia when he found Salaam as a teenager play­ing eight-man foot­ball.

I re­mem­ber Jan. 2, 1995, like it was yes­ter­day, with Salaam trot­ting off the field at the Fi­esta Bowl af­ter trounc­ing Notre Dame. He wore a smile big enough to take on the world. “There’s noth­ing left for me to do at the col­lege level,” he de­clared, then bolted for fame and riches as a first-round draft

choice by the Chicago Bears.

Years af­ter his NFL ca­reer was cut short by what Salaam ad­mit­ted was too much love for mar­i­juana, too lit­tle com­mit­ment to stay­ing in shape and one too many blows to his pow­er­ful legs, he would hap­pily strike the Heis­man pose with a bold stranger who asked to take a selfie with him on the Pearl Street Mall.

So why would Salaam check out? We don’t get it. We sel­dom do, maybe be­cause the last thing a foot­ball star ever wants to show is pain. You gotta play hurt, right?

“I can’t be­lieve he killed him­self,” said Hessler, giv­ing voice to the same be­wil­der­ment felt by any­body who ever watched Salaam bounce off tackle and run to day­light. “I can’t be­lieve he thought sui­cide was the an­swer. It’s never the an­swer.”

The Heis­man Tro­phy is cast in bronze, but the life of a man who wins it is not paved in gold. Salaam con­quered the foot­ball world at age 20. That left a life­time of morn­ings to wake up and not have 50,000 peo­ple cheer­ing him on.

The Heis­man weighs 25 pounds. Yes, it’s a big prize. And it can also be a heavy bur­den to carry. Salaam got tired. Let him sleep.

MARK KISZLA Den­ver Post Colum­nist

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