Salaam carried more than ball
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