SALAAM HAD BECOME WITHDRAWN
“My whole life, up until the Chicago Bears, everything was perfect,” Rashaan Salaam once said. A look at the life and death of the CU football legend. »1CC
Rashaan Salaam snapped awake in the middle of the night with a burn in his chest. Even hundreds of miles away and playing in the NFL, he ached for the warmth of a family. His college position coach, Ben Gregory, died in Boulder of a heart attack that April night in 1997. And, Salaam later said, he could feel it in Chicago.
Through an unlikely climb from small-school, eightman football, to 1994 Heisman Trophy winner with the University of Colorado, then to the NFL, the one steady piece of Salaam’s too-short life was a relentless attachment to the people who let him be Rashaan. And he missed them.
“I can picture him so clearly sitting on the couch in our living room, watching TV and talking with my dad,” said Brooke Gregory, Ben’s daughter. “He could have been a cousin of mine. He was so comfortable with our family. There was no expectation of him being on or being judged. It was just a place that felt easy.”
Dogged for years as a bust after he bounced out of the NFL, despite a record-setting rookie season with the Bears, Salaam, perhaps the greatest player in the history of college football in Colorado, eventually returned to Boulder. But he could never go home again.
Police found Salaam dead last Monday night, alone with a gun, 9News reported, next to his idling car in a Boulder public park. His death is thought to be a suicide. He was 42 years old.
Salaam rushed for 2,055 yards in 1994 on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy, awarded to college football’s best player. His final 67 yards came at Folsom Field in Boulder on one long touchdown run.
He died 22 years later, less than 2 miles from the Buffs’ stadium, and just five days before this year’s Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York.
“My whole life, up until the Chicago Bears, everything was perfect,” Salaam once said.
Salaam, in the more than a decade since his football career ended, seemed in a constant search for something from his past Colorado life. Four years ago he moved to
Superior, near Boulder, and started helping at-risk kids. But beginning last summer, and more so over the past month, his friends went looking for Salaam.
“He had become more of a recluse,” said his friend, Riley Hawkins. “That’s when the demons took over.”
Salaam partnered with Hawkins in 2012 in support of the SPIN Foundation (Supporting People in Need), a mentoring program for kids. After Salaam washed out of the NFL, he carried self-imposed guilt about unmet potential. And he wanted to help kids avoid the same problems.
Salaam was most at peace, Hawkins said, when he was working with the kids in the SPIN program. In April 2015, Salaam funded a trip for at-risk students to Aspen. Many of them put skis on for the first time, and in a video of the trip produced by the foundation, Salaam, “the big kid,” could be seen sliding down the mountain next to them, smiling the whole way.
“He would meet individually with kids and talk about the things that he had been through, but also the things he was experiencing and how he was trying to turn it around,” Hawkins said. “Part of that was him being involved and finding his place with kids and students, and not putting as much light on the Heisman piece but putting more light on how to be a better person and how to change.”
Salaam was an obvious firstround draft pick into the NFL when the Bears picked him 21st overall in 1995. And in his first pro season, Salaam rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns. At age 21, he was the youngest rookie to run for more than 1,000 yards.
His second season in the NFL was less fruitful, with 496 yards, then he played in just five games with three teams over the next three years. Salaam blamed himself, saying he smoked too much marijuana.
“I had no discipline,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I had all the talent in the world. You know, great body, great genes. But I had no work ethic and I had no discipline.”
The truth is less indicting. Salaam broke his leg during the third game of the 1997 season and also injured an ankle. No amount of extra work can cure a broken leg. But Salaam often deflected.
When he become just the fourth player in college history to surpass 2,000 yards in a season, he was finally tackled by his own teammates in the end zone. Michael Westbrook and Chris Naeole dogpiled on top of him. A mob of CU players tried to carry Salaam on their shoulders. Salaam said no.
“He just wanted to be one of the guys, a big kid playing a child’s game,” Kordell Stewart, a senior quarterback that season, one year ahead of Salaam, told The Associated Press. “He didn’t care about his accomplishments. He cared about the people around him.”
Salaam withdrew from his friends. Stewart tried and failed to meet him last summer in Boulder. Hawkins tried to get Salaam to greet some kids at the Buffs’ homecoming game in October. And Westbrook, a wide receiver at CU when Salaam played for the Buffs, couldn’t find him before a CU Hall of Fame event last month.
“Over the last five or six years, it was a bit of a journey trying to figure out where he was and what was going on and what direction his life was taking him,” said Chad Brown, a star linebacker at CU and Salaam’s teammate from 1992-93.
Salaam seemed to be suffering from manic depression, Hawkins said.
“I think there were some things he wanted to accomplish, but it was just the whole process of how to go about it,” Hawkins said. “When you’re not getting certain needs met, then you become a little more reclusive. I think that’s when the demons took over.”
Salaam was the son of former Cincinnati Bengals running back Teddy Washington, who later changed his name to Sulton Salaam. Rashaan was raised by his mother, Khalada, and his stepdad in San Diego. And his football lineage was never predetermined.
Khalada pressed her son to attend La Jolla Country Day school outside San Diego, despite the nearly two-hour bus ride each way, and not because of its football team. Rashaan played on the small school’s eight-man football team — not an obvious bedrock for major-college recruiting.
But legendary CU coach Bill McCartney brought him to Boulder as part of the Buffs’ 1992 freshman class, a great group that included eight future NFL players. Two years after CU won a national championship, the newest team seemed set for even more, with Salaam as the centerpiece.
“He was a dominant player,” said Matt Russell, a star linebacker in Salaam’s class and now the director of player personnel for the Broncos. “He was one of the best I’ve ever played against — high school, college or pro. He gave everything he had.”
After the NFL, Salaam stayed with football, playing for the Memphis Maniax of the nowdefunct XFL and the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. When football ended, he became an entrepreneur, starting a mixed martial arts promotion company that he eventually sold.
“Rashaan was such a kind, good person,” Brooke Gregory said. “It was easy for my dad to like his players, but it was much harder to earn his respect. Rashaan is a player who earned his respect because of how he handled himself and how he talked about his teammates.”
At his Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York in 1994, Salaam was asked to give a speech. It was light on insight and long on saying thank you. He thanked God and his mom and stepdad. He thanked his CU coach, McCartney, and every player on the Buffs’ offensive line. He thanked just about everybody who ever helped him along his way.
“He cared about his friends a lot,” Russell said. “He would do anything for you. He was always leading the fight song in the locker room. He just cared.”
Salaam’s funeral Friday at the Islamic Center of Boulder drew hundreds of mourners, including many former teammates. When he climbed down off the shoulders of his teammates after that long touchdown run in 1994, he wanted to be eye to eye with his family. Six of those teammates carried his coffin to the Mountain View Memorial Park cemetery.
“He was trying to save a few lives,” Hawkins said. “But he had trouble saving his own.”
Rashaan Salaam, who died last week in Boulder of an apparent suicide at age 42, was an unstoppable force at running back for the CU Buffaloes and won the 1994 Heisman Trophy. Cliff Grassmick, Daily Camera file
From left, wide receiver Michael Westbrook, running back Rashaan Salaam and quarterback Kordell Stewart helped make Colorado football a national power in the 1990s. Paul Aiken, Daily Camera file