The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Nick Groke and Nick Kos­mider

“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

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