Photo: Rashaan Salaam with the 49ers
Note: My Union-Tribune story from March 25, 2003 at the start of Rashaan Salaam’s rookie year.
By Tom Shanahan, Staff Writer
BOCA RATON, Fla. – Rashaan Salaam is discussing the mistakes he made in the NFL, and his hopes for a comeback at age 28. As he drives his Land Rover to a nearby high school for a workout under the humid Florida sun, he peeks over his right shoulder and breaks into a smile.
"The truth is, nobody has been calling," Salaam says.
It's a matter-of-fact smile. His tone of voice lacks bitterness, frustration or embarrassment. He makes eye contact. He doesn't sidestep questions about his marijuana use.
"I've been clean for four years," he said. "I got injured and depressed, and I let that stuff bring me down. I wasn't motivated."
The 1994 Heisman Trophy winner from Colorado and high school All-American at La Jolla Country Day has accepted that he no longer has a name that opens football doors.
Even in 1999, when his star had dimmed from missing 1998 with a broken fibula and disappointing '96 and '97 seasons with nagging injuries and fumble-itis, the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns took his calls.
But the Raiders kept Tyrone Wheatley over Salaam, cutting him at the end of training camp. The Browns signed him for only two games before waiving him.
Now, after three seasons out of the NFL, Salaam is trying to get back into the league.
He was training for a workout before NFL scouts at Colorado's "pro day" in Boulder. Salaam has been in Florida since November, when he decided he couldn't condition himself living in San Diego. He drove to Boca Raton to enroll in Cris Carter's FAST Program.
He arrived weighing 240 pounds, 20 over his playing weight.
"He told us he needed someone to push him, and we told him we'd drag it out of him," said Frank Ceresoli, a trainer at Cris Carter's. "He didn't show up one day, and we called him to see where he was. We told him we're going to hold him accountable. I've seen the dedication and desire in him since then."
Salaam weighs 220 again, but he says it's not the same poundage he carried when he set a Chicago Bears rookie rushing record in 1995 with 1,074 yards.
"I'm a more cut 220," he said, claiming to be in the best shape of his life.
Even though Salaam's Heisman season was nearly a decade ago, he doesn't turn 29 until Oct. 9. And he's never had knee or ankle surgery.
"My legs are fresh," he said. "I'll do anything an NFL team wants. I'll play special teams." Though Salaam was hoping for a jaw-dropping workout at pro day, he didn't get it. He was timed by scouts at 4.56 in the 40. Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil didn't recognize the new-look Salaam. "It didn't dawn on me it was him," he said.
LONG CHRISTMAS BREAK
Salaam's rookie season with the Bears ended on Dec. 24. In addition to the 1,000-yard season and 10 touchdowns, his 296 carries was a rookie club record."
Then he didn't work out again until mid-March. That was the beginning of the end in Chicago. When he struggled in '96 and '97 and read criticism in newspapers and heard it on talk radio, he withdrew.
"I was immature," Salaam said. "I didn't respect playing in the NFL. I shut people out. You can't do that in a city like Chicago, the way they love their sports teams. You make enemies."
Bill McCartney coached Salaam for three seasons at Colorado, retiring after Salaam's Heisman season. He says the out-of-shape Salaam with a reputation as a sullen pro athlete wasn't the man he knew.
"Rashaan doesn't have blazing speed, but he's quick and a strong runner," McCartney said. "In order for him to have the quickness he needs, he can't be in anything less than his best shape."
Salaam went down the road in 1999 of accepting responsibility for his attitude in Chicago. But back then, he would say the right things without making eye contact, with his head bowed and with embarrassment in his voice.
Now he speaks with the upbeat tone of someone who has conditioned his brain and body at the same time.
"I have no one to blame but myself," Salaam said.
Kippy Brown is a former Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator who last year returned to the NFL as the Houston Texans' wide receivers coach. But in the spring of 2001, Brown was head coach of the Memphis Maniax when Salaam played for him in the short-lived XFL.
Brown says Salaam would be an NFL resurrection story similar to quarterback Tommy Maddox -- who went from the XFL to the Pittsburgh Steelers -- if a shoulder nerve injury hadn't ended his season.
In six XFL games, Salaam carried 114 times for 528 yards (4.6 yard average) and five touchdowns. He ran for 122 yards and one touchdown in the rain in a win over Los Angeles Xtreme before leaving with his injury.
"I don't think there is any doubt he's still big enough and strong enough and quick enough to be a 1,000-yard rusher in the NFL," Brown said.
The Maniax player personnel director was Steve Ortmayer, whose NFL experience includes serving as the Chargers' general manager. "I'm a big supporter of Rashaan's after the year I had with him in Memphis," Ortmayer said. "It's a complete mystery to me that he's not with an NFL team. I don't know what NFL teams are thinking. He should be at the top of the list of a lot of teams."
Brown said he recommended Salaam to the Texans, but the front office hasn't acted. Brown suspects Salaam's Chicago years and the marijuana use still haunt him.
Ortmayer said economics work against Salaam, too. He would have to be paid the NFL four-year veteran minimum of $455,000.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
Salaam says he first tried marijuana at Colorado. The Bears said Salaam never failed an NFL drug test, and McCartney says Salaam never failed one at Colorado.
Salaam laughs when told people at Country Day will be happy to hear he didn't try marijuana until college.
"That school saved my life," he said, adding he's seen what has happened to childhood friends who didn't escape the gangs and drugs of his neighborhood. "My mom made me go to Country Day, but I wanted to go to Lincoln," Salaam said. "I wanted to be like Steve Taylor and Darrin Wagner at Lincoln."
Salaam's money from the original $3.8 million contract he signed is safely invested without buying extravagant houses and multiple cars. His home is a townhouse in Scripps Ranch and his car is a '97 Land Rover.
"I have to thank Judy Hamilton, my accountant," Salaam said. "She put my money in the right stuff. It isn't about money. My heart says it's not over for me. I want to play in the NFL again."
Salaam is walking off the practice field at Pope John Paul High in Boca Raton, where he's finished agility and ball drills with eight other athletes enrolled in Cris Carter's program. Most are like Salaam -- sans the Heisman hardware and first-round draft history -- hoping for an NFL opportunity.
But one is Charles Rogers, the Michigan State wide receiver projected as a top-three pick.
"That guy doesn't need my advice," Salaam says in response to a question. "He's more mature than I was at that age."
Then he flashes that same matter-of-fact smile.
"I told Chuck, `Mention me to the team that drafts you
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.