Photo: Rashaan Salaam with the Bears
Rashaan Salaam’s life ended at a park located just two miles from Colorado’s Folsom Field, the scene of his greatest football days. The police have informed his family a suicide note and gun were found alongside the body of the 1994 Heisman Trophy winner.
That may be the coroner’s report on how he died at age 42, but I don’t believe it. A broken heart from an NFL career viewed as failing to live up to the Heisman he won 22 years ago this week cruelly and unfairly killed his spirit.
He is far from the only Heisman winner that failed to find NFL success, but how his career and later his comeback attempt were labeled made it hard for Salaam to accept.
I first met Salaam as high school All-American running back that ran over and past people at La Jolla Country Day in San Diego. I interviewed him many times over the years, including a series two years ago on the 20th anniversary of his Heisman Trophy season.
He had an easy smile, but he was more sensitive than he let people know.
Salaam was the Bears’ first-round draft pick in 1995. He didn’t turn 21 until the middle of the season, so 1,074 yards rushing as a rookie was promising. But the Bears were in a rebuilding phase, and he lacked the type of personality at that age to carry the media load.
He enjoyed being the alpha male with the ball in his hands, but he was content to be one of the guys the rest of the time.
Instead of improving upon his rookie year, his career was soon ended by a severe leg injury, a loss of confidence, too many fumbles and a decision to go public about his marijuana use.
He later told me that comeback interview backfired on him.
When Salaam tried to make a comeback in 2003 with the San Francisco 49ers, he got himself in his best shape since his rookie year. He spent the offseason working out at Chris Carter’s Fast Camp in Boca Raton, Florida.
As the 49ers’ training camp opened, he sat down for an interview with ESPN’s Solomon Wilcots. He believed if he was honest about his marijuana use and the need to improve his work ethic, it would earn him credit toward turning around his career.
Instead of a story about earnest effort, the headline that went viral was his marijuana use. That hardly made him a loner in the NFL, but he was forever labeled a pothead. He was cut before the season started.
In 2011, a story hit the media that he sold his Heisman rings for $9,000. Rumors spread that he was another broke athlete.
The truth was that Salaam had placed the bulk of his money from his original NFL contract in safe investments through a suburban San Diego investment firm. When we worked on his 20th anniversary Heisman series, he told me his father sold the rings without telling him.
But nothing hung over Salaam like the marijuana story. He wasn’t marketable. It’s why you never saw him among the old-timers in those Nissan Heisman House commercials despite his megawatt smile.
You have to understand Salaam was one of three Heisman Trophy winners from San Diego. The other two were NFL stars. That added to the burden he felt.
One, Marcus Allen, won the Heisman, the NFL MVP and the Super Bowl MVP. He’s in the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
The other, Ricky Williams, won the Heisman, played 11 NFL seasons with 10,009 yards rushing, and was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2015. Williams had his own marijuana-use reputation, but his NFL comeback was successful. That’s how he left the game and escaped the cloud.
Reggie Bush was a fourth San Diego Heisman winner in 2005 until he had his award stripped for an improper benefits scandal. But even with that disgrace, his NFL star shined enough that the NFL media wrote more appreciatively of him than Salaam.
The only place Salaam was accepted for his great Heisman Trophy season – he was just the fourth player to rush for 2,000 yards in a regular season – was in Boulder, Colorado’s campus town. Colorado Associate Athletic Director/Sports Information Director Dave Plati, a real pro, made Salaam feel welcome on campus and in town. Rashaan felt appreciated at events by Colorado fans.
As Salaam came to terms with his life, he tried to share his mistakes. He started the Denver-based SPIN Foundation. I used this quote from him in a 2014 story:
“The goal of the SPIN Foundation will be to help kids turn a negative into a positive and not turn a positive into a negative,” Salaam said. “I really believe each kid has a gift, and it’s up to them to position themselves to fulfill their gifts.”
His foundation work and two other stories I want to share with you made me believe he had finally put his NFL disappointment behind him.
In another life, I worked at the San Diego Hall of Champions. I asked Salaam if he wanted to donate his Heisman Trophy for public display at the museum. He loved the idea.
To thank him, I invited him to a museum luncheon featuring Jim Harbaugh, then the head football coach at the University of San Diego. At the luncheon, an attendee asked me, “Is that Rashaan Salaam?” I told him it was and to ask him for his autograph.
Soon, others lined up. Rashaan enjoyed the moment.
“See,” I told him. “You’re still the Heisman Trophy winner.”
A couple of years later San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk was inducted into the San Diego Hall of Fame. The San Diego Chargers’ LaDanian Tomlinson and the Denver Broncos’ Terrell Davis – who is from San Diego’s Lincoln High and was previously enshrined in the San Diego Hall – attended to celebrate with their friend.
A different path from Rashaan Salaam: San Diego State running back Marshall Faulk runs up the middle as he is stopped by an unidentified University of Miami defensive player in the second quarter at the Orange Bowl Saturday, November 30, 1991. At right is Miami Hurricane linebacker Michael Barrow. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)
I wanted a photo for the Hall of all them together with Rashaan and his prize. They posed and caressed Salaam’s Heisman in awe. Marshall had finished second in the 1992 Heisman voting, Tomlinson fourth in 2001 and Davis wasn’t a college star.
Standing a step back and taking in the scene was Rashaan with a grin ear-to-ear. Three of the greatest NFL running backs were envious of his prize. Faulk works for the NFL Network and the cameras were there to roll; somewhere it has that video.
Forgive me if the above stories sound self-serving, but when writers have special information, they’re taught to share it.
So what went wrong with Salaam rebuilding his life? It’s hard for anyone to understand how someone reaches such a dark place.
One person that can describe it better than anyone for a famous athlete is Bill Walton, the Basketball Hall of Famer who also is from San Diego.
Bill Walton has lived with enormous pain, the kind of pain Rashaan Salaam couldn’t endure.
In Walton’s recent book, “Back from the Dead,” he writes about the physical pain he endured from a collapsed spine that had him living on the floor for two and a half years. He admits he contemplated suicide.
He writes that the music died in his mind, but he finally came out of it. He hears the music of life again.
I sent Bill an email asking if he could describe for this story to readers how Rashaan might have reached such a dark place. Instead of providing me a quote, he asked me to use the quote he gave San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Nick Canepa for his story about the 2012 suicide death of Junior Seau, the Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker from San Diego.
I could never get from Junior that there was pain. He never portrayed that to me. I have failed Junior; I have let him down. But, oh, my gosh, I can tell you that people called me every day trying to help. I’d hang up on them. I turned my back on them. I know now there is a way out; a space. But on the outside, you never saw that something was different with Junior. Now he’s gone, and I am sad I didn’t help.”
Walton, of course, is too hard on himself in relation to Seau, but sometimes the way you say something the first time is just right.
The part about Seau not portraying he was in pain helps explain Salaam drifting away from his friends in Colorado. The part about Walton refusing support from his friends helps us understand, too.
The last time I spoke with Salaam was a little less than a year ago. I reminded him the College Hall of Fame ballots were out and he should vote for himself. When he was first on the ballot a couple years ago, I wasn’t sure how he would respond when I told him. He was thrilled and hopeful.
“That’s the greatest honor to make the Hall of Fame,” he said.
He hasn’t won election yet (hopefully next year’s class), but his reaction and his foundation work made me feel he had put the NFL behind him. It turns out he was still searching for a new identity.
Sadly, he didn’t accept the one he had. That was all he needed with or without the NFL success.
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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.
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