Recalling Heisman RB Rashaan Salaam: A gentle young man, now dead at age 42

Rashaan Salaam

By John Mullin, csnchicago.com

The thing that stood out about Rashaan Salaam to this reporter was the genuine humility that once prompted him to ask, “Why do you want to talk to me? I haven’t done anything yet. You should talk to these guys,” gesturing down the locker-room way toward some of his offensive linemen.

So on Tuesday when the news hit that Salaam had been found dead of undetermined causes in a Boulder, Colo., park at age 42, the first thought, after abject disbelief, was what kind of young man the Bears’ 1995 first-round draft choice was. And your mind goes back to Andy Heck, one of those offensive linemen, saying after Salaam had suffered a knee injury in a game at Cincinnati, that “Rashaan didn’t say anything, just was there in the huddle, his leg actually shaking from what must have been the pain.”

Salaam had won the 1994 Heisman Trophy as a running back topping 2,000 rushing yards with Kordell Stewart and the Colorado Buffaloes. “He was very coachable,” former Colorado coach Bill McCartney said, via the school’s website. “He had a happy heart. I loved being around him. He didn’t take himself too seriously, and he always credited those around him, especially his offensive line. What I liked about him is that he had a sparkle in his eye. He was upbeat and positive.”

Bears then-personnel chief Rod Graves made Salaam the 21st pick of the 1995 first round, and Salaam proceeded to then have one of the great rookie seasons in Bears history – 1,074 rushing yards (then a Bears rookie record, since eclipsed by Matt Forte and Anthony Thomas), and 10 touchdowns (exceeded only by Gale Sayers). Salaam was named NFC offensive rookie of the year.

But his year was marked by 10 fumbles (or nine, depending on the source), which became the lasting recollection of a season in which Salaam, Erik Kramer, Curtis Conway and Jeff Graham set franchise records for offense but missed the playoffs.

Salaam never completely shook free of the knee issues, giving way to Raymont Harris over the next two seasons before he left as a free agent (he had signed just a three-year rookie deal, gambling on reaching free agency sooner) after rushing for just 608 yards combined for 1996-97. After stops with Green Bay and Cleveland in 1999, Salaam played briefly in Canada and finished his football with the Toronto Argonauts in 2004.

He managed his money and was comfortable in retirement. But he confided to former colleague Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune several years ago that his partying and use of marijuana contributed to his downfall as a player. “I had no discipline,” Salaam said. “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 better you get, the harder you have to work. The better I got, the lazier I got.”

Salaam told Pro Football Weekly a couple of years ago that he remained a Bears fan. “It’s always great sitting down every Sunday to watch the Bears play,” Salaam said.

“Legendary organization, gave me my chance 19 years ago, so they’ll always be very dear to my heart.”

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