Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer
Paul Aiken/Staff Photographer
When he got the call earlier this week that his friend and former teammate has passed away, Chris Naeole didn’t hesitate to make plans to get to Boulder.
“I came to pay respects to my brother,” Naeole said.
Many others did the same on Friday, as former Colorado football star and 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam was honored and laid to rest.
Salaam was found dead in a Boulder park on Monday night in what is suspected to be suicide. He was 42.
An estimated 500 people gathered at the Islamic Center of Boulder, including members of Salaam’s family, legendary CU head coach Bill McCartney, dozens of former CU players and current administrators.
Many of Salaam’s CU teammates, including Naeole, Derek West, Michael Westbrook, T.J. Cunningham and Matt Russell were on hand. CU athletic director Rick George, associate athletic director Lance Carl, chancellor Phil DiStefano and sports information director David Plati were also in attendance.
“It’s sad to come here to see everybody like this,” said Naeole, who currently coaches the offensive line at Hawai’i. “But whatever I could do to come see my brother before they laid him to rest.
“There’s a lot of good memories. I sat down with my wife the other day and just went back and looked at pictures and reminisced about some great days and just our good friends.”
The funeral service, called jannazah, was held in conjunction with the weekly jummah congregational prayers at the ICB. Roughly half of those in attendance took part in the jummah.
Following the jannazah, Salaam was buried at Mountain View Memorial Park. Former teammates, including Naeole, West and Russell served as pallbearers.
At the cemetery, Salaam’s mother, Khalada Salaam-Alaji, gave a heart-felt thank you to all of those in attendance.
“It helps a lot,” she said.
Plenty of hugs were shared and tears flowed as friends and family greeted one another on Friday.
During the sermon, family and friends were urged to “feel comfort for his good works.”
The most famous of Salaam’s good works came on the football field, where he became a CU legend.
One of the greatest players to ever suit up in a CU uniform, Salaam was part of the famous 1992 recruiting class – “Nine-deuce,” as they are called – and many of his classmates were on hand Friday.
“McCartney brought us all in, but at the end of the day, we were a pretty tight-knit group, Nine-deuce,” Naeole said. “It’s good to see all of us here right now, paying their respects.”
That 1992 class was loaded with talent. In fact, it’s arguably the best class to ever come to CU. Salaam stood out even among that exceptional group.
In 1994, Salaam had one of the greatest seasons in program history. That year, he rushed for 2,055 yards and won the Heisman Trophy, presented annually to the top player in college football. He’s the only Buff to win the award.
Former CU stars Daniel Graham and Matt McChesney both attended Friday’s services. Both came to CU after Salaam left, but got a chance to know him in recent years.
Graham, who grew up in Denver, recalled that the first CU game he ever attended was on Nov. 19, 1994 – the day Salaam topped the 2,000-yard mark. McChesney, who went to nearby Niwot High School, said players like Salaam “were the reason I came to CU.”
Salaam’s good works went beyond the field.
While he had his share of personal struggles, he loved working with youth and helping them overcome their own struggles, operating through the Rashaan Salaam SPIN Foundation.
While Salaam’s death has left them shocked and saddened, family and friends on Friday remembered Salaam’s smile, his loyalty, his good heart and his love of good food.
“At the end of the day, I have a lot of great memories, a lot of great thoughts about my friend,” Naeole said. “I’m just glad to be here today and see him off.
“That’s all I can do is remember the best and celebrate his legacy.”