Rooney: Rashaan Salaam tragedy a stark reminder of life’s travails

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
The University of Colorado Football Legacy Hall was opened up on Wednesday for people to pay their respects to the late Rashaan Salaam.

As it always does, inevitably, the sun broke through in Boulder Friday.

The snow started to melt. The deep freeze that blanketed the region began to thaw.

Even so, the return of the warmth and the light did nothing to erase the dark pall that settled over the University of Colorado and the surrounding community this week.

On Friday one of the greatest Buffaloes — in many ways the greatest — was laid to rest. The death of Rashaan Salaam by an apparent suicide was a painful jolt for all who watched him achieve feats best described as Herculean, often while flashing a smile that made it easy to assume Salaam was the sort of guy who would always have it all.

For a generation of Buffaloes fans “The Rise” authored by the resurgent CU football team this fall spurred proud memories of glory years buried by a decade of gridiron malaise yet never forgotten. Certainly the 1990 national championship shines the brightest in those memories. Individually, however, Salaam’s 1994 Heisman Trophy season was the sort of magical accomplishment fans and teammates alike continued to treasure long after their lives moved along.

Sadly, it was that same accomplishment from which Salaam was never quite able to move on.

“Why?” of course always is the prevailing question after these tragedies, which continue to occur at an alarming rate with former football players who were supposed to have far too much life still ahead. Junior Seau. Andre Waters. Dave Duerson. The heartbreaking list keeps getting longer.

Time will only tell if Salaam was dealing with CTE, the marker of lingering head trauma believed to have led to the suicides of those former NFL players and many more. Regardless, if there is a stark reminder to be gleaned from this tragedy it’s that life is hard. It’s as hard for the guy sitting on top of the world when his entire team mobs him in the corner of the end zone after surpassing the milestone 2,000-yard mark as it is for Joe Fan cheering from the 30th row, absorbing the glorious memory created by his favorite player on his favorite team before returning to the 50 hour-a-week job that barely feeds his family.

We cannot eliminate suicides from society any more than concussions can be completely vanquished from the great sport of football. Yet maybe the world can be just a little bit better of a place if even one person uses Salaam’s tragedy to find the courage to step out from his or her personal shadows to seek help.

“Regular people do it (commit suicide) and then you have someone as popular and as known as Rashaan, and he does it,” said CU running backs coach Darian Hagan, one of the heroes of the 1990 national championship season and one of several friends who have admitted it had been hard to contact Salaam lately.

“The point is, anybody can do it. People need to understand you’re not alone even when you think you are. You can get out of your comfort zone. You can ask for help. Especially men. Men tend to bottle everything up and they tend to not want anyone to know they’re vulnerable. I tell my players all the time: ‘Hell, be vulnerable. Ask for somebody’s help. Don’t be afraid.’ I tell my guys all the time — don’t ever think you’re alone or you’re not loved.”

I have a Salaam memory.

Unfortunately I never got a chance to watch him in person at CU. But I was finishing up my senior year of college in Chicago when the Bears drafted him in the spring of 1995 and had been released into the free-from-school adult world when Salaam earned the NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year award that fall.

The Bears had some downright dreadful teams in the 1990s. Yet the ’95 bunch, though they fell just short of the playoffs, was a wildly entertaining team that set several since-broken offensive team records. Salaam played a big role in those marks, rushing for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns. He had the look of a burgeoning workhorse, netting at least 20 carries in eight games and averaging 26.3 attempts and 120.3 yards over the final three games of the season.

Alas, he also coughed up the ball. A lot. Which led to an offseason around the Windy City where any discussion of the Bears offense began with some form of the caveat, “Man, if Salaam can just hold on to the ball…”

It didn’t happen. Salaam never reached the potential he displayed that rookie season. Later he admitted chronic marijuana use as a contributing factor to his rapid NFL decline, which perhaps began the battle with personal demons that ended with a despondent Salaam alone with a gun on Dec. 5 in Boulder’s Eben G. Fine Park.

I was at a preseason game at Soldier Field in 1996 when, in a monsoon that would cause anyone to fumble, Salaam lost the ball once again near the goal line. Boos poured down with the rain. Possibly over-served and definitely years away from owning the sort of journalistic distance where one can separate rationale from passion, I probably was booing too.

For that, Rashaan, I’m sorry.

Pat Rooney: or