Brian Howell / BuffZone.com
Brian Howell / BuffZone.com
As he got his suit and tie on Wednesday evening and then drove to the Hilton Denver City Center, former Colorado football star T.J. Cunningham couldn’t wait to honor his former teammate.
His only regret was that Rashaan Salaam wouldn’t be there to enjoy the moment.
“I was like, ‘Man, I wish this was something I could tell Rashaan,’ or I wish this was something he could have seen for himself,” Cunningham said.
The late Salaam was one of six people inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame on Wednesday. Others honored were former Ridgway High School girls basketball star Tracy Hill, legendary Fairview High football coach Sam Pagano, Colorado State legend Alex Burl, two-time national champion football coach Joe Glenn of Northern Colorado and former Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
One of the greatest to ever play at CU, Salaam had perhaps the best single season of any collegiate football player in the state. In 1994, he rushed for 2,055 yards and 24 touchdowns and captured the Heisman Trophy, awarded to the top player in college football.
The 51st member of the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame with CU ties, Salaam is still the only in-state player to win the Heisman.
“When he was first recruited, he was a dynamo,” said former CU head coach Bill McCartney, who was inducted into the Hall in 1999. “He had a bounce in his step and a fire in his belly. He was just one of those guys that wasn’t just athletic, but he was very competitive.
“It blesses me that he’s going to get honored and remembered and appreciated, because he was a difference maker. When you get him, you got something and everybody knew it. There was never any question that he was going to distinguish himself.”
A first-round draft choice of the Chicago Bears in 1995, Salaam rushed for 1,074 yard and 10 touchdowns as a rookie, but his career went downhill from there. By 1999, he was out of the NFL.
Friends and former teammates have said that Salaam often carried the burden of being the Heisman Trophy winner and felt he left people down by not living up to the hype in the NFL. He took his own life on Dec. 5, 2016, at the age of 42.
In his honor, CU retired his No. 19 jersey last season, and now he will be enshrined in the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.
“He would have loved seeing his name on the stadium, being at the banquet tonight,” former CU quarterback and current Buffs running backs coach Darian Hagan said. “He would have really enjoyed himself.”
Salaam and the other inductees were honored with portrait paintings, displayed on easels around the room. Salaam’s mother, Khalada Salaam-Alaji, stood and admired the painting of her son.
“I love this picture; I really do,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
So was Salaam, who had a smile and personality that many described as “infectious.”
“When you have that kind of success and then you’re genuinely humble; that combination is rare,” McCartney said. “Guys like that, you just really admire and trust them.”
That admiration for Salaam and the honors he’s receiving posthumously have helped his mother.
“It’s a wonderful honor and it really makes our family feel that he was really appreciated,” she said. “I think he went to the Hall of Fame because he was such a nice person. Besides the Heisman, I think it was because people liked him.
“We just realize that we had a very famous son in Colorado. It is tragic and I’m trying to deal with all of this, but this is wonderful.”
Cunningham believes Salaam would have enjoyed the honors but would have been more focused on how he could have used them to make an impact on others.
“Our mission is to make sure this isn’t in vain,” Cunningham said. “Each one of us, first we have to look within ourselves and see what we’re going to do to help people. How are we going to improve society? How are we not going to repeat these things? That’s what he would want.”
Often thinking of others, Salaam didn’t always want the spotlight, but had he been there on Wednesday, Salaam-Alaji has no doubt he would have enjoyed it.
“He would have given them that little wink,” she said with a smile.