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Lasting legacy: Rashaan Salaam’s life still inspiring others

Three years after tragic death of 1994 Heisman Trophy winner, friends carrying on his passion for helping people

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Former Colorado football star and 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam was the grand marshall at the CU homecoming parade in 2014.
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Reluctant at first, Rashaan Salaam finally agreed to do an interview with BuffZone.com in December of 2014 to talk about the 20th anniversary of his Heisman Trophy-winning season of 1994 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

Courtesy photo / University of Colorado Athletics
Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam won the Heisman Trophy in 1994.

Over lunch at Boulder’s Fate Brewing Company, Salaam relaxed and talked about his childhood, his 1994 season, his post-college struggles and how he liked meeting some of his heroes – fellow running backs such as Tony Dorsett, George Rogers, Mike Rozier and Billy Sims – during the times he would return to New York City for the Heisman ceremony.

Salaam went to New York that year for the 20th anniversary of his award, but said, “They do something special for your 25th.”

Then, he smiled and added, “I’ve got five more years to get in shape.”

On Saturday, the Heisman Trophy, presented to the player voted as the best in college football, was awarded for the 85th time. On Sunday, at the annual Heisman Dinner Gala in Times Square, Salaam’s 25th anniversary will be celebrated with a video presentation. (Each year, the Gala recognizes the 10th, 25th and 50th anniversaries of the award).

Salaam’s mother, Khalada Salaam-Alaji, will be there in place of her son, who took his own life on Dec. 5, 2016, at the age of 42.

During the past three years, it has been well documented that Salaam battled depression. Winning the Heisman Trophy was a blessing and a curse for Salaam. He was honored to have won the award, but always felt he failed to live up to the expectations that came with it.

Staff photo
Rashaan Salaam had one of the greatest seasons in Colorado football history in 1994, rushing for 2,055 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Salaam rushed for 2,055 yards as a junior in 1994 – becoming just the fourth player in college football history to reach the 2,000-yard mark. He also led the country in scoring after finding the end zone 24 times. Salaam left CU after the 1994 season, skipping his senior year to enter the NFL draft.

Just 20 years old, Salaam was selected in the first round of the 1995 draft by the Chicago Bears and earned NFC rookie of the year honors after rushing for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns.

It was a swift decline from there. He became addicted to marijuana, suffered a leg injury in 1998 and admitted he was lazy as a pro. After his rookie year, Salaam played in just 17 more games, rushing for 610 more yards. He played in his final NFL game just nine days after his 25th birthday. After that, he was cut by three different teams, including his beloved Oakland Raiders, and had a short stint in the CFL.

In that 2014 interview with BuffZone, Salaam said the regret he had was, “Not being a hard worker. Not being dedicated to my craft. Not having the drive. I tried to get away with natural ability too much. I didn’t build on it. I was lazy.

“I just had a lot of mistakes, a lot of errors.”

In 1994, Jamey Crimmins was the athletic director of New York’s Downtown Athletic Club, which created the Heisman Trophy. He met Salaam at that time and they became close friends. Crimmins later became a sports marketing agent, with Salaam as one of his clients.

“I said to him, like I’ve said to a lot of people, ‘The Heisman Trophy, the only thing it says on the base of the trophy is that it’s awarded to the most outstanding college football player in the country,’” Crimmins said. “It doesn’t say, ‘Comma, who must then go on and have a great NFL career.’

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Rashaan Salaam’s Heisman Trophy is on display at CU’s Legacy Hall in The Champions Center.

“I know for a fact Rashaan did not go through his life cursing the fact and ruing the day that he won the Heisman Trophy. What I do think is that as years went by and he came back (to the Heisman ceremony), I think Rashaan was never comfortable with the fact that he didn’t live up to the hype.”

Salaam is one of only two players to die before the 25th anniversary of their Heisman season. The other was Iowa’s Nile Kinnick, who won the award in 1939 and was killed in an aviation accident four years later.

While Salaam was bothered by what he perceived as a failure to live up to expectations, that wasn’t the only source of his struggles.

Mike Tanner and his daughter, Cydney, were long-time friends of Salaam. They spent a lot of time with him, including in 2014, when the three of them routinely drove to the home of Bill McCartney, CU’s legendary, Hall of Fame coach, to watch college football on Saturdays. Salaam loved the get-togethers, which included pizza, grape soda and a lot of football talk.

Salaam was like a big brother to Cydney. Like everyone else in Salaam’s life, Cydney has spent the past three years coming to terms with his death.

“When you have depression, you’re constantly searching for a reason to live, an excuse to keep going, a reason to not throw in the towel,” Cydney said. “He just never found it; he never found a purpose.

“Had he found purpose, had he found that thing which he could live for, he would have changed so many lives.”

Salaam did, however, change lives and leave a lasting impression on many. The tragic end to Salaam’s life was the final chapter of his story, but not the last pages of his book. In fact, there is a triumphant epilogue being written on a daily basis as he continues, three years after his death, to impact people who loved him.

‘Everybody has value’

Maurice Henriques is the head coach of the Niwot High School track and field team and every day he has two visual reminders of Salaam.

Courtesy photo
Niwot High School track and field coach Maurice Henriques.

A safety from Hastings High School in Houston, Henriques was a part of CU’s 1992 football recruiting class with Salaam. They became friends during their time at CU, but during the spring game in 1994, Henriques tore his labrum trying to tackle Salaam.

“Every time my shirt is off and I see that scar, it’s like, ‘Yep, that was Rashaan,’” he said with a laugh.

Henriques also thinks about Salaam when he puts his glasses on in the morning. Soon after Salaam’s death, Henriques helped the family clean out Salaam’s apartment. Salaam’s mother gave Henriques her son’s glasses. He had the lenses changed for his prescription and still wears them every day.

Where Salaam has had the most impact on Henriques, however, is with the boys and girls he coaches at Niwot. Henriques has led the Cougars’ girls track team to four Class 4A state titles and the boys team to one since 2013. The boys and girls both won state last spring.

Courtesy photos
Niwot track and field coach Maurice Henriques, middle, poses with former Colorado football teammates Rashaan Salaam, left, and Kenny Wilkins.

Henriques has coached numerous stars at Niwot, but has taken a different approach to his job since Salaam’s death.

“What his loss has taught me is to have conversations about recognizing teammates when they’re struggling, and being a good teammate,” he said. “It’s not about the best or most accomplished person on your team. Everybody has value.

“(Salaam) just didn’t feel he had any value or anything to give back. That’s the part that just hurts me the most. For me, the more kids that I could just let them know that it’s not important – your popularity – that’s not what brings value. Everybody brings something to the table, everybody’s important. … That’s what it’s taught me personally. I feel like that’s my little way that I can honor Rashaan as a friend and a teammate, to make sure that everybody that I associate with feels value.”

Ironically, Salaam knew that, because he spent so much of his time helping others discover their value.

Empowering kids

Riley “Robert” Hawkins started the SPIN Foundation about 15 years ago and recruited Salaam to join him. In the final years of his life, Salaam worked with Hawkins to mentor students at Jefferson High School in Edgewater.

“I would love to go back and change some things, but I can’t,” Salaam told Buffzone in 2014. “I’m hoping to use my story to go and influence kids.”

As part of their work, Salaam and Hawkins organized a ski trip to Aspen in 2015, bringing Jefferson students and Metro area police officers together for a few days for a diversity leadership summit.

Courtesy photo
Rashaan Salaam, far left, with Jefferson High School students on a ski trip to Aspen in 2015.

“He was able to empower kids that were aspiring athletes or just students trying to better themselves,” Hawkins said. “He highly motivated kids that maybe had low self esteem or didn’t think that well of themselves.”

One of those kids was Oscar Lopez, who had numerous struggles in his youth, but worked hard to make a better life for himself. In 2017, just a few months after Salaam’s death, Lopez won a Class 3A state wrestling championship in the 220-pound weight class.

“Oscar Lopez was on our ski trip and he and Rashaan really got to know each other quite well,” Hawkins said. “Oscar ended up winning the state championship that year and he gave a lot of tribute to Rashaan. Oscar was able to talk about how he was motivated by Rashaan’s presence and also just hanging out like a buddy. It inspired him to win the state championship.”

Hawkins said Salaam’s legacy lives on with the SPIN program, which has continued at Jefferson. The program is a character education that aims to develop self esteem and self management in the youth. Salaam had passion for helping the youth, and as a tribute to him, another Aspen ski trip has been planned for April.

“We have graduates (from the SPIN program), kids that have become very successful,” Hawkins said. “They’re doing things that are very good for society. We’re quite proud of that and we were so honored to have Rashaan Salaam as long as we could, and I’ll never forget that.

“Sometimes you help others before you help yourself and sometimes you’re in denial about how crucial it is to get your own help and to get the support that you need. Sometimes I think with Rashaan, he was too busy trying to give. Rashaan was trying to save lives, but he just had a little trouble saving his own.”

Mental health awareness

For Cydney Tanner, Salaam’s continued impact has been more personal. A graduate of CU, she was working in the Buffs’ sports information department at the time of his death and had visions of a long career in sports public relations.

Courtesy photo
Cydney Tanner, center, with her father Mike, left, and former Colorado football star Rashaan Salaam.

During the past three years, however, Tanner has never been able to forget about Salaam’s struggles. Knowing football players at CU and in other stops along the way, she has seen the ups and downs in others, as well.

Salaam’s struggles have inspired Tanner to take a leap of faith and veer away from public relations, as she now aims for a master’s degree and a career in sports psychology.

“Rashaan was the catalyst from the jump, even when he was still alive,” she said. “I look at his life and I look at him and he so much helped me to see my purpose and he gives me the courage to fight my fear and my apprehension and my fear of the unknown.”

Since Salaam’s death, CU’s athletic department has had an increased focus on mental health with its student athletes. In addition, Buffs4Life, an organization formed in 2005 to support student-athlete alumni of CU, has changed its focus to mental health over the past couple of years. The shift in those programs was not solely because of Salaam’s death, but both came about with Salaam in mind.

Tanner is proud to see CU, and the sports world in general, recognizing the need for mental health professionals working with athletes. She knows Salaam would have done his part to help.

“That’s all Rashaan wanted to do was to help people,” she said. “That’s where he lit up. He was just trying to find an outlet to give of his love in a way that didn’t necessarily involve being the Heisman Trophy winner.

“I think we took him for granted when we had him and I think people didn’t realize until he was gone how much of a positive impact he was.”

Replacing grief

During the past three years, the focus on Salaam has been his dramatic decline in the NFL, his mental health issues and how those contributed to the way-too-soon end to his life.

Before his death, however, he wrote a message to those he left behind. That note, found by his family as they cleaned out his apartment, included the following passage:

“May you learn to love and like each other as you did me;

May you overcome your grief, replacing it with the joy of having known me;

May your struggles always make you stronger, not wear you away like the weak;

May the thoughts of me bring smiles, for I want to always bring happiness not grief, joy not pain, for you know how I was.

May happiness visit you and stay, and may your enemies evaporate.”

As he wished, thoughts of Salaam bring smiles to those who knew him best.

Darian Hagan, who quarterbacked the Buffs to the 1990 national title, didn’t get to play with Salaam, but knew him well.

Rashaan Salaam, center, with Colorado teammates, including Michael Westbrook, left and Kordell Stewart, right.

“When I would see him, he was always welcoming, he would always hug me,” Hagan said. “I think it was a mutual respect for each other and admiration for each other. He represented the university well, he represented himself and his family well and it’s just sad that he’s not here to get the admiration that he deserves.”

Kordell Stewart followed Hagan as the Buffs’ quarterback and played with Salaam for three years. He, too, remembered the man, not the player.

“Best guy in the world,” Stewart said. “What I know and the only thing I’ll forever know about Rashaan is he was like a little brother to me. We used to always have fun. He was a good guy, good dude. He was about as good as any of these guys around that I had a chance to play with and it was a pleasure.”

Three years after Salaam’s death, as his accomplishments as a football player are celebrated and he is honored on the 25th anniversary of arguably the greatest season ever by a CU football player, his tragic story has been retold.

Yet, those close to him are turning a tragic story into a triumphant legacy that is still positively impacting lives and they are finding happiness in his memory.

“He was a client, but he was my friend first,” Crimmins said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody, particularly in the Heisman family, that knew Rashaan and disliked him.

“Personally I don’t let that moment (of his death) define him. I let his smile, his love for his mother; I let that define him. That’s how I’ll always remember Rashaan. He was actually more comfortable talking to the security guard or the usher than he was talking to the CEO. That was part of his beauty. He never took himself too seriously.

“He was a beautiful soul.”