Colorado weeps over a loss — the loss of former running back and Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam. As B.G. Brooks writers: “”There is sadness now for the same reason, for Rashaan Salaam ‘to go like that’, so unexpectedly but infinitely more tragically. Whatever the reasons, whatever haunted him most recently, his passing comes far too soon.
By B.G. BROOKS
BOULDER, CO. – When you’ve spent most fall Saturdays of your adult life in press boxes across the nation, not many of them or the football games that placed you there can be recounted as singular.
There are a handful, though, that stamp themselves in your memory. Count Nov. 19, 1994 as being on the A-list of those exceptions.
It was a brilliant Saturday at Colorado’s Folsom Field and the afternoon was stocked with storylines:
- Bill McCartney’s seventh-ranked Buffaloes had targeted winless Iowa State as their 10th ‘W’ in what eventually would be an 11-win season and a No. 3 national ranking;
- Jim Walden, a charter member among the old Big Eight’s all-time all-irascible coaches, was watching his final game as Iowa State’s coach from the press box – suspended by the league for unloading a couple of weeks earlier on Big Eight officiating;
- CU quarterback Kordell Stewart was 265 yards short of overtaking Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy (now the OSU coach who will face CU in the Valero Alamo Bowl) as the Big Eight’s career total offense leader. Stewart surpassed him, accounting for 196 yards passing and 89 rushing, giving him 7,770 career yards;
- And this particular Saturday’s headliner: CU tailback Rashaan Salaam, chasing the Heisman Trophy, needed 204 rushing yards to reach 2,000 for the season – a feat accomplished at the time by only three other Division I-A backs. Salaam ran 29 times for 259 yards, pushing his season total to 2,055 in his last, most memorable game as a Buff and cementing his run to the 1994 Heisman.
“All these things that happened out there . . . dag-gone,” McCartney said in opening his press conference following the Buffs’ blowout (41-20). “Going into the game, we wanted to win, (then) make sure all those things were accomplished.
“At times it was uphill . . . but the support (Salaam and Stewart) had was extraordinary. Kordell hasn’t received his due, in my opinion. Anyway I’m just really thrilled. I have an announcement to make . . .”
WITH THOSE SIX WORDS the afternoon’s previously solid storylines became sidebars. McCartney announced his resignation, effective after CU’s Fiesta Bowl appearance against Notre Dame. The university, Buffs fans and players were stunned by his timing, the college football world mystified by his reasoning.
There was so much significance with Rashaan’s accomplishment,” defensive tackle Darius Holland told me afterward. “Then so many things hit you at once . . . I found myself having to sit back and trying to figure out what was going on.”
In the last 48 hours Buffs past and present, as well as their followers, have been doing the same. On Monday night, Salaam, 42, died in a park not more than a mile from Folsom Field.
When the shock briefly subsided I thought of Saturday, Nov. 19, 1994, and Salaam’s unbridled happiness on that afternoon, when Folsom fans raised gold-shaded signs reading “2,000” and chanted “Heisman, Heisman, Heisman” for almost the entire game.
Salaam later remembered waking up that morning and saying to himself, “I have a chance to run for 2,000 today. It just shows you how hard work pays off.”
Family – mom, cousins – watched his payday at Folsom. One cousin, Stephen Shelley, told the late Rocky Mountain News that when Salaam was born, his father Teddy Washington “would hold him up in the air and say, ‘Here is my little Heisman Trophy winner.’ Talk about making good predictions.”
In that same Rocky story, Salaam recounted his teammates’ reaction when he had surpassed the 2,000-yard plateau with a 67-yard touchdown run that carried him down Folsom’s east sideline directly in front of the jubilant Buffs bench.
His teammates, said Salaam, “just mobbed me. They were hugging me and screaming, ‘Rashaan, we love you. You’re the greatest.’ I wasn’t even touched on that play. It just goes to show you how much the line is doing its job. They made it possible . . .
“It was a great feeling, a great experience. My family and my cousins were here. It’s something I dreamed about as a little kid.”
At game’s end, Salaam was carried off the field on his teammates’ shoulders. Nearby, his cousin urged him to strike the “Heisman pose,” but Salaam humbly declined.
“I was out of breath,” Salaam said. “I told him he could strike the pose.”
The afternoon was typical Salaam, one that highlighted a truly gifted running back and at the same time further revealed a teammate who remained unpretentious in a Heisman Trophy season.
As I walked across the field toward the locker room and McCartney’s post-game news conference, Buffs offensive line coach Terry Lewis – a huge man who often joked that he could immediately spot a prospective O-lineman by looking for “mass in the ass” – caught up with me.
“He’s leaving,” an almost breathless Lewis said.
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve been hearing,” I answered, certain he was referring to Salaam skipping his senior season and entering the NFL Draft, which had been rumored for the last several weeks and eventually came to pass.
Puzzled, Lewis looked down at me and said, “No, ‘Mac’ is leaving.”
AND THIS SATURDAY SUDDENLY TURNED upside down. Lewis and I rounded a corner in the lower level of the Dal Ward Athletics Center and almost collided with McCartney and then-CU President Judith Albino, who was saying, “Don’t do this, Bill.”
“I want to,” McCartney answered. “I really do.”
About 10 minutes later, following the team’s post-game prayer, McCartney informed Salaam and his disbelieving teammates of his decision.
“People started crying,” Salaam said, “and I was like, ‘Dang, that’s the main reason I came here, because of ‘Coach Mac,’ because I knew he had a long (contract) and I knew there would be some stability in the coaching staff.
“I wanted to be a part of the system . . . for him to go like that is sad.”
There is sadness now for the same reason, for Salaam “to go like that,” so unexpectedly but infinitely more tragically. Whatever the reasons, whatever haunted him most recently, his passing comes far too soon.
We like to think that at these times lessons can be learned, that if someone close is battling depression, addiction, grief, guilt, whatever, then draw them closer still. Watch, reach out, listen . . . and then listen some more.
It is much easier to say after the sad and terrible fact, but saying it should remind us that it should be – must be – done. Life issues no promises, no guarantees, but Salaam should have been nearly as joyous at 42 as he was on that mid-November Saturday 22 years ago at Folsom Field.
It wasn’t to be.
Peace be with you, Rashaan. The memories are grand.
(B.G. Brooks has been an esteemed sports journalist since 1970. He was a writer and columnist with The Commercial Appeal in Memphis from 1970-78, then was lured to Denver by the Rocky Mountain News, where he worked as an award-winning writer, covering the Denver Broncos and the Colorado Buffaloes, and sports editor of the newspaper. After The Rocky folded in 2009, B.G. joined the University of Colorado as a senior contributor for cubuffs.com.)