The Long, Lonely Fall of a Heisman Trophy Winner


Prize or Millstone?

When he was first handed the Heisman in 1994, Salaam had no idea how much the 25-pound trophy would complicate the rest of his life. Going forward, it distorted the perception of his career.

Salaam had a spectacular N.F.L. rookie season with the Chicago Bears but faded markedly thereafter, lasting for only four seasons.

After that, he more and more kept his distance from the trophy, whose renowned pose is a stiff arm.

“He felt people viewed him as a failure,” said David Plati, an associate athletic director at Colorado and a friend of Salaam’s for nearly a quarter-century. “He was frustrated with his N.F.L. career. That’s the burden the Heisman carries. He felt pressure that he had to go do something in the pros as good or greater than what he did in college.

“He felt that people were looking at him, thinking that he let them down.”

Still, the Heisman loomed large. Everybody wanted to see it and touch it. Salaam wanted to stand apart from it.

“He wasn’t a huge fan of the trophy itself,” Lujan said. “When he was making an appearance, people would always ask if he could bring the Heisman Trophy to the engagement. He’d turn them down. He didn’t like carrying the trophy around. It made him feel like the only reason anyone wanted to see him was because he had a Heisman Trophy.”

Photo

Salaam in a game against Nebraska in October 1993.

Credit
Tim DeFrisco/Getty Images

Once, visiting Salaam at his home, a friend saw the trophy being used as a doorstop. For the majority of the last 22 years, Salaam’s mother kept the trophy at the family home in San Diego.

Salaam was conflicted about the trophy from the start; he declined to do several major interviews the year he won it.

“That’s the thing. Deep down Rashaan didn’t care about the trophy and never did because he didn’t like being singled out,” Plati said.

“Rashaan wanted to be just one of the guys,” Plati said. “But he knew his offensive linemen wanted him to win the Heisman. He understood it was important for the university and the football program.”

Salaam is Colorado’s only Heisman winner and eventually got into the experience of winning it, even enjoying the week in New York for the ceremony. At the time, it seemed like a one-week, one-time thing — not a lifetime designation permanently attached to his name.

He had won the trophy in his junior year and entered the 1995 N.F.L. draft. Yet he was perturbed, even insulted, when he was the fifth running back taken in the first round.

But Salaam had proved others wrong in his career before.

With his mother urging him on, he had left his hometown, San Diego, and traveled by bus two hours daily to attend La Jolla Country Day, a private school where he excelled academically and on the football team. But La Jolla played eight-man football, and Salaam was barely noticed by college recruiters. His La Jolla coach mounted a campaign to promote him, and soon Colorado took him on.

He was, however, on the third string as a college freshman. Though he was a sturdy 6-foot-1 and weighed in at 220 pounds, there were doubts about whether he had the speed to compete at the highest level of college ball. He made progress as a sophomore, and by his spectacular junior season at Colorado had more than vanquished his critics. And yet, N.F.L. evaluators still had reservations, which is how Salaam fell to the draft’s 21st pick.

Photo

Salaam during a preseason game with the Chicago Bears in 1995. As a rookie, Salaam rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns, becoming the youngest N.F.L. player to rush for more than 1,000 yards. But leg injuries limited his playing time and effectiveness in the next two seasons, his last with the Bears.

Credit
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

As a rookie, Salaam rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns, becoming the youngest N.F.L. player to rush for more than 1,000 yards. But a series of leg injuries limited his playing time and effectiveness in the next two seasons, his last with the Bears.

In 1999, he carried the football once for two yards for the hapless 2-14 Cleveland Browns. He was also briefly with two other N.F.L. teams but never got on the field. In 2001, Salaam played for the Memphis Maniax of the ill-fated X.F.L.

At 28, he regrouped and spent nearly a year getting in top shape because the San Francisco 49ers had invited him to training camp. Around that time in 2003, in an interview with ESPN, Salaam decided to open up about his marijuana use while with the Bears.

He said he was too young to handle the money and success of his early N.F.L. career and blamed an undisciplined lifestyle for hampering his development as a professional. Salaam later said he had hoped the interview would show a newfound maturity, since he was admitting to a mistake and describing a new, robust work ethic.

But the reaction to the interview, and to Salaam, was decidedly negative. He was cut by the 49ers toward the end of training camp. After a short-lived flirtation with the Canadian Football League, his football career was over.

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