Rashaan Salaam loomed large at La Jolla Country Day in San Diego. He was everywhere, quite literally. There were photos of him all over campus, people spoke of him in reverential tones and a mural of him hung on the wall of the gym I played basketball in. At one point, his Heisman Trophy even graced my alma mater’s trophy case. Every student at the school felt connected to his successes and failures, and rooted for him no matter what he was going through.
On Monday night, Salaam was found dead in a park in Boulder, Colorado. He was just 42 years old.
Salaam had graduated by the time I entered high school but it was impossible not to know his story. Several years after he departed campus, people still recalled the legends. His mother worked hard to get him into the exclusive La Jolla private school, and when he arrived on campus he stumbled into sports. He came out of nowhere to put a team that played eight-man football on the map, dominating to such a degree that opposing coaches worried he’d injure their players. Nearly half of his high school games were ended at halftime thanks to a mercy rule. He was an All-American running back who only missed topping the 100-yard mark in one high school game. He was big, fast, powerful and intimidating. When opposing teams actually tackled him, they celebrated as if they had won a championship.
When Colorado came calling to our dinky little football program, he committed and took his story to another level.
Salaam went to Boulder and after two promising seasons he rushed for a school-record 2,055 yards and 24 touchdowns as a junior. His performance earned him unanimous All-American honors and the Heisman Trophy in 1994. I was a freshman in high school, and we all rooted for him because he represented us. His family was so thankful for the opportunities our school provided for him that they insisted the Heisman Trophy be displayed at Country Day for a time.
I saw Rashaan a lot in those days. He stopped by campus, he shook hands, posed for pictures and signed autographs. He flashed his 1,000-watt smile, and man, that grin could stop you in your tracks. He was movie star good-looking but painfully humble and seemed like a guy just happy to be there. He was easy to root for, so we did.
When he decided to turn professional he immediately found success as the 19th pick in the 1995 NFL Draft. He became the youngest back to rush for 1,000 yards in NFL history at just 21 years and 77 days old for the Chicago Bears. We took pride in each of his accomplishments. But after his rookie year, things rapidly went downhill. He struggled mightily and wound up being cut after just three seasons. Fumbles, injuries and marijuana use buried what looked like a promising career. He bounced around the NFL and even wound up in the XFL and CFL for a time. Still, despite it all, we rooted for him on and off the field.
When Salaam came forward and admitted that marijuana use completely derailed his football career, we all pulled for him to turn things around. We knew the kind of person he was deep down and hoped and prayed the rest of the world would see it too.
He returned to Boulder years later and began working with kids in the community trying to help them avoid his mistakes. Salaam quickly became a fixture around Colorado’s athletics program, reveling in returning to the site of his biggest triumphs. In whatever he did, I rooted for him because for so long he had been a huge part of my life despite the fact that we barely knew each other. For the rest of time, every athlete who goes through La Jolla Country Day will be trying to live up to Salaam’s standard.
While tributes are pouring in try to remember this: Rashaan Salaam was not a cautionary tale, or a statistic or another NFL player gone too soon. He was a human being who had a story and people who cared about him. Regardless of how he died or his age, remember that he lived and impacted people. I know because I was one of them.
Rest in peace Rashaan. And thank you for what you meant to me and countless others.