By Pat Graham and Arnie Stapleton, Associated Press
Friends, ex-teammates and former coaches remembered 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam as much more than a football star upon hearing of his death in a park not far from the University of Colorado, where he stamped his name as one of the greatest players in the program’s history.
“This is a great loss to the lives he had touched,” said former Buffaloes assistant coach Brian Cabral, who recruited Salaam to Boulder.
Ex-teammate Kordell Stewart, who went on to achieve the kind of NFL success that eluded Salaam, said, “This is a tough one. He was our jewel.” He said Salaam “never wanted to be celebrated, he just wanted to play football.
“He just wanted to be one of the guys, a big kid playing a child’s game, and he won the biggest prize there is,” Stewart said. “Football wasn’t who he was; it was just what he did. He didn’t care about his accomplishments. He cared about the people around him.”
Salaam was found dead Monday night in Eben B. Fine Park in Boulder, less than 2 miles from Folsom Field, where he carved his name into the school’s record book from 1992-94. Police said foul play wasn’t suspected.
Salaam’s mother, Khalada, told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday that police said they suspect he killed himself. “They said they found a note and would share that with us when we get there,” Salaam’s mother said.
Dave Plati, associate athletic director at Colorado and a close friend of Salaam’s, said the former Buffaloes star never let on that he was hurting : “When you were around him he was just the same old Rashaan. You know, effervescent, jolly-go-lucky, smiling all the time, doing things for other people.”
There was just no way to tell Salaam “had these kind of demons inside him,” Plati added. “I was as close to him as anybody and loved the guy … and wish I could have noticed or done something for him or wished that he would have called me.”
Salaam’s death stunned the Colorado football community, which this year celebrated a revival with the team’s 10-3 record, an appearance in the Pac-12 championship game and the Buffaloes’ first bowl bid in almost a decade.
“You talk about a young man who was smart, handsome, talented. He was very, very gifted. He was humble. He was a team guy,” former Colorado coach Bill McCartney told The Associated Press.
Salaam rushed for 2,055 yards and 24 touchdowns as a junior in 1994, leading the Buffaloes to an 11-1 record, a win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl and a No. 3 finish in the final polls.
“We are all hurting tremendously today,” said former teammate Blake Anderson, who lauded Salaam’s work ethic, strength and dedication.
Salaam was one of the nation’s most prized high-school recruits coming out of eight-man football at La Jolla Country Day, a private school in San Diego. His father played freshman football at CU in 1963 before transferring to San Diego State to be closer to home.
“When we recruited him and got him to commit, it was huge,” McCartney said. “We knew that he was going to distinguish himself. He was very highly recruited. I can remember how happy we were. He lived up to all our expectations.”
The Chicago Bears made Salaam a first-round draft pick in 1995, and he rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns in winning NFC Rookie of the Year honors.
Injuries cut short his career. He rushed for only three TDs over the next two years in Chicago and played his last NFL game with the Cleveland Browns in 1999. Salaam played for the Memphis Maniax of the defunct XFL and attempted one last comeback with the NFL before retiring.
“He was the only Heisman Trophy winner in the state of Colorado,” Plati said. “That could have been a burden in later years because he kind of felt he didn’t have the great professional career that should have followed that. But that doesn’t matter, it’s what you did to win the Heisman, and he’s an icon in college football.”
Former teammate Matt Russell, now the Denver Broncos’ director of player personnel, said Salaam was a “fiercely loyal friend,” the “ultimate teammate” and the very “definition of a winner.”
Rick Neuheisel, an assistant coach in Boulder when Salaam won the Heisman, said the play that epitomizes Salaam was the “Miracle at Michigan,” when Stewart’s 64-yard Hail Mary pass to Michael Westbrook on the final play beat the Wolverines 27-26 on Sept. 24, 1994.
“All he did was create time for Kordell Stewart to get that play off,” Neuheisel said. “And if you ever see that play, Rashaan Salaam had one blocking assignment and then came back and got another blocking assignment, which allowed Kordell to kind of crow-hop up in the pocket and make the throw that we’ll all remember for a lifetime.
“But there was the Heisman Trophy winner. He wasn’t just about getting the ball or catching the ball. He was about, what do I need to do for my guys so that we can have the best possible chance for success? And whether he had the ball or didn’t, it didn’t matter, he was going to go all-out,” Neuheisel said.
“And it’s a very tough time because he’s too young. … I think all of us that had that special time with him all wish we would have known what was going on in his life. And I’m not sure we ever will. But we will know that the time we spent with Salaam was really cool.”
AP College Football Writer Ralph Russo, Associated Press writer Sadie Gurman, Associated Press videographer Peter Banda and Associated Press photographer Brennan Linsey contributed to this story.