The fate of the University of Colorado football program and the fate of Rashaan Salaam have long appeared intertwined.
Salaam, who came to the Buffs in 1992 as the headliner of a stacked recruiting class that sparked CU back into national title contention, was found dead of a suspected suicide in a Boulder park earlier this week, less than two miles from where he once starred at Folsom Field. He’ll be laid to rest on Friday in Boulder.
By the time Salaam’s college career culminated in 1994—when he became just the fourth college running back to surpass 2,000 yards in a single season, brought home the Heisman Trophy, and helped the Buffs defeat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl—Salaam had solidified his place (and CU’s) among the college football heavyweights. And when Salaam declared early for the NFL draft, he left an echoing influence on college football and CU that still resonates to this day.
Salaam began his professional career in 1995 as a first-round draft pick by the Chicago Bears, yet the trajectory of his career and the CU football program continued to mirror each other. Both had bright spots in the handful of years that followed—in his first season, the 21-year-old Salaam became the youngest NFL rookie to run for more than 1,000 yards, and the Buffs won the Big 12 a few years later in an impressive 2001 campaign—but things started to unravel in the new millenium.
Salaam was out of the NFL by 2000—in large part due to injuries and a propensity for marijuana—and found himself searching for a new identity. Meanwhile, the Buffs were struggling to rediscover their strengths, as well: Coming into 2016, CU had only one winning season and one bowl win since 2003.
The Buffs changed that negative narrative this year with a dream season that saw them win the Pac-12 South and earn a berth in the upcoming Alamo Bowl. In recent times Salaam, too, seemed to be trying to find his peace. He moved back to the Boulder area and, about four years ago, started the Rashaan Salaam SPIN (Supporting People In Need) Foundation, aimed at mentoring at-risk youths.
His death, which comes amid widespread reports that the former eight-man football star from La Jolla Country Day High School in San Diego, Calif., was battling depression, is the final break in the twisted fates of Salaam and CU football.
Coach Mike MacIntyre’s Buffaloes came up just short of the Rose Bowl this season and have a monster recruiting class coming in next year, so the Buffs’ future is undeniably bright. Salaam’s memory will live on through highlight reels and nostalgia for his greatness, as evidenced by the outpouring of support from former coaches, teammates, and the CU community since news broke of his death.
To think that CU has resurged, but will head off to compete in its December 29 bowl game without one of its most storied players watching, is a somber reality for Salaam’s fans.