The Mysterious and Tragic Death of Ex-CU Star Rashaan Salaam

The initial report about a death in Boulder's Eben G. Fine Park was sad but unremarkable. Boulder police announced that the body of a middle-aged man had been found just shy of 9 p.m. on Monday, December 5, but there were no signs of either foul play or an overt threat to the community.

But the person in question turned out to be Rashaan Salaam, the only Heisman Trophy winner ever for the University of Colorado Boulder — and according to the Boulder Daily Camera, the suspected cause was suicide.

If Salaam, who was 42, did indeed take his own life, we are left to wonder what led one of the greatest athletes in CU history to make such a shocking and tragic decision, in a location not far from University Hill and Folsom Field, where he achieved his greatest glory.

A postmortem examination will determine whether Salaam suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, defined as a "progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions." Last year, Frontline reported that a staggering 96 percent of former NFL players whose autopsy results were examined in a Department of Veterans Affairs/Boston University study showed signs of CTE — and Salaam played in the league for four years after leaving CU, most notably for the Chicago Bears. Moreover, numerous players with CTE have committed suicide — most famously, San Diego Chargers superstar Junior Seau.

Another possible factor is Salaam's disappointing professional career and difficult after-sports life — one marked by financial troubles so severe that he actually auctioned off his Heisman Trophy ring in 2011.

The price paid: $9,768.

Salaam left CU following his Heisman win, which took place in 1994, when he was a junior — and he had a fairly noteworthy first season for the Bears, setting a rookie record by gaining 1,074 yards. He also scored ten touchdowns.

But things went downhill from there, and in a 2014 profile by the Chicago Tribune, Salaam took personal responsibility.

"I didn't realize coming up how much work you had to put in once you got to the NFL," he told the paper. "It's a whole different lifestyle. You have to change the way you live. You have to change who you hang out with. You have to totally get focused on your game. You have the athletic ability, but if you don't put the work behind it, nothing will come from it."

He also admitted that his constant partying and use of marijuana contributed to his poor performances. "I had no discipline. I had all the talent in the world," he said. "You know, great body, great genes. But I had no work ethic and I had no discipline. The better you get, the harder you have to work. The better I got, the lazier I got."

In his view, "My whole life, up until the Chicago Bears...everything was perfect. You know, (high school) Parade All-American, Heisman Trophy winner.... So I was bound to go through some challenges. Going to the pros at twenty years old and not being disciplined.... It showed itself."

Indeed it did. An account of his career notes that Salaam washed out with the Bears, played a single game with the Cleveland Browns and failed to catch on with the Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions. He briefly played in the XFL, a rival pro league, and signed in 2004 with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. Just three months later, he was suspended, and no more on-field opportunities presented themselves afterward.

In the years that followed, Salaam got involved with a mixed-martial-arts venture called Art of War; he sold his ring in a failed effort to keep the enterprise aloft. From there, he started the Denver-based Rashaan Salaam S.P.I.N. Foundation. On the organization's website, Salaam described it like so:
The goal of my foundation is to assist local children toward success. Throughout my life, I have found ethics, leadership and goal setting to be lacking in today’s education system. I would like to help kids, on their way to adulthood, make the right choices for their individual futures.

Life can present many obstacles and difficult decisions at any age, but especially as a young person. I would like to be the guide for our youth, to help them make the critical decisions that will affect their entire lives.

The funds raised by my foundation this year will be allocated to programs to help young athletes and children at a crossroad. Eventually, I would also like to provide scholarship funds and expand to help as many as is possible.

I appreciate any and all of your support for my foundation as I work toward impacting the youth of Colorado.
Salaam's Facebook page doesn't give any indication of depression. Indeed, his final post, shared on November 27, was a video of Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder singing "That's What Friends Are For." He noted that he was "feeling joyful" and added the caption, "Keep smiling."

It will be hard for Salaam's fans to do so today. Here's a video featuring highlights of his playing career.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts