On Dec. 5, 2016, Rashaan Salaam took his own life.
The former football star was best known for winning the 1994 Heisman Trophy, given to the best college player in the U.S., before he played four years in the NFL. At the time of his death, Salaam was believed to be suffering from depression, and postmortem test results revealed he had alcohol and marijuana in his system. He committed suicide at a park not far from the same stadium where he played running back for the University of Colorado.
Salaam was a practicing Muslim. His father, former NFL running back Teddy Washington, converted to Islam and changed his name to Sulton Salaam before Rashaan was born.
Since his death, Rashaan Salaam has been posthumously honored by the University of Colorado football program, which retired his No. 19 jersey in 2017; and by the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 2018.
One organization that has not recognized Salaam — posthumously or when he was alive — is the College Football Hall of Fame.
Players become eligible for the Hall of Fame 10 years after their college career is over, as well as when their professional career is over. That means Salaam has been eligible for induction since 2005.
The fact that every Heisman Trophy winner of the 20th century except Salaam is in the Hall of Fame makes him a glaring omission that doesn’t seem to have a legit explanation.
Former Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan said in a recent Denver Post article that he believes the voters have a grudge against Salaam.
“That one makes no sense to me, other than the fact that somebody has a personal vendetta,” Hagan said. “(Salaam) went to the NFL, and when he admitted that he did the marijuana thing — that probably had a little bit to do with it. But you can’t hold that against him. He won the Heisman, which you’ve got to be the best player in the country (to win). And he won that hands down.”
During the 1994 season, Salaam led the nation in rushing with 2,055 yards to go with 24 touchdowns. He helped Colorado to an 11-1 record and a victory over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. The Buffaloes finished No. 3 in the national rankings.
Salaam entered the 1995 NFL Draft and was picked by the Chicago Bears in the first round. He looked like a star in the making early on, becoming the youngest player in league history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in his rookie season.
But he was soon plagued by injuries, and appeared in just 33 games in four seasons with the Bears, Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers. Salaam also had brief stints in the XFL and CFL.
There is one theory that Salaam isn’t in the Hall of Fame because he left college early to go pro.
Another suggestion is that he hasn’t been voted in because he only had one great season at Colorado. Salaam didn’t play much as a freshman, and as a sophomore he was good but not outstanding. His junior year was the one in which Salaam burst onto the national scene and cleaned up on the awards. In addition to the Heisman, Salaam won the Walter Camp Award (best overall player) and the Doak Walker Award (best running back).
Keeping Salaam out of the Hall of Fame because of past drug use, particularly something as relatively minor as marijuana, seems unreasonable petty — especially when former Texas running back and Heisman winner Ricky Williams is in, and he’s almost as famous for smoking weed as he is for playing football.
Keeping Salaam out because of the way his life ended would be outright disturbing.
And unfortunately, given the climate of this country, it cannot be dismissed that there may be some Hall of Fame voters who don’t like the fact that Salaam was Muslim.
In general, college sports honors can be a strange world to navigate. There are some schools that won’t retire the numbers of athletes who didn’t graduate from that institution. Some schools have extremely high and rigid standards for an athlete to meet to get honored that disqualify some of the greatest athletes they’ve ever had. Meanwhile, pro sports teams seem to retire numbers and hand out tributes with no real criteria.
Probably the clearest example of the inexplicable landscape of college honors is the fact that Michael Jordan is not in the College Basketball Hall of Fame. Think about that.
Voting for the College Football Hall of Fame class of 2020 is currently underway, and the results will be announced in January. Hopefully this time the voters do the right thing and give Salaam an overdue honor that he should’ve received when he was still alive to enjoy it.
“He was a great person, a great teammate,” Hagan told the Denver Post. “His body of work speaks for itself. Him not being in — that’s a tragedy.”