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Of the roughly 1,500 kids at Jefferson High School in Edgewater, Col., it’s very likely none possess the God-given football abilities Rashaan Salaam was blessed with 20 years ago, when he assaulted the record books and won the Heisman Trophy as a junior at University of Colorado.
Yet thanks in part to the Rashaan Salaam SPIN (supporting people in need) foundation, those 1,500 kids are being given the luxury of something Salaam says he lacked when it was time to make his transition from then-youngest Heisman winner ever to the Bears’ 21 st overall pick in the 1995 draft – a mentor who can help young people make the right decisions.
Salaam, who celebrated his 40 th birthday earlier this month by hosting a fundraiser for the foundation, has spoken candidly about the pitfalls that led to him going from 1,000-yard rookie rusher, to released by Chicago after just three seasons, to eventual flameouts in the XFL and CFL. He says he thought he was “unstoppable,” that he could “have bad habits off the field and still be this great football player.” A lack of discipline and too much partying, Salaam now understands, were at the root of his off-field troubles.
The thrust, then, of his foundation, which began 10 years ago but saw Salaam move from behind the scenes to the forefront in the past year, is steering kids away from distractions and getting them to reach for their dreams by being goal-oriented.
“Just realizing the kind of life I’ve had,” says Salaam, “it can be very inspirational to people, but I have to be honest with them too.
“On one hand, I did have a great life, but on the other, I was a big disappointment. So I try and tie those two stories in, telling the kids you can be great, but not without discipline in your life. You have to have a strong work ethic. The better you get at something, the harder you have to work at it – that’s just how this thing works.”
Salaam has teamed up with award-winning social worker Robert Hawkins of Jefferson High to put on a class for the kids called “Street Cred,” where the lesson plan includes 10 life principles stemming from author Jim Owens’ book “Cowboy Ethics – What Wall Street can Learn from the Code of the West.”
The list of “Cowboy Ethics” includes “do what has to be done,” “take pride in your work,” and “when you make a promise, keep it,” among others.
With 40 percent of their pupils raised in single-family homes, according to Salaam, and teachers only able to do so much within the time constraints of a typical school day, he believes these invaluable lessons can help fill voids and replace distractions in children’s lives.
In addition to his time, Salaam donates money and helps organize fundraisers aimed at securing scholarships for the children, aged between 14-21.
“So my main thing is to get the young people to stay focused, to get them to stay away from underage drinking and underage smoking, really focus on your goals and put all your attention and energy on what you want to be,” he explains.
Salaam says he visits 2-3 schools per week, Heisman trophy in tow, to share his stories. Sure, two decades have past since the pinnacle of his collegiate stardom, but even kids who weren’t born at the time are often in awe of seeing the trophy and hearing how Salaam joined college football’s most prestigious fraternity.
He laughed when asked if he’s still stopped on the street when walking around Boulder, Col., where he again calls home.
“It’s not like that – it’s been 20 years now – but when I bring the trophy in and show the kids a little highlight reel, it kind of perks them up and makes them realize, this guy that’s talking to them is the real deal, we better listen to what he has to say.”
It would seem Salaam could have the same impact on NFL rookies. He admits he hasn’t been approached about speaking to first-year NFL players at the annual rookie symposium, but it’s an idea Salaam embraces. What’s more, he foresees his foundation eventually expanding to include something similar for even younger kids getting ready to enter high schools.
Salaam laments not having the proper mentorship as he embarked on his Chicago Bears career, but even more so, simply not being ready for the “great opportunity” the Bears put in front of him. His rookie season in Chicago was delayed due to a lengthy contract holdout, and even though he set a Bears rookie record with 1,074 rushing yards, Salaam also fumbled nine times. But he doesn’t hold the Bears in any way responsible for his NFL career being derailed.
“It’s always great sitting down every Sunday to watch the Bears play. Legendary organization, gave me my chance 19 years ago, so they’ll always be very dear to my heart,” Salaam shares.
Of course, in many ways today’s NFL barely resembles the league Salaam played in from 1995-1999. For starters, no running back has been selected in the first round of the past two NFL drafts, and the only ones dating back five years that were taken as high as Salaam haven’t panned out.
Much of it has to do with the explosion of passing offenses around the league, in part a byproduct of rule changes that encourage clubs to air out the ball to light up scoreboards and appease the new generation of fantasy football enthusiasts.
A lack of elite running back talent has also dissuaded NFL teams from investing early at the position, Salaam believes. And despite “feeling bad for cornerbacks and safeties” due to the constantly evolving rules to try and make the game safer, Salaam is firmly behind the NFL’s directive.
“The whole increased concussion awareness really forced the NFL to sit back and evaluate how they’re playing the game, I think we’re seeing that, a more pass-oriented game,” Salaam says. “… But it’s still exciting, it’s still fun to watch, still America’s No.1 sport, and it’s changed for the better from my perspective.”
The same can’t be said for Salaam’s once-proud alma mater, the University of Colorado, hardly the football institution it was when Salaam, Kordell Stewart, Michael Westbrook and others were on campus. The Buffaloes have just three 10-win seasons under their belt since Salaam’s departure, two of which directly preceded their 11-1 campaign and Cotton Bowl victory in Salaam’s final year.
But Salaam, who says he would love to one day assist the Buffaloes with recruiting and helping young players transition from high school standouts to college athletes, sounds genuinely excited about the direction the program is headed. He speaks very highly of the university’s new athletic director, Rick George, a Woodstock, Ill. Native and former recruiting coordinator and four-year letterman for the Illini.
“We have a great AD who’s really come in and sparked some life into our program,” says Salaam. “There is a brand new facility going up right now. Coach MacIntyre, I think he’s really going to help shape this team into where it needs to be.”
Like MacIntyre’s work with the Buffaloes, Salaam believes his contributions to young kids have the power to transform. Like when he departed college early, Salaam knows many young people lack the necessary tools and maturity to thrive in the real world.
“The one thing about being young – you have the power of youth – and if you really put this thing together, get organized and really committed to the right things, you can change your life.”
Salaam admits he doesn’t want young people to have the same regrets he does, which he first began realizing when he returned home after his playing career ended and people were constantly asking what happened.
“I just tried to tell them, ‘look, when I was a young person, I had all these gifts, all this stuff going for me, but I was still doing things that I shouldn’t be doing. And as I got older, it kind of came back and bit me in the butt. I still have a successful life, I made it to the pros, but it was a woulda shoulda coulda type of thing, that I wish I could take back. And I use those stories to tell the kids, you all have the opportunity to be great, it’s up to you to make the right choices.
Undoubtedly, Salaam has shown great courage and accountability to understand and acknowledge where he slipped up, and a tremendous amount of humility to dedicate his life to helping others avoid some of the mistakes he made.
“I’m no special person or superhero, I just happen to have the stories to help people. I’m just trying to use my experiences as a backdrop for what to do and what not to do.”