He was a jewel in one of the greatest offenses in Bears history, and he could fly.
I was at Rashaan Salaam’s first game as a Chicago Bear. Soldier Field was electric. We carried the momentum of our postseason upset over the Minnesota Vikings the year before by pasting the Vikes again, 31-14. The rookie Salaam gained 47 yards on just 10 carries. He scored his first NFL touchdown.
By the time of that Vikings game, Salaam — who was found dead Monday night — was even more important than we thought he would be. 1994 breakout star Raymont Harris injured his knee in the offseason, caught one pass in the opener, and didn’t suit up again.
That left Salaam and veterans Robert Green and Lewis Tillman as the team’s tailbacks. By Week 3, Salaam was the featured back.
By Week 5, he was a star.
He rushed for 105 yards in a win over Carolina, his first of five 100-yard games. That game was the first in a four-game winning streak that propelled the team to an NFC-best 6-2 record. Salaam was a fan favorite who would go on to win NFC Rookie of the Year.
The 1995 Bears missed the playoffs but the offense dazzled. We scored 392 points that year, good for fourth-best in franchise history at the time. The team finished 8th in the league in points scored, its highest ranking since 1985.
Erik Kramer set franchise records for passing yards and passing touchdowns that still stand. Jeff Graham set a franchise record (since broken) for receiving yards. Graham and Curtis Conway became the first Bears receivers to break 1,000 yards in the same season.
And Salaam racked up a team-high 1,074 rushing yards plus 10 touchdowns.
He also fumbled nine times, but that was viewed as a glitch in his game, not a feature. Remember: Walter Payton fumbled 10 times in his second season. No Bears fan thought Salaam’s career had peaked.
Everyone who talks about Salaam talks about his smile.
“I don’t ever remember seeing him without a smile on his face,” his old Bears head coach Dave Wannstedt told the Tribune yesterday. “He loved football. He worked. He always had a great attitude.”
“He loved to laugh,” Robert Green told the Trib. “He had that big, infectious smile that just drew you in.”
ESPN analyst Chris Fowler and former CU assistant coach Brian Cabral referenced it too. Look at almost any photo of Salaam, whether at press conferences or with fans, and it’s easy to imagine that warm, beaming countenance shining your way.
That cheery disposition is part of what made his death this week so unsettling. In every interview I’ve read or seen with Salaam, he comes off as candid about the past, happy with the present, and confident about the future.
In 2012, he told Tribune reporter Fred Mitchell about his struggles during his playing career with over-confidence and marijuana, yet said three times that he was “doing real good” and noted his pride in being a part of football, the Bears, and the NFL.
His smile is on display on the website for the Rashaan Salaam S.P.I.N. Foundation, an acronym for “Supporting People In Need,” the organization where Salaam had mentored children since 2011.
Even when he spoke about his career, he focused on what went right, and paid respect to the people ahead of him.
“Me growing up watching football on Sundays and watching Walter Payton … that was one of the biggest things in my life to meet him and get to shake his hand,” Salaam told Mitchell in 2012. “That was something ... I will never forget.”
The night Salaam’s body was found, the NCAA announced its five Heisman Trophy finalists for 2016. I couldn’t help but wonder if they saw the news that a Heisman winner died the same night, at age 42, most likely by suicide.
We don’t know yet if Salaam’s suicide was a result of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE, the brain disease that has afflicted so many dead football players.
We do know that investigators immediately ruled out foul play in Salaam’s death, that he was killed by a gunshot wound, that authorities found a note, and that his family assumes the wound was self-inflicted.
Salaam’s story is likely to get sadder and sadder as more details emerge. His former teammate James “Big Cat” Williams summed up an all-too-common problem while speaking with the Tribune:
“It’s weird, man, because you hear about all the things the NFL is doing to help the players that are playing now, but players that played in the past, no one thinks about those guys until something like this happens.”
Something like this.
Those are haunting words for anyone who loves football. Whatever the reason for Salaam’s death, he reached a point where his support system could not outweigh his demons. By all accounts, he was a good man with a good heart. By my own memory, he was a terrific football player who gave what he could to our Chicago Bears.
The S.P.I.N. Foundation goal, from its website, is to “empower kids to build tools to influence other children and adolescents.” Salaam was even more specific in describing his goals: he wanted to provide scholarship funds to children and expand the organization “to help as many as is possible.”
He needed the help just as much.