The Long, Lonely Fall of a Heisman Trophy Winner

FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2012, file photo, former Colorado running back and Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam watches from the sidelines during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game between Colorado and Washinnton, in Boulder, Colo. Authorities say 1994 Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam has been found dead in a park in Boulder. The Boulder County coroner’s office said Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, that it is still investigating the death of 42-year-old Salaam. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File) ORG XMIT: NY191
FILE – In this Nov. 7, 2012, file photo, former Colorado running back and Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam watches from the sidelines during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game between Colorado and Washinnton, in Boulder, Colo. Authorities say 1994 Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam has been found dead in a park in Boulder. The Boulder County coroner’s office said Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, that it is still investigating the death of 42-year-old Salaam. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File) ORG XMIT: NY191

Rashaan Salaam, the 1994 trophy winner, was found dead this month. Now, many wonder if brain damage and the pressure of living up to Heisman hopes contributed to his end.

Through the darkness, Rashaan Salaam drove his run-down Suzuki sedan. He was, as usual, alone.

For months, friends said, Salaam had been a recluse who left his rented condo in a Denver suburb only occasionally, to buy groceries and, even more rarely, for a solitary morning walk. Now and then he went to a bar for drinks and a steak, sitting by himself.

But on this Monday night, Dec. 5, Salaam, a former football standout, was headed for the site of his greatest triumph.

From his home, it was eight miles to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where Salaam was a running back who won the Heisman Trophy in 1994. On the final dash of his last game at Folsom Field here that year, Salaam roared 67 yards for a touchdown, collapsing in the end zone and spurring his teammates to hoist him onto their shoulders as fans waved “2000” signs; he had become just the fourth college player to exceed 2,000 rushing yards in a season.

Now, on an unseasonably warm December night, he drove past the stadium and cut through the heart of the idyllic Colorado campus, where, he often said, he still felt most comfortable.

Less than two miles from where he had scored his career-defining touchdown, he pulled into the tiny parking area of Eben G. Fine Park, bordering the burbling Boulder Creek.

Around 8 p.m., a few hours after the voting closed for the 2016 Heisman and five days before the 22nd anniversary of Salaam’s trophy win, a young man walking in the park saw a body lying beside an idling sedan. Salaam. A revolver lay nearby.

Salaam’s death at the age of 42 is being investigated as a likely suicide. Autopsy results are expected in about a month.

But in the days since the death, as friends, relatives and associates puzzle over the circumstances, they cannot help but wonder if the Heisman and its attendant expectations of fame had undercut his life instead of elevating it.

“Rashaan came back to Boulder a few years ago to revive himself,” said Francisco Lujan, one of Salaam’s close friends and a business associate. “He was trying to find a way to find himself. He returned to where the memories were good.”

T .J. Cunningham, a Colorado teammate who had stayed in touch with Salaam until a few months ago, said he believed Salaam’s football career, which sputtered after he left college largely because of injuries, always weighed on him.

“Rashaan was 20 years old when he won the Heisman Trophy,” Cunningham said. “To achieve the epitome of success at 20, but then you can’t get to that point again — what did that do to Rashaan?”

That may be an insoluble question. For people who knew him, the prospect that he took his own life is hard to reconcile with someone best known for an infectious smile that brightened a room when he entered it.

As Cunningham said: “He was a happy guy. I can still see him at Christmas last year, at my house teaching my 2-year-old how to hit a baseball. But, you know, Rashaan struggled with some things.”

Many of his friends believed he suffered from depression and mood swings, typical signs of the brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., that has afflicted scores of players.

The disease is linked to repeated hits to the head and is diagnosed posthumously, but it is unclear if Salaam’s family members have donated his brain to be tested. The Salaam family declined to be interviewed for this article, and multiple phone messages and email messages left for relatives drew no response.

Salaam’s brother, Jabali Alaji, told USA Today shortly after Rashaan’s funeral on Dec. 9 that if Salaam’s brain were examined, “I would guarantee they’d find it. I would guarantee it.”

But several of Salaam’s friends who spoke with family members said they were told Salaam’s brain would not be tested.

Though injured often, Salaam had no known history of repeated concussions or head trauma. But as Cunningham said: “Rashaan had a lot of collisions. He wasn’t a fake and juke guy; he ran right through you.

“C.T.E.? He showed all the symptoms,” Cunningham said, “and C.T.E. probably added to that.”

Whatever the cause, it was obvious to people around him that Salaam was dealing with mental health problems.

He routinely retreated to his condo and stayed there. Phone calls and texts from friends went unreturned for days or weeks, especially since October.

Salaam spent Thanksgiving by himself, a next-door neighbor said, in his small, plain one-bedroom condo next to a playground and a municipal wastewater plant in Superior, Colo.

“He was always in his condo,” said the neighbor, Deanna Ardrey. “He would sit there by himself every day. You knew there was something off.”

Riley Robert Hawkins, a school social worker and behavioral therapist who had been a partner with Salaam in a charitable foundation since 2011, talked to him about whether he should seek treatment for depression.

“You could tell he was fighting some things,” Hawkins said. “Anxiety and depression, that’s bipolar. It was always there to some degree.

“Like many of us,” he said, “I think he thought he had a handle on things.”

Maurice Henriques, another Colorado teammate who had remained close with Salaam, said it was impossible to pinpoint what ailed him.

“For the family’s sake, you’d love for there to be an explanation,” he said. “But it’s probably a cocktail of things — depression, some C.T.E., and Rashaan still trying to deal with the transition from football.

“How,” he added, “do you re-identify yourself?”

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SOURCE: The New York Times –