BOULDER — Former Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam, the 1994 Heisman Trophy winner and still considered to be among the greatest players in CU history, was found dead Monday night in a Boulder park.
He was 42. Boulder police said there were no signs of foul play.
Salaam's death stunned the entire Colorado football and university community.
"The Buff Family has lost an outstanding young man and a great Buff today," Athletic Director Rick George said. "We are heartbroken for Rashaan and his family and our thoughts and prayers are with them at this very difficult time."
As a junior, Salaam led Bill McCartney's 1994 Buffaloes to one of the best seasons in CU history, an 11-1 finish that included a 41-24 win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl and a No. 3 ranking in the final polls — still the second-best finish ever by a CU team.
"He was very coachable," McCartney said. "He had a happy heart. I loved being around him. He didn't take himself too seriously, and he always credited those around him, especially his offensive line. What I liked about him is that he had a sparkle in his eye. He was upbeat and positive."
Salaam was a runaway winner in the 1994 Heisman voting after rushing for 2,055 yards to become just the fourth player in college football history at the time to surpass the 2,000-yard mark. He won the Heisman by 248 votes and 842 points and was also a landslide winner in the voting for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's top running back.
He also became the fifth player in CU history to earn unanimous All-America honors.
"This is a sad day for the entire university community as we mourn Rashaan's death," CU Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano said. "Rashaan will be remembered as one of the greatest football players to ever wear a Buffs uniform, and his 1994 Heisman Trophy brought great prestige and honor to the university. We send our deepest condolences to his family and friends."
Salaam's final season at CU produced a long list of records. He set the school scoring mark that season with 24 touchdowns and 144 total points; had nine consecutive 100-yard games, including a pair of 200-plus games; and his 317-yard effort in a 34-31 win over Texas is still the second-highest single-game total in CU history. Salaam also had 45 yards receiving in the game, giving him a CU-record 362 yards from scrimmage.
Those numbers propelled him into the national spotlight. Even on a team that also included such stars as Kordell Stewart and Michael Westbrook, Salaam's accomplishments stood out and by season's end, he had become a favorite for the Heisman.
At his side through the process right up to the Heisman ceremony was CU Sports Information Director David Plati, who became one of Salaam's closest confidants.
"I am speechless," Plati said Tuesday. "I've stayed in constant touch with Rashaan since he left CU. You develop a special bond with players you escort to the Heisman ceremonies – Darian Hagan, Eric Bieniemy, Rashaan. It's hard to explain but when you go through that weekend of events, your relationship with them is taken up a notch. We're minus one true Buffalo today."
CU grad and current ESPN analyst Chris Fowler hosted the Heisman ceremony when Salaam won the award.
"Like all Buffs everywhere, I am filled with sadness at the news of Rashaan's passing," Fowler said Tuesday. "The night in December 1994 when Rashaan was presented the Heisman Trophy is certainly one of CU's finest moments ever. He was a deeply proud and loyal Buff and Heisman fraternity brother. Being there to share in his joy as the host of that program for the very first time will always remain a cherished memory.
"I will miss those hugs and his big smiles. And I will always think of Rashaan, dressed in black and gold, charging down the sideline on the way to his 2000 yards."
Salaam, who played eight-man football in high school at La Jolla Country Day, was one of the nation's most-prized recruits out of high school. He was recruited by former CU assistant linebackers coach Brian Cabral and late running backs coach Ben Gregory.
"He had the heart of a Buffalo, a great team player and an unforgettable smile," Cabral said Tuesday. "I will never forget asking Coach McCartney to watch a recruit from 8-man football that running back coach Ben Gregory and I watched and liked. He couldn't believe that we were asking him to watch 8-man football. He watched it, agreed with us and the rest was history. This is a great loss to the lives he had touched."
Once McCartney had seen Salaam, he knew Salaam was a player the Buffs wanted.
"I remember when we officially signed him, we had a lot of high-fives around the coaching staff offices because we knew this kid was really special," McCartney said. "He projected to be a tremendous can't-miss player coming out of high school. He was big and strong, fast and tough. He was very gifted, very athletic and very competitive."
Those projections obviously proved true. His accomplishments on the heels of CU's 1990 national championship season helped keep the Buffaloes in the spotlight as one of the nation's elite programs.
Salaam announced his decision to turn pro after CU's Fiesta Bowl win and he became a first-round draft choice of the Chicago Bears (21st overall). He played three seasons for the Bears, winning NFC Rookie of the Year honors in 1995, when he ran for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He finished with career numbers of 1,682 yards rushing, 120 yards receiving and 14 touchdowns for the Bears. He also played briefly with Cleveland and Green Bay in 1999, but was hampered by knee and ankle injuries for much of his pro career.
Salaam was inducted into CU's Athletic Hall of Fame in 2012 and was on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame for the first time in 2014.
"He was a tremendous competitor, a great teammate and he will be sorely missed," said former Buff player and coach Jon Embree. "He loved the Buffs."
Salaam most recently lived in Superior. His father, Harold "Teddy" Washington — now Sultan Salaam — played freshman football for Colorado in 1963 before transferring to San Diego State to be closer to home.