Bernstein: Remembering Rashaan Salaam

By Dan Bernstein

First-round pick Rashaan Salaam was far from the only rookie at Bears minicamp in the summer of 1995. The recent Heisman Trophy winner was joined on the practice field in Lake Forest not only by eight others in his draft class, including a pair of second-round selections, but by a certain 25-year-old radio reporter working a regular professional beat for the first time anywhere.

That it was a new job for a relatively new outlet in a major media market covering the city’s most important team added to the pressure. So there was some shared understanding when Salaam appeared overwhelmed upon arrival.

There were already sticking points in what had been expected to be a perfunctory contract negotiation, enough that the 20-year old would eventually be late to the start of training camp in Platteville, Wisconsin. Reporters converged on him to press for details, and all he could keep repeating, quietly, was “I just want to play football.”

A veteran local television reporter challenged him on that line of response, asking Salaam if saying that publicly could diminish his leverage in the eyes of the team and hurt his bargaining power. And Salaam merely admitted “I don’t know. I just want to play football.”

He eventually did just that and well enough, rushing for 1074 yards and 10 touchdowns that season. It would be the best he’d do, however, beset by both fumbling problems and a string of injuries that led him to withdraw into social isolation and heavy marijuana use.

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Salaam was found dead Monday in Boulder, Colorado at age 42. Details remained unavailable at the time of publication, but the quiet sadness of the news recalled memories of a kind and guarded young man who struggled to find a comfortable place. He seemed to sport only two distinct facial expressions when I covered him as a Bear — either a twinkly grin or a stony and distant stare, and far more of the latter than the former. His professional life was complicated by proximity to Raymont Harris, a talented and competitive running back who was also naturally gregarious, making the rookie seem even more awkward than he was.

It was only many years later that I would talk to Salaam and hear him mature and outgoing, long after he had come to grips with the end of his football career and spent time talking to kids about making good choices in life. He sounded like someone who knew he wasn’t ready for what he had at the time he joined the NFL, and wished he had made better of his opportunity.

An exchange that occurred in the locker room in 1995 came to mind when I heard of his death yesterday, recalling when a tactless reporter tried to ask ham-handed questions about the significance of Salaam’s full name, something along the lines of “So, Rashaan Iman Salaam… um… what does that all mean, anyway?”

Salaam was clearly and understandably perturbed, but just looked the reporter in the eye and responded “I’m a Muslim. It’s Arabic. It means righteous, faith and peace.”

After others left his locker, I engaged him in a brief discussion about the clear similarities between the Arabic “Salaam Aleikum” and the Hebrew “Shalom Aleichem,” noting the shared Semitic linguistic roots of the wish to someone that peace may be upon them.

I hope that at some point it was.

Dan Bernstein is senior columnist on CBS Chicago and co-host of “Boers & Bernstein” on Chicago’s 670 The Score.

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