Photo: Rashaan Salaam with the Bears
Note: My San Diego Union-Tribune story from Sept. 22, 1995 at the start of Rashaan Salaam’s rookie year.
By Tom Shanahan, Staff Writer
CHICAGO – Rashaan Salaam drives to work past mansions in suburban Lake Forest along the Lake Michigan shore. He takes a narrow road, leading to theChicago Bears' practice site at Halas Hall, shaded by trees spreading out to form a branch-topped tunnel.
Salaam is a Heisman Trophy winner; he's the Bears' first-round draft pick who signed a four-year, $3.8 million contract, including a $1.82 million bonus; he makes his first start as a rookie running back Sunday against the St. Louis Rams.
He may have the bank account and recognition to be comfortable in a tony environment, but don't forget, he's 20 years old. He's the youngest player in the NFL. He's closer in age to high school seniors at his alma mater, La Jolla Country Day, than many of his colleagues.
"I'm going against guys 10 years older than me," Salaam said, shaking his head in an office after a Bears practice recently. "The biggest adjustment is mental."
Salaam, who left Colorado after his junior year to turn pro, is overwhelmed and still learning to deal with the attention that has come his way in such a short time.
At Halas Hall, after practice, he emerges from the locker room and walks briskly, head bowed, past reporters down a hallway to an off-limits team room.
At Soldier Field, after the Bears' loss to the Green Bay Packers the second week of the season in a Monday night game, he's sitting in his locker-room stall dressed only in football pants. He politely asks television reporters, cameras focused his way, to wait until he's dressed.
"I've learned the media isn't always on your side," said Salaam. "I don't care about the hype. I don't read newspapers anymore, whether it's positive or negative. I got caught up in that in high school, when I enjoyed seeing my name in the paper. Now I see it as a distraction."
Not every pro rookie is ready for the attention. Magic Johnson stepped into the NBA easily with a gregarious personality. Larry Bird, a rookie the same year, had to learn.
As a rookie, Salaam is taking life one step at a time. He drives a Suburban, an expensive but reasonable purchase for him. He told his mother, Khalada Salaam-Alaji, he wouldn't splurge for the kind of ostentatious luxury cars athletes are known for until he's at least 25.
He lives in Highland Park, an eight-minute drive from Halas Hall. He rents a three-bedroom home, explaining: "I'll wait before I buy anything, to see where I want to live."
He says his only toy is a big-screen TV, "so I can relax at home and watch games." Marvin Demoff, his agent, is investing the majority of his money.
When Salaam does go out to clubs in Chicago, usually with Curtis Conway, a 23-year-old teammate from USC, he enjoys moments of anonymity he never had out of uniform in college.
"There are a lot of bald-headed black guys in Chicago," said Salaam. "This isn't like Boulder (Colo.)."
“Rashaan doesn't want to be a public figure this early in his career," said his mother, who visited Chicago the week of the Green Bay game. "A lot has been said about him, but he wants to prove himself on the field."
Coach Dave Wannstedt considered Salaam's age when developing a plan to phase him into a Chicago offense that was weak running the ball last year.
"In this town, with the hype, the history, the fans, we're bringing him along slowly,” Wannstedt said. "I don't want to throw him in there, have him get shellshocked and go the other way. We'll play him more each week, and by the middle of the year, he'll be the guy."
Wannstedt dragged out the word guy, suggesting the Bears don't feel any less fortunate Salaam fell to them as the 21st pick of the draft. He was the fifth running back taken -- behind Ki-Jana Carter (Cincinnati, No. 1), Tyrone Wheatley (New York Giants, No. 17), Napoleon Kaufman (Oakland, No.18) and James Stewart (Jacksonville, No. 19).
"It's the same as going to college," said Salaam, who played eight-man football in high school. "I have to prove myself all over again."
Salaam is one of only four college running backs to top 2,000 yards in a season, gaining 2,055 last year. But he slipped in the draft because scouts say he lacks breakaway speed and wiggle.
"That's not my style," Salaam said. "I'm a down-and-dirty back."
Salaam has carried the ball for three touchdowns in three games for a team that scored only 10 TDs on the ground last year. With 41 carries for 131 yards -- and a long of 11 yards -- he has been limited to short-yardage situations and blocking on passing downs.
"It's frustrating at times, but Coach Wannsted is doing the right thing," said Salaam. "Everything is more cutthroat up here. Everything is quicker. The contact isn't much different, but there is seldom leakage in the defense."
Such as when he couldn't find a hole -- or a body to run over -- as the Bears settled for a field goal in a 27-24 loss to the Packers. Salaam, who already had scored twice in the game, carried on first-and-goal from the 2 (no gain) and then second-and-goal (1-yard loss).
"I felt like I let the team down," Salaam said. "I didn't hit the hole right. I had never been shut down at the goal line."
It never happened in college, confirmed Colorado Sports Information Director Dave Plati, and certainly not in eight-man high school football, when Salaam played like a man among boys.
Injuries in the backfield forced the Bears to move up their timetable, naming Salaam as a starter for the St. Louis game. But Wannstedt added he may name Salaam a full-time starter by the Oct. 8 game against Carolina.
That's Salaam's birthday -- the day he turns 21.