Salaam's freshman frustrations become major nightmares for opponents

(c) Copyright the News & Observer Publishing Co. and The Associated Press, 1994

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) -- Rashaan Salaam wanted to leave Colorado after his freshman season. He hated school, missed his friends and family in San Diego and was upset about his lack of playing time.

"Right after the Fiesta Bowl, I called my mom and said, 'I'm coming home,"' Salaam said.

But after talking to his parents, Salaam changed his mind.

"We convinced him to stick it out," said his mother Khalada, who runs a private elementary school in San Diego. "He was very unhappy, but we told him quitting wasn't the answer."

Staying in Boulder turned out to be a great decision for Salaam and Colorado.

Now a junior, the versatile tailback is one of the leading contenders for the Heisman Trophy. He leads the nation in rushing, scoring and all-purpose yards, and is one of the main reasons the second-ranked Buffaloes are 7-0 going into Saturday's showdown at No. 3 Nebraska.

"He's the best back in the country," teammate Chris Hudson said. "He reminds me of Eric Dickerson."

Gone are Salaam's wild freshman days, when he spent most of his time "hanging out and partying." He worked hard in the offseason to get in the best condition of his life.

"He really accepted the challenge," coach Bill McCartney said. "Now he's capable of carrying 35 times a game."

Salaam said his attitude began to change after his disappointing freshman year. After a sensational high school career in eight-man football, he expected to step right in and become an instant star at Colorado. When that didn't happen, he got so frustrated that he almost quit.

"I could see how disappointed everyone was back home," Salaam said. "My friends were telling me how stupid I was. I was throwing it all away."

It wasn't the first time Salaam felt that way.

When his mother forced him to attend LaJolla Country Day, a posh private high school 35 miles from their home, Salaam rebelled. Growing up in a black, inner-city neighborhood, he experienced culture shock upon entering a rich white world.

"The first day I got there, I started crying," Salaam said. "I was begging my mom to take me home."

"He wasn't used to all the opulence, all those Mercedes and Jaguars," his mother said. "It was a completely new environment for him."

Salaam eventually adjusted -- to school and eight-man football, a miniature version of the game played by small schools on an 80-yard by 40-yard field. He led LaJolla to three straight league championships, and finished his career with 4,965 yards and 112 touchdowns.

"It was almost too easy," Salaam said. "All we ran was sweep left and sweep right."

His mother wanted him to attend a prestigious academic school like California or Stanford. But Rashaan decided to go away to Colorado, where his father played freshman football in 1963.

"I didn't want him to go to a college with a strong football program," said Khalada Salaam, who got divorced when Rashaan was 4 years old and has since remarried. "I wanted him to prepare for life after football."

Rashaan had trouble dealing with life and football during his first year at Colorado. He was charged with giving police a false name during an incident at a liquor store and was hampered by a sprained ankle on the field.

But he blossomed during his sophomore season, rushing for 844 yards while sharing playing time with Lamont Warren in Colorado's one-back offense. Salaam had four 100-yard games, including a 135-yard, three-touchdown performance against Fresno State in the Aloha Bowl.

But that was only a warmup for this season.

With Warren now in the NFL, Salaam has emerged as a star who could become the first player since Barry Sanders in 1988 to lead Division I-A in rushing, scoring and all-purpose yards. He has scored 18 touchdowns and is averaging 179 rushing yards and 32 receiving yards per game.

"He's kind of laid back until he gets the ball in his hands," receiver Michael Westbrook said. "Then he's explosive."

Texas found that out Oct. 1 when Salaam ran for 317 yards -- the most ever allowed by the Longhorns and the second-highest total in Colorado history. Playing in 90-degree heat, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Salaam was so drained that he had to get intravenous injections at halftime.

"He was spent," said running backs coach Ben Gregory. "We tried to spot him as best we could, but he wants to play as much as he can."

Last week, Salaam rushed for 202 yards against Kansas State to become the first Colorado player to top 200 yards twice in one season. But records and awards don't excite him. Sometimes, they even scare him.

Salaam said he doesn't want to win the Heisman Trophy because "I know how much pressure it will put on me. I just want to play football. I don't want to deal with all the hassles."

McCartney said it's also a reflection of Salaam's unselfishness.

"I think Rashaan is totally caught up in the team," he said. "He's intoxicated with the team spirit ... so he deflects plaudits that come his way."

Whether or not he wins the Heisman, Salaam will be under a lot of pressure to skip his final year of college and turn pro after this season.

"I'm getting all these calls," he said, "and people are putting all these numbers in my head. They don't even say, 'Hi, how are you?' They just want to know if I'm coming back next year."

Salaam knows it would be hard to pass up a multimillion dollar NFL contract, but that's the way he's leaning now.

"I don't want to leave Colorado," he said. "There's so much love here ... and I'm afraid it's not going to be there at the next level."