I love award season - The Oscars, The Golden Globes, The Grammys, Time's Person of the Year (okay...maybe not this one so much), and The Heisman. I love award season because it invokes a sense of competition while at the same time invoking and of community as fans rally behind their favorite. Awards are often political. They're also whitewashed, and they're sometimes disturbing in their reflection of culture. Oftentimes, I can look past all that though, and can still enjoy award season as good-natured fun.
This year may be different.
Of all the award nominee announcements given at this time of year, I particularly enjoy the Heisman Trophy announcement. Though I never know all of the nominees right off the bat, I look forward to learning about them. I look forward to watching their game clips, and their interviews, and their parents blubbering about how proud they are of them. This year's Heisman nominees were just announced, and once again it is a very exciting time, but it is also a plaintive time as football fans - especially CU Buffaloes fans - mourn the loss of Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam.
Rashaan Salaam was a Running Back for CU Boulder when he won the Heisman in 1994, becoming the University of Colorado's only Heisman Winner. Those who remember his time at CU remember Salaam as someone who was just as extraordinary around campus as he was a on the field:
Unfortunately, after college, Salaam spiraled downward into a failed NFL career, but even still he seemed happy, to most, and to most he was still easy to root for. For even those who knew him best, the suspicion that Rashaan Salaam's death in College Park was a suicide came as a complete shock.
In an interview with The Chicago Tribune, Salaam compared the NFL to college football. He said,
Playing football in college or in the NFL - with the wins, and the end zone dances, and the camaraderie, and even the Christmas gifts - can be just plain fun. If it wasn't fun to play it wouldn't be fun to watch. But as Salaam touched on, playing football can bring lifestyle changes that are not so fun; changes that would be hard for anyone to face, but that become even harder to face when drug and alcohol addiction become involved, or when concussion becomes involved, or when depression becomes involved. Dealing with those lifestyle changes is not something that comes naturally for most. Instead, it has to be learned. It takes practice.
Maybe Salaam never made it to that practice. Rashaan Salaam was truly a great football player. He learned a lot on Folsom Field at CU Boulder, but maybe what he learned on the field did not prepare him adequately for the lifestyle challenges he faced off the field. He may never have learned how to cope with his financial problems. He may never have learned how to deal with a marijuana addiction. He may never have learned what to do after things are not "fun" any longer.
The Westword wrote that, on his Facebook page, shortly before his death, Salaam wrote that ",,,he was 'feeling joyful' and added the caption, 'Keep smiling'". I hope that Salaam felt at peace the day he wrote that post. I hope that his heart felt at peace. More than anything, though, I hope that Salaam's death was not in vain. Maybe others will be able to feel joyful and will be able to keep smiling because of the legacy that he left behind.
I will leave you with what I hope for you. I hope that, football fan or not, you will allow Rashaan Salaam's death to affect you. No, I don't want you to wallow in sadness. I want you to take action.
I hope that you write this number down or put it in your phone. It's the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Maybe you will never need to use the Lifeline or maybe you will never need to give it out to anyone else, but what if you do? What if someone needs it and you're not prepared? What if someone needs it and you are prepared? What if you save someone's life?
I hope that you realize that depression is not synonymous with weakness. Being mentally ill is not "being a wussy". Lifestyle changes are hard. Sometimes they're so hard that athletes - that anybody - would rather drown than face them. Let's not let each other drown. Let's offer lifelines instead.