Even Michael Westbrook was caught by surprise when the Colorado Buffaloes receiver was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame earlier this year. He became the seventh player in Buffs history to be enshrined, joining Byron “Whizzer” White (graduating class of 1938), John Wooten (‘59), Joe Romig (‘62), Dick Anderson (‘68), Bobby Anderson (‘70) and Alfred Williams (‘91).
Westbrook was an exceptional receiver, probably the best we have had in Boulder. He was named consensus first-team All-American, won the Paul Warfield award for best receiver in the country, and made the famous ‘Miracle at Michigan’ catch. It’s just surprising that he was the first player from the 1994 team to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, ahead of the late Rashaan Salaam.
Salaam’s Heisman-winning performance in 1994 might be the single best individual season in program history. A power back with breakaway speed, an absolute workhorse who was indefatigable, Salaam ground opponents to dust. He led Colorado to an 11-1 record, a Fiesta Bowl win and a #3 finish in the AP Poll.
That was his only season as the starting running back, but he had more touchdowns (24) and nearly as many yards (2,349) in 1994 than Westbrook had in his entire career (2,632 and 19). If you consider him a one-year wonder — keep in mind he had 844 yards and 8 touchdowns the season before — then that one season was an all-timer. In addition to the Heisman, he also won the Doak Walker and Walter Camp awards and was a unanimous All-American selection.
Maybe he could have made himself a legend by returning for his senior year, but he had proven everything in college and was a guaranteed first round pick. Maybe he could have tried for a National Championship, but that Buffs team may have been the best in CU history, only they ran up against Nebraska’s mid-90s dynasty.
Irrespective of context, Salaam has an easy case for the Hall of Fame. Every single other Heisman winner before 1999 is enshrined in Atlanta, all but the Buffs back. To be eligible for the Hall of Fame, players have to be 10 years removed from their final game, have played within 50 years of their enshrinement, and been an All-American at some point. Salaam passes the first three tests.
There’s a final criterion that might be the hold-up in Salaam’s case:
While each nominee’s football achievements in college are of prime consideration, his post football record as a citizen is also weighed. He must have proven himself worthy as a citizen, carrying the ideals of football forward into his relations with his community and fellow man.
A shy man who wished to be anonymous, Salaam thought of the Heisman as a curse, reportedly, and struggled with the burden of expectations. Football was easy for him, but life off the field wasn’t, as he had mental health problems most of his life and coped the best he could. After a number of injuries, he told ESPN’s Solomon Wilcots that he was “addicted to marijuana.” That was hardly news for anyone in Boulder, and it’s not even a crime anymore, but back in 1999 it cut short any chance of a comeback.
There’s a chance that the College Football Hall of Fame doesn’t want to recognize Salaam because of his weed-smoking habits. Colorado has certainly seen a change in perception over the years, but marijuana usage is still stigmatized around much of the country. The college football establishment is more likely to have conservative views on the drug.
Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan believes marijuana is why he hasn’t been inducted.
“That one makes no sense to me, other than the fact that somebody has a personal vendetta,” Hagan said to the Denver Post. “(Salaam) went to the NFL, and when he admitted that he did the marijuana thing — that probably had a little bit to do with it. But you can’t hold that against him.”
After his suicide, we know Salaam was mentally ill and was using to cope with his depression. Now it’s common for doctors to prescribe THC and CBD to depression patients, particularly those with as severe of cases as his. Smoking weed shouldn’t keep him out of the hall, if that is the reason for his exclusion. The Hall of Fame even inducted Ricky Williams in 2015, the 1998 Heisman winner who briefly retired from the NFL to treat his anxiety with marijuana.
If that is true and Salaam is being withheld because of his mental health and subsequent substance abuse, it not only undermines his football career, but his overall character as a person. He was, by all accounts, a kind man who wanted to be just another guy. Maybe he wouldn’t want to be recognized and honors, but his memory deserves to be immortalized in the College Football Hall of Fame.