Depression and Professional Football: How Should Players Be Protected?

Months after Rashaan Salaam's suicide, questions remain whether NFL players are at risk

Running back Rashan Salaam of the Chicago Bears on October 1996. Credit: Jonathan Daniel/AllSport/Getty

If there was something wrong with your body, you wouldn't play football in order to fix it. The cure for a broken leg isn't a touchdown. The fix for a torn ACL isn't a 1,000-yard season. The one thing you wouldn't do is play football until you were well again. But what if there was something wrong with your brain? What if there was something wrong with your self-perception? Are these players being protected from football?

That's a topic that we unfortunately had to address again in December, following the suicide of former Heisman trophy winner Rashaan Salaam, a player who had a very public battle against being labeled a "bust," which may have led to severe depression. Though months have passed since his death, there haven't been, and likely will never be, any revelations on whether or not chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) played a role, as Salaam's beliefs as a Muslim forbid such invasive tests on the body and brain. So the questions will always linger, especially as more studies come out to reveal the high likelihood of an NFL player developing CTE, but some speculate that nothing may be more relevant to Salaam's depression than his passion for not letting people down.

Through it all, Salaam never ran away from football. Actually, he may have hid his demons so well, with his constant bright smile and the positive attitude he had when he talked about anyone but himself, that many may not have realized how bad things had gotten before the end. Former Colorado teammate T.J. Cunningham told the New York Times that Rashaan "was a happy guy. I can still see him at Christmas last year, at my house teaching my 2-year-old how to hit a baseball. But, you know, Rashaan struggled with some things." The biggest struggle that people who knew Salaam bring up is how disappointed he was with himself for winning college football's most prestigious award, and then flaming out of the NFL after a few short years due to injuries and inconsistent play.

Would a change in his football destiny – whether that meant him never winning the Heisman or having the pro career that matched his historic season at Colorado – have done anything to help him escape the thoughts in his head that eventually led to his suicide? The obstacles in life don't take all the blame for its tragedies, but Salaam's greatness for the Buffs may have been forgotten because of his forgettable pro career.

"I think more people who maybe didn't understand his impact 20 years ago, I think they get that now," says Colorado assistant AD David Plati, who was alongside Salaam during his Heisman-winning ceremony and many events since. Those accomplishments center around Salaam's 1994 season, when he rushed for 2,055 yards and 24 touchdowns as the Buffs went 11-1, with their only loss coming at the hands of Nebraska, the eventual national champions.

With more attention than he ever expected – especially because he always deferred credit to his offensive linemen and hated the spotlight – Salaam was selected by the Chicago Bears with the 21st overall pick in the 1995 draft. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year, but that may not have done him any favors either. Salaam's 3.6 yards per carry ranked 37th in the league, and he had fewer yards, touchdowns, receptions, and receiving yards than fellow rookie Curtis Martin, a third round pick and future Hall of Famer.

Those are the titles than fans never get out of their heads: 2,000-yard rusher, Heisman winner, Rookie of the Year. Even if Salaam did have the talent to become one of the NFL's best, a constant string of injuries kept him from having his shot and he had just 610 yards after his rookie season. And if not for a string of four consecutive 200-yard games to end the year, Salaam probably doesn't win the Heisman, and his name likely disappears over time, just like other failed first round running backs of the time like John Avery, Jarrod Bunch and Vaughn Dunbar.

Nobody forgot about Salaam. After he won the Heisman and put the expectations of countless fans on his back, he didn't want to be forgotten, be he also didn't want to be a disappointment.

"If he had not won the Heisman, I don't know if he would have ever felt that way," says Plati. "When you add in that Heisman component, I think that's really where everybody who hears the name Rashaan Salaam, boom, 'He won the Heisman.' And when he doesn't do something Heisman-esque, now the expectations supposedly aren’t being met."

But just like how some of his Colorado teammates didn't meet expectations in the pros – like quarterback Kordell Stewart and receiver Michael Westbrook, the fourth overall pick ahead of Salaam – there are also many examples of Heisman winners who didn't have notable NFL careers. Talk of suicide and depression is not common with these players. Schematic differences between college and the pros, as well as the injury bug, are part of what held 2001 Heisman winner Eric Crouch back from achieving success at the next level.

"I never put the value on my life on how well I ever did or didn't do in a game of football," says Crouch. "I know that many people hold it as a pretty high standard, but I never let it define me as a person or control my life. I could see sometimes how players may think that this is it for them. All or nothing. Playing the game at the highest level and being successful, that's such a small percentage and that's why, as children, we're always being told that you need to have your education and a second plan."

Consider that most Heisman winners from 1989 to 2000 had very little success in the pros, like Andre Ware, Ty Detmer, Desmond Howard, Gino Torretta, Charlie Ward, Danny Wuerffel, Ron Dayne, Chris Weinke and Crouch. Ware, Howard and Dayne also had the expectations of being first-round picks. And there's little known or said about depression among these men. On the contrary, we do know about depression from some of the successful ones.

Ricky Williams, Texas' Heisman winner in 1998 who also had a 2,000 yard season in college and was a high first round pick, ended up rushing for over 10,000 yards in the NFL and was quite successful. Still, Williams has been open about his depression in recent years.

"I was 23, a millionaire and had everything, yet I was never more unhappy in my life," Williams said in an article for Anxiety and Depression Association of America. "I felt extremely isolated from my friends and family because I couldn't explain to them what I was feeling. I had no idea what was wrong with me."

Williams didn't start to recover until he sought help. Perhaps that's a move that Salaam was never able to make. Dwight Hollier, a former pro linebacker who is now the vice president of wellness and clinical services for the NFL, says that the league has programs in place for current and former players in need of help, including the Transition Assistance Program. "No matter when they played or how long they played, that option is available to them," says Hollier. 

And if a player may need help but isn't actively seeking out, he could likely be showing signs of depression anyway. "One thing I know from my playing days is that when something's not right, it shows up," Hollier explains. "It shows up on the field and people will pay attention. And that's the first indicator and opportunity to get the resources in place." Signs could appear, but that’s also not a guarantee. Especially after retirement, when people may not be seeing you as often as a teammate or coach would during the season and various offseason activities.

"I saw him a couple times a year and he always had that big smile on his face," says Crouch. "He must have really been struggling because he was able to hide it well."

Crouch won the Heisman at Nebraska and was a third round pick of the Rams, but he never played a snap in the NFL due to injuries and a position switch from quarterback to receiver, a position he had never played before. Salaam always felt like his lack of success as a professional turned him from "hero" to "disappointment" to the Colorado faithful.

"I think I've felt that way at times," says Crouch. "That's why I battled so hard. It's not just for ourselves, it's our families, teammates, the university, really trying to push through our football career and make the most out of things." But Crouch says he has never come close to feeling the level of depression Salaam must have felt before taking his own life.

If it's not just about depression brought on by relative "failure" then could it at least be depression exacerbated by CTE after years of football? Symptoms of CTE include suicidal thoughts, depression, emotional instability, and drug use. All of those symptoms are publicly recognized as things that Salaam struggled with.

However, though his brother has said that he believes Salaam had CTE, there will never be confirmation via testing. Furthermore, Plati said he doesn’t know of Salaam suffering numerous concussions or head injuries while at Colorado, and his NFL injury history stemmed mostly around his legs, not his brain. He also didn't play that much football, totaling less than 1,000 carries over both his college and pro careers combined. And while a new study did show that 110 of 111 brains examined in a certain category of NFL players did have C.T.E., it's not as simple as the headlines that spread over the internet in late July.

The number of players with CTE goes down slightly (87%) when looking at all 202 brains examined in the study, and the volunteer participants and families were already biased towards submitting for the research, as outlined by those who conducted the tests: Researchers make sure to note that the study has "ascertainment bias." They caution that "public awareness of a possible link between repetitive head trauma and CTE may have motivated players and their families with symptoms and signs of brain injury to participate in this research."

Salaam may have had CTE, but we'll never know. If he did have CTE, it may have contributed to his suicide, but that is also something we could never confirm.

Salaam continued to fight for years, his last straw coming when he was suspended by the Toronto Argonauts in 2004, a decade after his Heisman season. He had offseason stints with the Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers, had a brief moment in the XFL, and promoted mixed martial arts in China. He struggled with marijuana use. He was Muslim. He was shy and he hated interviews. He liked working with kids in his SPIN foundation, and he funded a ski trip to Aspen in 2015 for at-risk youths.

For all intents and purposes, Rashaan Salaam was just another person. He was a public persona because he accomplished things that so few people do on a stage that is watched by millions, but the trophies, stats and headlines are just accoutrements to what Salaam was at his core: A humble guy who deferred so much of the credit that he may not have given himself enough of it to understand or appreciate his own value.

Now that he's gone, we may never fully understand him either. But we can always appreciate him.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK(8255), connects the caller to a certified crisis center near where the call is placed.