Been There, Done That

By Greg Couch
Updated: May 24, 2008

Rashaan Salaam

Rashaan Salaam

CHICAGO — So I was talking with someone about Cedric Benson on Thursday, laughing at the idea that we’re supposed to buy into now: that Benson has lost weight because he finally ”gets it.”

The guy on the phone laughed, too. ”He was the wrong person to give money to,” he said. ”The Bears gave him cash, and he lost his mind. ”He stopped working. He’s not the same person he was coming out of college. They gave it to him, and he didn’t give a damn anymore.”

You don’t know how strange it was hearing those words from Rashaan Salaam.

We know all about the club of great Bears running backs through history, with Walter Payton, Gale Sayers and others. Benson was supposed to join that club. Instead, he’s joining a different one that’s suddenly becoming equally as defining in Bears history:

Failed backs taken in the first round.

Salaam is the CEO of that club, though at least he had one good year. That’s one more than Benson and Curtis Enis combined. ”The Bears have been very supportive of him,” Salaam said. ”He should appreciate that. A lot of teams would have given up on him by now.”

Salaam, 33, seems to have grown up. He lives in San Diego and promotes mixed martial arts events in China. ”Cannot complain,” he said. ”We’re doing a nationally televised show. Right now, it’s a very lucrative business.”

He’s bubbly, chatty, and he knows his place in Bears history: a Heisman Trophy winner who never made it big. That bugs him. But he looks in the mirror when assessing blame. He sees, too, that Benson is now in the club.

”I was just very young and immature,” he said. ”I was only 20 years old, and 20-year-olds are not supposed to be playing professional football.

”I wasn’t ready mentally. It didn’t have to do with the team, the coaching, any of that. I was just young. I put myself around the wrong people.

”You know how many football players are smoking weed?” he said, acknowledging that he was one. ”Everybody smokes weed out there. That had nothing to do with it. I was just young and immature.”

Enis has been a little tougher to reach. He used to work third shift at a garage-door company in Russia, Ohio. Supposedly, he had lost all his money. But the company’s human resources department said he doesn’t work there anymore. Some reports say he was studying to be a cop.

Has Salaam blown his money?

”Oh, no, no, noooo, no way,” he said. ”I’m not that kind of person. I don’t live beyond my means.”

This is about personal accountability. We’re told that Benson gets it, but I doubt it. Where you hear it is in Salaam.

I actually remember where I was when hearing that the Bears had drafted Salaam: hiking in the mountains in Colorado. Two other hikers in Chicago T-shirts coincidentally approached. So we talked, and they mentioned whom the Bears had drafted and wondered if he was any good.

This was my assessment: He’s a great runner, but he stands up straight and fumbles too much. He’s going to be great, though. This is big.

But back to personal accountability. Salaam said he blew it from the beginning, when he held out for more money from the Bears.

”My reason for holding out was so ludicrous,” he said. ”The Bears were trying to give me $1.5 million, and I held out 16 days for $300,000 more.

”I was the fifth back taken in the first round, and I wanted to prove to the world I was the best back. Then I held out for 16 days. It got me off to a slow start. I rushed for 1,000 yards that year, but if I had been there from Day 1, maybe it would have been 1,400 or 1,500.”

Who knows, really? But maybe Salaam is a lesson for Benson, who might be innocent in his whole alcohol and boating issue. Bears general manager Jerry Angelo blames Benson for putting himself in position to have this problem.

And Benson said he didn’t understand what Angelo meant.

Over the years, Benson got a big signing bonus, held out, was handed the starting job before earning it. The Bears moved Thomas Jones to clear an easier path for Benson. But this year, they drafted Matt Forte to compete for Benson’s job.

”They’ve given him everything,” Salaam said. ”But they’re getting tired of him. I have the most respect for the Chicago Bears organization for sticking with this dude. They are really looking out for Cedric Benson, treating him like he’s an all-pro player.

”Coming out of college, he was a polished young man, well-spoken. The way he’s acting now is mind-boggling.”

Salaam played 2½ seasons for the Bears, from 1995 to ’97. He played two games for Cleveland, then tried out in Oakland but got cut. He feels he earned a second shot and still is baffled about why he didn’t get one.

”I’m disappointed I have not been playing for 10 years,” he said.

He seems to have adjusted well, accepted his responsibility, though it was way too late for the Bears. What do you figure Benson’s story will be in 10 years?