Late July is approaching and that means Rashaan Salaam soon will be packing his bags, preparing to leave his San Diego home to ply his trade in the sports world.
In his former life, that meant traveling to a National Football League city for training camp. The 1994 Heisman Trophy winner was a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears. In 1995, he set an NFL record his rookie year as the youngest player – then just 20-years-old – to gain 1,000 yards rushing.
But that was before he suffered a devastating ankle injury his third season that would prematurely end his career. Salaam attempted NFL comebacks and enjoyed success in the defunct XFL, but the surgically repaired ankle never regained the flexibility required of a thoroughbred to hit holes a split-second ahead of 300-pound linemen.
His last training camp was 2003 with the San Francisco 49ers when he survived until the last cuts before the season opener. He had fallen short of success he found as an NFL rookie, as a Colorado All-American and as a high school All-American at La Jolla Country Day.
But in the three years that have passed since then, a door has opened to a new life as an international businessman promoting martial arts fights in China. Borrowing from a Chinese proverb, Salaam says, “When something bad happens to you, something good follows. I’m traveling the world and I’m associated with some powerful people.”
Salaam and old San Diego friend, Konrad Pi, have teamed with Konrad’s father, Frank Pi, to form Adoria Entertainment Group. The company’s fourth promotion in China is The Art of War Championships IV on July 29 in Beijing.
“I look back on my pro football career and it doesn’t bother me anymore,” Salaam said. “People looking from the outside in might say I wasn’t a success. But I’m a better person now than I would be if I had gained 10,000 yards and played 11 years. I’m thankful for not making it bigger in the NFL, because otherwise I wouldn’t know the people I know now and I wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing now.”
Salaam’s role with starting up Adoria was seeking investors and that task of approaching people for money gave him a new appreciation for his Heisman Trophy and the doors it opens. Perhaps more than any other award in American sports, “Heisman Trophy winner” is an enduring title for life.
“You have to have strong self-esteem to ask people to put money into something,” Salaam said. “I’m learning the business from people who know marketing. For every 10 people you talk to, seven won’t care what you’re saying. But of the other three all you need is one.”
Salaam’s previous events in China, promoted in English and Chinese Mandarin at www.mmachina.com, were in Beijing and Xian. The latter is the ancient capital of China, where Salaam found himself just another American tourist as he explored the buried tomb of Emperor Qin and his Terracotta Army from 200 BC.
So far Salaam’s mixed martial arts fights have been staged in medium-sized arenas before sellout crowds of 6,000, but they’re building to sponsoring bigger events.
“We’re a young company taking baby steps,” he said. “We have to work with people in the government and with sports associations in China. We don’t want to step on any toes. People in China love the sport, and I think this sport is safer than boxing. You aren’t just getting pounded on because you have to know how to escape.”
Salaam is musing about his company growing and expanding when he suddenly volunteers a future investment that he hopes to make.
“If I ever have kids, the money I’m making with this is going to pay to send them to private school,” he said.
In high school, Salaam grudgingly went along with his mother’s desire to send him to La Jolla Country Day, an exclusive private school. The move meant he couldn’t fulfill his dream of being one of the great running backs to play for Lincoln High, a school that is second in the nation for turning out the most NFL players.
There must be a Chinese proverb that explains such irony.