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Journalism Showcase: “Rashaan’s story has so many tragic turns, and so many unknowns. There was a lot of finger-pointing.”

Liz Merrill's and E:60 profiles of 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam involved three years of interviews

Senior writer Liz Merrill has been working on the story of 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam’s life since he died in 2016.

Her profile of the former University of Colorado star is complete and on Tuesday, Dec. 17., E:60 will share it at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

“Rashaan died in December 2016, and right after that, my editor, Jena Janovy, asked me to start reporting on his life and death,” Merrill said. “Sometimes when something tragic like this happens, we might try to make sense of it in a quick-turn story. But we knew pretty early on that this was not something that could be summed up in a few days.”

Merrill has experience reporting on similar stories and approaches them the same way, with great sensitivity to everyone in the subject’s life.

“A rule for me is to always put myself in the loved ones’ shoes. I usually try to find someone who is close to the family to serve as an intermediary instead of cold-calling a wife or mom in the middle of the worst time of their life,” Merrill said. “Some people want to talk right away; it’s cathartic. Others may not ever be ready.”

In this case, Salaam’s mother needed time and his brother couldn’t bring himself to do the interview. So, Merrill began with a former member of the Chicago Bears who connected her with many of Salaam’s NFL teammates from the 1995 Chicago Bears.

“Honestly, I could’ve done a story on that, this 1995 Bears team losing a member of their close-knit family and their own worries about CTE and mortality,” Merrill said. “Erik Kramer, the Bears quarterback at the time, also tried to end his own life a year earlier. I had a long interview with him in December 2016. But we decided we wanted to do more digging and speak with more people in [Salaam’s] life and by that time, E:60 was interested in doing a story, too.”

Merrill and Janovy collaborated with E:60 producer Frank Saraceno and reporter Kate Fagan to learn as much information as possible on Salaam. As with all stories, there were some challenges throughout the interview process.

“Rashaan’s story has so many tragic turns, and so many unknowns. There was a lot of finger-pointing. One person claiming to be his best friend would say this person abandoned and scammed Rashaan; then another person would do the same thing, blaming someone else,” Merrill said. “We wanted to chronicle, best as we could, the life of a man who was searching for something. His place in life. Hopefully, his story will help someone else who’s struggling.”

In October 2017, Colorado invited Rashaan Salaam’s family to Boulder, Colo., to retire \to retire Salaam’s jersey number. (Nick Cote for ESPN)

– Molly Mita

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