Running Man

Area high school football legend Saladin McCullough takes his talents to the Xtreme — the Los Angeles Xtreme

By William Campbell
April 12, 2001

Saladin McCullough laughs when he recalls the advice his younger brother Sultan gave him after the XFL’s Los Angeles Xtreme drafted him last year.

Saladin McCulloughSultan, who’s heading toward his junior year as the starting running back with the USC Trojans, told Saladin, “Don’t get cut this time. If you do, you’ve gotta go out and get a real job.”

If the life-long Pasadena resident had been cut, McCullough says that job would probably be either as a probation officer or working with kids in the community after finishing up the bachelor’s degree in sociology he left behind at Oregon University to pursue a career in the NFL that never came to pass.

But rather than dwell on the dreaded wouldabeens and couldabeens of his past, the 464th pick of the 2000 XFL draft worked hard impressing the Xtreme’s coaches in the preseason and even harder through the first three week’s of the season on the team’s practice squad. It paid off and he joined his team on the sidelines Feb. 25 for his first game.

His debut in the fledgling XFL was a wet and wild one. Emerging from the darkness of the tunnel that day at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum into an unrelenting downpour that had already flooded the field beneath his cleats, McCullough trotted toward the sidelines as fireworks boomed and the waterlogged fans in attendance erupted in cheers. But for the 25-year-old local football hero, legendary for tearing up the fields at John Muir High School and Pasadena City and El Camino colleges before gaining national prominence as a running back at Oregon University, his professional football debut here at the Coliseum was more than just 60 minutes of football. It was equal parts redemption, affirmation, fulfillment, dreams come true — all of the above.

Sure he looked calm on the outside — almost stoic. But there was no denying the nerves were there, wired to an anticipation to prove himself and a marked aggravation about the rain.

At his locker minutes earlier, McCullough had busied himself with some last-minute preparations while shaking his head about the crappy weather. Systematically taping his fingers and shoes up, his face showed concern about keeping a handle on things during the deluge.

Saladin McCullough“Gimme the ball,” he said softly to a nearby teammate who tossed one to him. Holding it in his hand, a distant stare of concentration came to his eyes as he began tucking the ball away into the crook of his right elbow, taking it out, and tucking it back in again. Something he’s done plenty of times in his career and hopes to do plenty more.

With the black and red ball cradled, McCullough relaxed. A little. He seemed to relax some more as he took a knee surrounded by his teammates who surrounded head coach Al Luginbill as he urged them to do three things: play hard, have fun, and win.

On the sidelines with his team facing off against the Memphis Maniax, McCullough was ready to do all three. Amidst the pounding rain, the pyrotechnics and the screaming fans, McCullough stood at a threshold representing the culmination of a load of hard work, determination and the achievement of two lifelong goals.

Not only was he suited up and ready to play in the first nationally televised professional football game of his life, but he was also standing on his field of dreams: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Off the field, it had been a hard road getting there for the father of two (son Saladin Jr., is 11, and daughter Maindia is 2), whose own dad died when Saladin was 10.

On the field it was much easier.

As a record-breaking, first-team All-American at Muir (4,429 rushing yards, 73 touchdowns), he dreamed of slashing through defenses on the Coliseum field for his beloved USC Trojans, but a controversial invalidation of his SAT scores led to academic ineligibility and community college instead. In 1994 he totaled 725 yards rushing and six touchdowns in seven games at Pasadena City College. In 12 games with El Camino College in 1995, he accumulated 1,829 all-purpose yards and 10 touchdowns.

With his associate of arts degree, to Oregon he went in 1996, where the 5-foot 9-inch, 195-pound back and his electrifying running style exploded onto the Pac-10 scene. Despite poor conditioning and an injury-plagued season in which he played only seven games, he tied the school’s 27-year-old single-season record of 15 touchdowns with 685 yards rushing. As a senior in 1997, he rushed for 1,193 yards and eight scores, while also catching 18 passes for touchdowns and proving his worth returning kickoffs as well.

The NFL seemed his next stop. Or not.

He suffered broken ribs during a practice for the annual 1997 East-West all-star game following his senior season. Months spent recovering kept him out the NFL combine that year. And even though there were later tryouts and talks with the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders, nothing resulted.

McCullough attributes this in part to his poor choice in agents “who didn’t have my best interests at heart.” Even more detrimental though, was a reputation as a problem player that preceded him wherever he seemed to go. Such a labeling was derived from fights he was involved in at PCC and Oregon, paired with allegations of him gangbangin’ in high school.

The fights were something McCullough chalks up as past mistakes. Gangs? While he was acquainted with known members in high school, that’s as far as it went.

“Rumor was that I was in a gang, something that has never — never! — been me,” he said. “When I went to the NFL combine, they were asking me that and I told them I’d never been involved in gangs or nothing.”

But there was also what he calls the “stolen car incident” when he was “18 or 19.”

McCullough and his friends were released once their story checked out, but newspapers ran with the news of the star athlete who was caught riding in a stolen car.

“After they let us out there was no story saying it was all a mistake,” he said. “And the damage was done.”

It was damage he has tried hard to counter throughout his career. But convincing the NFL was no easy feat, so McCullough made his way up to Canada where he played for a season with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. After that he wound up in the Arena Football League in 2000 playing for the Los Angeles Avengers, but got cut.

“They were just not my style,” he says.

In spite of the stops and starts in his football career, McCullough never gave up hope. All the pre-judging and disappointments he has faced have worked to strengthen his resolve to play pro ball, in spite of the ups and downs.

“You know how it is when you’re up and things are good and everybody’s rolling with you, and when you’re down nobody really cares about you but the people who count,” he said. “It’s times like that when you find out who your real friends are.”

And it’s times like those that can test a talented football player’s patience.

“There were days I couldn’t even walk the streets without people stopping me and wanting to know why I wasn’t playing football,” he said. “They’d say ‘you’re too good not to be playing,’ and it got frustrating.”

That and the negative past that seemed to haunt him everywhere he’d go.

“It just seemed that every way I tried to get my foot in the door it just wasn’t working out. A lot of people just wrote me off as a problem player and that motivated me,” he said.

After the Avengers, he signed on with the L.A. Dragons in the short-lived, almost totally ignored/unheard of Spring Football League. When that opportunity folded last summer, he continued to stay motivated and focused on his dream. So did his mother.

“She always told me that I was a good person and that I just needed to keep working hard. What she always said was ‘something’s gonna happen.'”

And it did in the form of the XFL. At the newly formed league’s tryouts McCullough recalls coach Luginbill coming up to him and complimenting him on his efforts. The hard work paid off. While he originally thought he was going to play for the Xtreme’s divisional rival, the Las Vegas Outlaws, he was pleased to wind up with the local team and has been making the most of it.

“With the XFL I’m just trying to make the best of it that I can. I’ve got good hands as a receiver coming out of the backfield,” he says. “I can throw, block, run. I’ve just got to go out and execute and be a team player and do whatever I can to help us win.”

And he has. Though the numbers wrought from his proven skills are not as impressive as those from his college days, his 4.4-yard rushing average and six touchdowns have been a definite contribution to the playoff-bound Xtreme’s 7-3 record. In the final game of the season, a 24-0 smackdown of the San Francisco Demons last Saturday, McCullough had 73 yards rushing yards on only eight carries and scored a touchdown before having to leave the game in the second quarter with what was described as a “strained hamstring.”

At press time, his playing status going into Sunday’s playoff game against the Chicago Enforcers at the Coliseum is listed as “probable.” But his confidence in himself and his team is definite. After all, he says, his mom didn’t name him by accident.

“I know I have the skills to be on the field, and I’m playing to win,” he said. “Saladin means warrior and that’s what I am and always will be.”

— • —

Postscript (11.21.2002): The L.A. Xtreme with the help of Saladin McCullough defeated the Chicago Enforcers 33-16 in their playoff game April 14, and followed that up the week after with a resounding 38-6 victory over the San Fracisco Demons in the “Million Dollar Game” championship. Saladin McCullough rushed 20 times for 109 yards and had one reception for 26 yards. No touchdowns, but he scored on a two-point conversion attempt.

Alas, the celebrating was short lived as the XFL was disbanded shortly thereafter. But several of the Xtreme’s players did go on to play in the NFL the following fall and thereafter. Quarterback Tommy Maddox was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers and has been in the national spotlight for guiding the team well after coach Bill Cowers pulled Kordell Stewart out of the starting QB slot. Kicker Jose Cortez joined the San Francisco 49ers and continues to kick for them.

Saladin McCullough was also part of the roster of the 2001-2002 San Francisco 49er team, but never got the chance to show his skills. He was cut during the following exhibition schedule preceeding the 2002-2003 year.

Another Postscript (08.30.2004): The Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football league reported signing McCullough to a contract in June 2004. McCullough started 13 games for the Calgary Stampeders in 2003, rushing for 734 yards and three touchdowns. He also had 31 receptions for 298 yards.