Greg Hansen: Tomey's there for football ex-Cat Salum

2013-04-24T00:00:00Z 2013-04-24T11:59:28Z Greg Hansen: Tomey's there for football ex-Cat SalumGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The climax to every week at Camp Cochise, the can't-miss, feel-good-about-life moment, arrived when Dick Tomey stood in the middle of 100 football players and awarded a scholarship to a once-obscure walk-on.

On August 18, 1988, the coach pointed to No. 54, an undersized linebacker who had first attempted to play at Portland State.

If Chuck Cecil is Chapter One in the UA's rich history of walk-ons, Donnie Salum is Chapter Two.

Two years later, Salum led Arizona with 113 tackles. Three years later he was playing for the Atlanta Falcons. A dozen years later, operating a $20 million-a-year fitness business, Salum donated $500,000 in weight-lifting equipment to his alma mater.

"I was invincible," Donnie Salum says now. "I was printing money."

This is not a happy story. Not any longer.

Tomey and Salum are together again, 25 years after that warm afternoon at Camp Cochise, but this time it's not a start as much as they hope it is a finish to the world's most insidious disease, cancer.

On Tuesday morning in Scottsdale, Tomey, the coach, and Salum, the player, went for a long walk. Salum walks because he can't run. Tomey walks with Salum because that's who Dick Tomey is.

"Donnie and his wife, Missy, have three beautiful children," says Tomey, who then gives roll call: "Abbie is 7, Isabel is 6 and Donnie Jr. will be 3 next month. Donnie lost his job because he can't work. He's only got a few months of insurance left, and he's going to need a lot of care. It's just heart-breaking. I'm here to help."

Here's help: Tomey will host the Donnie Salum Celebrity Golf Tournament, Dinner and Silent Auction May 3 at Wild Horse Pass Hotel and Casino in Chandler. They've already gotten reservations from Rich Rodriguez, Lute Olson, Rob Gronkowski, Greg Byrne, Nick Foles and a Who's Who list of current and former Arizona Wildcats. (Information and registration: beardowndonnie.com)

"We're buying time," says Tomey. "Donnie needs financial support and emotional support. We've got a lot of help, but we need a lot more."

Salum grew up in Colorado Springs and finally arrived in Tucson late in 1986, the timing such that his first game at Arizona Stadium was the epic, 34-17 victory over Rose Bowl-bound Arizona State. It was the day Cecil returned a legend-making interception 106 yards.

"I was actually planning to walk on at ASU until that day," Salum remembers. "But when Chuck ran for that long touchdown, I decided, nope, I'm going to be a Wildcat."

And he was, too, but not easily. Salum paid his own way to school in '87, and, although he was rebuffed by several UA assistant coaches, he wouldn't go away until he heard the same words from the top.

"Coach Tomey saw me hanging around one day and said, 'Are you still here?'" Salum recalls. "I said, 'Just give me a shot.' I started out as low as you can: fifth string."

Incredibly, after getting his first start, Sept. 20, 1989, a victory against No. 11 Washington - three games into the season for a team coming off a rousing victory over No. 6 Oklahoma - Salum made 104 tackles in the final eight games, more than anyone in the Pac-10.

Although undersized at 5 feet 11 inches and about 235 pounds, Salum was a sideline-to-sideline linebacker, a playmaker who would be selected by Atlanta with the 250th choice in the 1990 NFL draft.

"We became close," Tomey says. "I admired the way Donnie played and the way he cared about the team and his teammates. It wasn't easy; we suspended him once. He paid the price and came back strong."

After three seasons in the employ of the Falcons, in which he rarely played and spent most of the time on the practice squad, Salum hit it out of the park in the fitness business.

Starting with $75,000 in savings, he opened three fitness centers in Atlanta, one in Houston and one in Phoenix. He soon had more than 100 employees. But the fitness business went flat after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and by 2004, Salum's business empire went bust.

"I lost it all," he says.

He bounced back, selling luxury cars in Scottsdale, starting a family and becoming one of the UA's most high-profile football boosters. It was Salum's association with exercise equipment guru Gordy Gronkowski, Rob's father, that led the New England Patriots all-pro tight end to Arizona.

And then came those insufferable headaches, one after another, one day after the next.

Neurologists at the Mayo Clinic, at Johns Hopkins and at Massachuetts General agreed on the source of the headaches. Salum had a rare tumor in the back of his skull, effecting two bones, in a dangerous position near the brain stem and spinal cord, mitigating against surgery.

"I wanted to crawl into a hole," Salum says. "It was hard going public with it."

Initially, Salum posted a request for prayers on Facebook. He worried: "How much time do I have?"

When Tomey saw his fiery linebacker a few months ago, he almost didn't recognize him. Salum had lost about 80 pounds and had difficulty walking.

"His body deteriorated some, but his attitude remains tremendous," says Tomey. "He's determined to fight this thing and prevail. That's why our golf event next week is so important. He needs our help to continue fighting."

Over the last few months, responding to treatment and to a change in diet, Salum has gained almost 30 pounds. He no longer looks into the mirror and says, "I feel like crying." He walks, sometimes three or four hours at a time, keeping busy, remaining upbeat.

No. 54 has never had an opponent like this.

"I used to giggle when I'd see someone walking for exercise," he says. "I'd think 'Hey, why not jog?' I was this big exercise guy. Now I'm the guy out there walking. I need prayers. A lot of prayers."

Contact columnist Greg Hansen at ghansen@azstarnet.com or 573-4362. On Twitter @ghansen711

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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