Darwin Salaam inspires young athletes
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOSHUA BERRY
Former Auburn great Bo Jackson is Darwin Salaam II’s favorite all-around athlete. And like Jackson’s famous slogan “Bo Knows,” Salaam, too, knows sports.
A 2004 graduate of Sparkman High School, Salaam lettered in both football and basketball. He went on to play football at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa before deciding to walk on the football team at the University of Alabama in 2005. His four-year tenure for the Crimson Tide allowed him to learn from one of college football’s best: Coach Nick Saban.
“I believed a lot in myself when I left high school, but I still needed to learn how to be confident,” Salaam said. “Being a walk-on allowed me to gain the humility I needed. You think you practiced better than those who start; yet, you don’t start.”
Salaam’s humility, however, did not kill his dream of wanting to play in the National Football League. He played three years of semi-professional indoor football in Birmingham and then moved on to an indoor team based in Bloomington, Illinois. When that ended, he traveled to Sweden in 2016 to play for the Uppsala 86ers, an outdoor football team.
“I had tunnel vision. I still thought I was going to be a multiple Super Bowl wide receiver,” Salaam said. “Then I had to snap into reality. After that last indoor season, I knew I had to try to make it in the professional world without being an athlete.”
After a year of coaching the football team in Sweden he had played for the previous year, Salaam took a job at Girls Inc. in Huntsville. “I ran the after-school programs. My audience was all girls, and I learned how to be a role model,” Salaam said. “I was learning how to instill confidence to young people.”
Through this sidestep, Salaam said he realized he enjoyed working with young people—that he had something to offer them. He dreamed up the HITS Squad, an athletic training program.
“I wanted to do something that would impact all athletes,” Salaam said. “Whatever is needed to make young athletes mentally stronger, I want to provide. I want kids to have what I could have benefitted from at their age. My middle school coach, Len Lanier, believed in me before I believed in myself. Without him, I wouldn’t be the coach I am today. I want to be a Len Lanier for others.”
The HITS Squad led to SQUAD INC, and through connections he made in Sweden, Salaam traveled to Japan to train the X league’s Tokyo Creators. He was already building a brand for a business he had in the back of his mind.
“The Japanese culture is more suitable for American football than America is,” Salaam said. “Hard work and discipline is their culture. They will not allow spitting on the field, not because it’s nasty but because someone might step in it. That’s how they think. It’s about others. The team dynamic is a big part of their culture.”
Then 2018 rolled around.
Salaam, with scribbles of his big idea tucked away in a notebook, met Louis Whitlow. Whitlow, a former college baseball player, was looking for the same thing as Salaam—a way to motivate young athletes.
“Together we transformed our individual mindset to a team mindset. We came up with a true business model – a long term one,” Whitlow said. “Darwin had the mindset, and together we shaped it to a different form.”
The partnership, which both characterize as “unreal,” led to the opening of The Compound 256 Jan. 16, 2020. One part of the Compound is SQUAD INC, and the other is a fitness business incubator. Young athletes in all sports can train at the Highway 72 location. With a few weeks now in business, co-owners Salaam and Whitlow and their partner Ryan Guy are training about 50 individuals and teams.
“Our company motto is 100 for 100,” Salaam said. “We give 100 percent, and we expect 100 percent in return.”
SQUAD INC is much more than a name. It is an acronym for what young athletes will glean from training at The Compound. SQUAD stands for Superior Quality Unmatched Athletic Development, and INC represents Individuals N CAMP. The acronym goes further, with CAMP standing for Core, Agility, Muscle and Program.
“We start with a dynamic warm-up, followed by core strengthening and then agility,” Salaam said. “It’s really a holistic approach to youth athletic development.”
The fitness incubator stems from Salaam’s philosophy of giving back to the community. He is the founder of the Local Legend Charity, a nonprofit that has hosted charity basketball games and from 2011-2019 has held a turkey drive at Thanksgiving.
“I guess you can say I am good at starting a nonprofit flat broke,” Salaam said. “I started the charity after the 2011 tornadoes. It has gone nationwide with a friend of mine from high school conducting a turkey drive in his hometown of Los Angeles.”
Salaam, whose giving back includes coaching for his alma mater, said he loves to give off positive energy in a toxic world. He added he is grateful for a dream come true and said he lives every day without regrets – a mindset he wants to pass on to those who train at The Compound.
“I am heading back to Japan in July. We want to have an impact both locally and globally,” Salaam said. “I never thought small with this idea. The young athletes should learn the same. If you set the bar high, you will find a way to meet it.”