Jets make Robert Saleh the first Muslim to be NFL head coach
Editor’s Note: This column was originally published in January 2020 and has been updated with the hiring of Robert Saleh as head coach of the New York Jets.
Fordson High School in Dearborn, Michigan is tall and beautiful, made of granite and sandstone, with a soaring tower that during World War II served as a lookout for enemy planes that could attack nearby factories.
For nearly a century, it served as a beacon while educating children from the tight quarters that surround it in this suburb on the western border of Detroit.
Fordson is not your typical American high school, although he would like to be seen as such. And Dearborn is not a typical American city, although it is just as American as any other place in this country.
Among its nearly 100,000 inhabitants is the country’s largest concentration of Muslims and the largest community of Middle Easterners – both direct immigrants and descendants of immigrants. Many reside on the east side of town, where Fordson serves as a local high school.
And he just so happens to love football as much as any school in West Texas, South Georgia, or Northeast Ohio. The game is the cornerstone of the place. It has been decades.
“Fordson High School is over 90 percent of the Middle East,” 1997 graduate Robert Saleh said last year last year. “And it’s one of the top 10 winning programs in Michigan state school history.”
He beamed with pride as he spoke.
“It’s a very unique school,” he continued. “It’s a very unique city. But it’s a city with an incredible heart that loves football.
Late Thursday, the New York Jets hired Saleh as their head coach. The 41-year-old was the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers.
With this, Saleh became the first Muslim head coach in NFL history and the fourth of Arab-American descent (after Abe Gibron and Ed Khayat, who coached the Bears and Eagles respectively in the 1970s and Rich Kotite, who coached both the Eagles and Jets in the 1990s).
Hiring is not just the check mark in another diversity box. It serves as a beacon for an American community too often marginalized because not really American, or, worse still, a threat to America itself.
Dearborn has long been a pinata for xenophobic politicians and broadcasters across the country who claim it is ruled by Sharia (it isn’t) or filled with dangerous potential terrorists (it isn’t). ).
It’s actually a typical middle-class suburb, full of factories and businesses, with tight-knit neighborhoods that surround schools, ball fields, and places of worship. The central business district along Michigan Avenue is like any other, except that shops and restaurants may have signs written in Arabic.
“The people of Dearborn are just trying to assimilate and be a part of this country and make a living like everyone else,” Saleh said.
Long ago that included adopting football. It was originally played by Italian, Polish and Irish immigrants who arrived in the early 1900s in search of work in Henry Ford’s auto factories. When the Middle East began to settle in the city at the turn of the century, they quickly adopted a game based on tenacity, discipline and teamwork.
“East Dearborn is a blue collar area and I think football has always been linked to the people there,” said Fouad Zaban, who has coached Fordson for the past 15 seasons. “The community just comes together around football. You would have to come here to even understand it.
This included Saleh’s father, Sam, who was a murderous linebacker in the early 1960s and won a scholarship to eastern Michigan. As more and more Middle Easterners settled in, the team’s fortunes increased.
At one point, Fordson recorded 34 straight winning seasons, regularly winning conference and district championships, and even state championships.
The Saleh family was large and has grown in importance in Dearborn – “I have 84 first cousins, right on my dad’s side,” Robert laughs. From 1961 (Sam’s first year in college) to 1997 (Robert’s last), there was at least one Saleh who played for Fordson.
“It’s a fun sport,” Saleh said, highlighting its universal appeal. “You can run around and hit people without getting into trouble.”
Over the decades, the Fordson teams have heard a lot of taunts, a lot of insults and a lot of doubts. Can they play on an empty stomach? Are Arab-American Children Tough? Can Muslims Even Be Good At Soccer?
They discovered that there was no better way to silence someone than to win. Slowly, the skepticism of this predominantly Middle Eastern football team in the mid-Midwest turned into a lasting respect.
It had been a long, long time since no one in Michigan high school football took Fordson lightly.
Robert Saleh then went on to play tight end in Northern Michigan, where he earned a degree in finance. He then took a job at Comerica Bank in Detroit. He believed his footballing days were over until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. His brother David was working in finance at the World Trade Center that day. He escaped after the first plane hit, but it made Robert rethink his career path.
What is he really do you want to do with his life? He found he couldn’t shake his hometown favorite game.
He left the bank and began a long ascent through the ranks of assistant coaches in college and then in the NFL. Last year, he became the first Arab American to coach as a Super Bowl defensive coordinator.
Now he’s the head coach of the NFL, in the shadow of Lower Manhattan.
“It’s great that he’s from our community and great that he’s Arab-American,” said Zaban, Fordson’s coach. “But the thing about Robert who I think is getting lost is the kind of person he is.” He’s a great, down-to-earth human being. He’s a family man. He loves his community.
“And he loves Fordson High School.”
For Saleh, the challenge is to make a 2-14 Jets winner. There is a staff to assemble and a philosophy to set up and a draft to prepare and, possibly, games to be won.
He is, and will be, like any other NFL coach, however. His religion will not earn him any additional points. It won’t cost him anything either.
And back in football mad Dearborn, where the game has engulfed him, learned him and inspired him, and so many Arab and Muslim children like him, it’s a little more acceptance for a community as American as any other.
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