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Robert Saleh is far more than the first Muslim coach in the NFL

The New York Jets coach is a role model who embodies the working-class and perseverant spirit

Robert Saleh is a pioneer. After signing a five-year contract with the New York Jets last week, he became the NFL’s first Muslim American head coach. A milestone moment for a nation marred by renewed racial reckoning, and a league beleaguered by its own turbulence.

But before Saleh became a pioneer, he was a tractor. He is a native of Dearborn, Michigan’s eastside, a blue-collar community on the margins of Detroit and the sidelines of economic anxiety. A place where Arab refugees fled war and found stability around auto factory assembly lines, raising daughters and sons in a land that didn’t always love them. A town where hard knocks and Friday night lights are not gridiron fiction, but the real-time sights of a football-obsessed community.

To be clear, East Dearborn is an Arab American football-obsessed community. Where young boys from Iraq, Yemen, Palestine and Saleh’s native Lebanon proudly don the working-class blue on the gridiron for the Fordson Tractors, from a high school in the heart of the Midwest that houses dreams of youths with roots in the Mideast.

This is the high school Saleh attended that fueled his signature fire and everyman charisma. Fordson High School, which has a 95% Arab student body, welded the grit that shot Saleh to the top of the NFL’s coaching ranks. I witnessed this firsthand, as Saleh’s childhood friend and Fordson High classmate.

So did Abed Ayoub, the legal and policy director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who grew up blocks away from Saleh in Dearborn. Minutes after the Jets announced Saleh’s hiring, Ayoub said, “This is huge. It only makes sense that Robert was the man who made history. He’s a natural-born leader who just happens to love football. He leads from the ground up, shoulder to shoulder with his men. That humility is what sets him apart, and what makes him an embodiment of our working-class Arab American community.”

Ayoub’s perspective is fitting, given that Saleh worked his way up from the lowest rungs of coaching to become the first Muslim coach in the NFL. He started from the bottom. Beyond the bottom. Entirely out of football after playing at Northern Michigan University, another New York story – on Sept. 11, 2001 – changed his professional course. And like millions of Muslim Americans, the era that followed would forever change his life.

On the morning of 9/11, Robert’s older brother David reported to the 61st floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. When David Saleh heard the explosion and learned that a “bomb had gone off” in the nearby North Tower, he ran down the 61 flights in between frantic crowds who did not yet know the scale of the incident. Moments later, a plane flew into the South Tower. But David, an investor with a larger-than-life sense of humor, made it out alive.

“Nothing was guaranteed after that,” he reflected, “and every day that came after was a blessing from above.”

Robert Saleh (center), then the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator, looks on during a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 13, 2020.

MSA/Icon Sportswire

The incident highlighted the precarity of life for Saleh, and the urgency of each moment. While racism and racial profiling descended upon his largely Arab and Muslim community, Saleh was not frightened. He found courage in the resolve of his family and community, and marched toward his NFL dreams. If not now, then when?

Saleh left his comfortable office job in Michigan for a graduate assistant position at nearby Michigan State, followed by stints at Central Michigan and the University of Georgia. His first NFL break came with the Houston Texans in 2005, where he was brought in to serve as the quality-control coach for Gary Kubiak’s defense. Saleh’s enthusiasm captured the hearts of his players while his intellect won over the coaching staff, opening the doors for other NFL opportunities. Doors that led to a Super Bowl ring with the Seattle Seahawks in 2013, and a high-profile defensive coordinator position with the San Francisco 49ers, where his stalwart defense led the storied franchise to the Super Bowl in 2019.

Saleh became a hot coaching prospect with the 49ers, earning the love of fans and his players. Richard Sherman, the star cornerback for the 49ers who played under Saleh, praised the next Jets coach as, “A great leader of men.” Ahmad Abuznaid, a civil rights activist and die-hard 49ers fan, said, “It has been so inspiring to see a Muslim whose family is originally from southern Lebanon coaching my team at such an elite level. I’ll be rooting him on with the Jets and I expect plenty of other Arabs and Muslims will, too.”

“It has been so inspiring to see a Muslim whose family is originally from southern Lebanon, coaching my team at such an elite level. I’ll be rooting him on with the Jets and I expect plenty of other Arabs and Muslims will, too.” – Ahmad Abuznaid, civil rights activist

Saleh’s impact will be far bigger than football. As the first Muslim American head coach in the NFL, and a minority coach in a profession dominated by white men, all eyes will instantly be on him. But the pressure in the NFL’s biggest media market will be countered by the affection from those in his hometown, and millions beyond, who look up to Saleh.

“Kids, especially our students, need to see themselves in successful people. He is a ‘possibility model’ for Arab and Muslim youth, a graduate of our high school, that walked through these very halls and sat in these very classrooms. He opens up entire worlds of possibilities for our students,” said Zeinab Chami, an English teacher at Fordson High School. Mike Ayoub, a leading real estate and friend of Saleh’s, echoed, “The message this sends to our kids is immeasurable. Any cliché you want to use fits.”

Being the first comes with its distinct set of challenges. Particularly in the NFL, and the league’s biggest media market no less. But Saleh will learn from the trails the first Black quarterback or the first Latino head coach had to blaze. In a nation grappling with trumped-up Islamophobia and white supremacy, Saleh stands on the shoulders of Black and brown giants who opened the way for him to land an NFL head-coaching job.

On football Sundays, millions of Muslims will stand alongside Saleh, cheering on a man who embodies the best of who we are. Particularly those of us raised in the shadow of factory towns, reared by parents who deferred their dreams so that their children could pursue their own.

Saleh is the NFL’s first Muslim American head coach. That, particularly in today’s America, is a milestone worth celebrating. However, the native son of an immigrant, blue-collar town is far more than that. The Jets will find out for themselves very soon.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at the Wayne State School of Law, and a Scholar in Residence at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society’s Initiative for a Representative First Amendment. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.