Robert Saleh, son of Lebanese immigrants, is NFL’s hottest coaching prospect

For Saleh, the appointment as New York Jets head coach is the culmination of years of hard work

In January, Robert Saleh, the son of immigrants from Lebanon, made history, becoming the first Arab American and Muslim head coach in the National Football League’s (NFL) one-hundred-year history.

Signing for the New York Jets, Saleh finds himself in for an exciting ride. A poor 2020 season means the Jets are still in a rebuilding phase but also well positioned to capitalise on an array of top class picks in next month’s draft. With the League’s hottest coaching prospect at the helm in Saleh, expectations are high.

For Saleh, the appointment is the culmination of years of hard work in which is stock as a coach has been steadily rising.

Born and raised in Dearborn, Michigan last spring the San Francisco 49ers reached the Super Bowl with the 42-year-old as their defensive coordinator. Under his tutelage San Francisco’s defence was transformed into the second best of 32 teams in the league with Saleh finding himself named coordinator of the year by the website Sporting News.

That led to courtships over the past year from teams such as the Cleveland Browns, the Atlanta Falcons and the Los Angeles Chargers for his services as head coach.

However, for months rumours abound that Saleh was primed to take over the vacant head coach position at his hometown Detroit Lions, where his return would have been hugely welcomed: In December, 37 Michigan lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats alike – penned a letter to the owner of the Detroit Lions imploring them to bring Saleh home.

While that didn’t materialise – football analysts suggest the sky-high expectation among fans on the shoulders of a rookie head coach to turn his hometown team’s fortunes around may have made for a potentially bad outcome – Dearborn has a long history of producing leaders who’ve gone on to fulfil the American dream.

Few, however, have chosen the sporting path.

But for Saleh a career as a doctor or lawyer was not something that ever grabbed him.

“His dad, his uncles, his brother and cousins all played at Fordson. I coached many of them. He had big shoes to fill [but] Robert was special,” says Jeff Stergalas, who coached the teenaged Saleh for four years during the 1990s at Fordson High School, a footballing powerhouse in the heart of Dearborn.

At Fordson, where for four decades until the late 1990s a member of the Salah family was enrolled, Robert played tight end and defensive tackle positions, and won a state championship. “Robert was not your typical high school student. He was very mature for his age,” says Stergalas.

Several years later the course of his life would change. His brother, David, found himself on the 61st floor of 2 World Trade Center when the first of two planes were flown into the skyscrapers in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. David had reached the 24th floor by the time the second plane struck his building, but managed to escape.

For Robert, 9/11 was a defining moment, too. Aged 22 and seeing how his brother came so close to death, he up and left a well-paying office job as a credit analyst in downtown Detroit for the gruelling landscape of the American football coaching world.

“Robert calls me after being in the finance world and says ‘coach, I don’t want to do this anymore, I want to coach,’” says Stergalas. “I said: ‘Here’s the deal: the only way you can do this is if you become a grad assistant.’”

The job, Stergalas told him, “is pretty much a gopher, making coffee, running copies, doing every and anything people on the coaching staff ask you. He says he’s ready to do that.”

Saleh soon joined Michigan State University’s coaching ticket, then moved on to the University of Georgia, and eventually, to the NFL. There, he first cut his teeth in minor roles with the Houston Texans.

Joining the Seattle Seahawks in 2011 as a ‘defensive quality coach,’ Saleh’s coaching career progressed quickly. At the time, Seattle were in the early stages of a new era of dominance built on a granite-like defensive unit nicknamed the ‘legion of boom’.

“His upbringing at Fordson instilled in [Saleh] a very aggressive, hard-nosed type of football, and defence is coveted. So his background was one of ‘defences win championships,’” says Stergalas, whom Saleh has referred to in interviews as a “second father".

By February 2014 the Seahawks reached Super Bowl XLVIII with Saleh centrally involved in getting them there. Throughout that season, their Super Bowl opponents, the Denver Broncos guided by the legendary Peyton Manning at quarterback, had averaged close to 40 points a game; were ranked the top offensive team in the NFL and were down as favourites to take Seattle’s scalp.

With Saleh on the defensive ticket, however, the Broncos, remarkably, were confined to a single score, and not before Seattle had amassed an unassailable 36-point lead. Seattle claimed a first Super Bowl, running out 43-8 victors. Thereafter Saleh became a household name in the football coaching world.

Recent months have seen US media outlets applaud Saleh for carving a path for Arab Americans into professional football, a world that for decades has been dominated by wealthy white owners. He speaks Arabic, as does his wife, Sanaa. And as the father of six children, his move to New York was done with the bigger picture in mind, say those who know him best.

“All of the moves he’s made professionally are very calculated,” says Stergalas. “Robert’s going to do what’s best for him and his family.”

Updated: March 2, 2021 11:40 AM

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