Dearborn, Michigan – On Monday night, under the lights of MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh will take centre stage. Saleh, whose family emigrated from Lebanon to the United States decades ago, is the first Muslim American to become head coach of an NFL franchise.
The 44-year-old has been leading the New York Jets for the past two years, but as the new season kicks off this weekend, he’s facing greater expectations – and challenges – in taking charge of one of the NFL’s most talented, cantankerous players ever in quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Having graduated from footballing powerhouse Fordson High School in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb that’s home to the largest population of people of Arab heritage outside the Middle East, Saleh’s rise through America’s best-loved sport is unprecedented.
What’s more, Monday’s game takes place on September 11, noteworthy for several reasons. Scheduled for the Monday Night Football slot means it is expected to garner a huge global audience.
For Saleh, it’s also a deeply personal date: His brother, David, was on the 61st floor of one of the World Trade Center towers when hijackers flew a plane into the building on September 11, 2001. He escaped by running down dozens of flights of stairs. The close call prompted Robert to view life through a different lens. He had started building a successful career in banking, but Saleh changed direction to pursue what he loved: coaching American football.
“When a couple of months after 9/11 he called me and said, ‘Coach, I want to be a football coach,’ I was shocked,” Jeff Stergalas, who coached the teenage Saleh at Fordson High School in Dearborn, Michigan, in the mid-1990s, told Al Jazeera.
“He was in the banking industry and was well on his way to a great career.”
Stergalas says he told Saleh he would have to start at the bottom, fetching coffee and printing paper for senior coaches: “Robert said: ‘I don’t care, I want to do it.’”
Stergalas called up a friend and found Saleh a job at a university in Michigan. Saleh steadily climbed through the ranks, becoming a defensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers, whom he helped take to the Super Bowl in 2020.
In Dearborn, American football is hugely popular. When the first groups of immigrants moved to the area seeking work at car factories and other manufacturing plants more than a century ago, the schools their children attended boasted a strong tradition of playing baseball and American football.
“It’s a game that you can adapt to really quickly,” said Youssef Mosallam, a former Fordson High School principal who played American football for the school during the 1990s, winning a state championship in 1993. “A lot of the families in the area started following the NFL. For many of us, football became our initiation into American athletic culture.”
Across Dearborn in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, American football became a generational activity in which sons followed their fathers and uncles into the game.
Many have played at Fordson High School, more than 90 percent of whose student body is estimated to have Arab heritage and where Yemeni and Iraqi Arabic accents echo through the corridors. Built by the Ford Motor Company, whose manufacturing plants were located nearby, it’s believed to have been the first high school in the world to cost $1m when constructed in the early 1920s.
Fouad Zaban, who was born in Lebanon and serves as the head coach of the Fordson Tractors football team, says he has seen American football change the fortunes of countless Arab American children.
“For many kids, it has given them a chance to get a college education through a scholarship and to continue playing a sport that they love,” he told Al Jazeera. Zaban estimated that about 95 percent of the students on his current roster are of Arab descent with several being recent arrivals in the US.
“A couple of years ago, there was a student here who went on to make the Detroit Lions [NFL] team,” he said. “He was a first-generation Arab American, born overseas. He was able to go to college with a free education and go on to have a chance to be a professional.”
As a high school coach for more than 15 years, Zaban said he’s seen new waves of immigrants from the Middle East develop a love for the sport and attend local games as their children get involved.
For Stergalas, coaching students who families emigrated from the Middle East has been eye-opening.
“After games, I would get invited to players’ homes for a meal. It was fantastic,” he says. “I would bring other coaches with me to show them the Arabic family life.”
Stergalas and many at Fordson High School and across Dearborn will be glued to their TV screens on Monday night as Saleh enters the limelight.
The New York Jets face off against the Buffalo Bills, one of the strongest teams in the league, in what is sure to be a test of Saleh’s bourgeoning coaching skills. Stergalas believes the pressure of having millions of eyes on him and the expectation of Dearborn on his shoulders, however, won’t overly affect Saleh.
“I could never have predicted that, back in the 1990s, he would become an NFL coach,” he said.
“But I was very sure that anything he did, he’d be successful at it. He was just thorough.”
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