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Robert Saleh is the NFL’s first Muslim head coach

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In this Sept. 2, 2020, photo, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh watches during the NFL football team’s practice in Santa Clara, Calif.

Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

Robert Saleh was announced as head coach of the New York Jets under a five-year contract earlier this month. He is the first Muslim to become coach of an NFL team and takes over a team that finished with a dismal 2-14 record in its most recent season.

Saleh’s rise to become the first NFL coach of Muslim heritage includes a 10-year career in coaching roles with various NFL and college football teams. Saleh was most recently the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, who won the NFC Championship in 2020 before losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.

In Saleh’s hometown of Dearborn, Michigan, the Islamic faith and American football have a unique synergy. The town is often described as the largest Arab community outside of the Middle East, many of whom moved to the area in the early 20th century. When Saleh graduated from Fordson High School in 1997, at least one member of his extended Lebanese American family had been in attendance since 1961.

The school is also noteworthy for being a public school with a majority-Muslim population. A 2011 NPR report noted that 90% of the school’s population was Muslim. The cafeteria serves halal food to accommodate its students’ religious needs. During the period in which Saleh attended the school, Lebanese Americans made up a plurality of the Arab student population. In his freshman year, the school won its fourth state football championship. A 2006 ESPN article estimated that 99% of the varsity football team was Muslim. Fordson players often use Arabic to gain tactical advantage on the playing field. 

The school has also made efforts to take Ramadan into account when scheduling football practice and other events. 

Fordson was the subject of the 2011 documentary “Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football,” which caught the attention of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

After high school, Saleh played tight end at Northern Michigan University from 1997 to 2000. He earned a bachelor’s degree in finance. Then, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happened. His brother, who was working in one of the towers at the time, barely escaped. His brother’s close brush with death in a relatively stable job made Saleh reconsider his purpose in life, and he decided to refocus on football this time as a coach, according to an interview Saleh did with Sports Illustrated in 2017.

From 2002 to 2005, he worked as a defensive assistant with four different universities, including Michigan State University and briefer stints at Central Michigan University and the University of Georgia. In 2005, he accepted a position as an intern working with the NFL’s Houston Texans’ defense and eventually rose to assistant linebacker coach with the Texans.

He subsequently moved to the Seattle Seahawks, where he joined the defensive coaching staff in 2011 and contributed to a Super Bowl win in 2013. From 2014 to 2016 he was the linebacker coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was from that position that he was recruited to the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. According to the aforementioned interview with Sports Illustrated, Saleh said that though he tries to practice fasting during the month of Ramadan, the NFL schedule can make observance difficult.

Saleh’s rise has been a rapid one. At 42 years old, he is relatively young for an NFL head coach (with 20 of the 32 head coaches in the NFL being over the age of 60). If he succeeds during his five-year contract with the New York Jets, he could have a long career.

Saleh is also the third Lebanese American and third Arab American to become an NFL head coach after Abe Gibron of the Chicago Bears and Rich Kotite, a former head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets.