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Robert Saleh: Religion and legacies

Robert Saleh was named the new head coach for the New York Jets and is making history as the first Muslim to lead a team in the National Football League.

Saleh’s presence is a historic one. Being relatively young at the age 42—while most head coaches are over the age of 60—could work in his favor if he succeeds during his five-year contract with the New York Jets. His potential long-lasting career isn’t the only statistic that’s impressive. According to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Saleh is also the third Lebanese American and third Arab American NFL head coach, joining the names of Abe Gibron of the Chicago Bears and Rich Kotite, a former head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets.

Sept 9, 2001, Saleh’s brother, David Saleh, was training as a financial adviser in the World Trade Center. He barely escaped as the second tower was struck. It was a frightening event for the nation, causing an influential change in many world views. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Saleh confessed that almost losing his brother made him contemplate his life. He came to the conclusion that football is his life’s purpose. 

“And, you know, going through my brother’s experience and the tragedy that he experienced,”  Saleh said during his introductory press conference. “Realizing that I had a passion for football really triggered this whole thing.” 

A year later, Saleh was working as a defensive assistant for four different D1 universities. In 2005 he accepted a position as an intern, working with the NFL’s Houston Texans’ defense, and eventually rose up to the position of assistant linebacker coach.

He then moved to Seattle, joining the defensive coaching staff of the Seahawks in 2011, contributing to a Super Bowl win in 2013. He wound up working for the Jacksonville Jaguars, from 2014 to 2016. From there, he was recruited to the San Francisco 49ers in 2017, helping lead the team to Superbowl LIV in 2020, as defensive coordinator.

While planning out his strategies, Saleh still makes sure he continues to fast during the month of Ramadan. 

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, “[Ramadan] is difficult to practice because of the grueling hours of an NFL schedule. 

Although he struggles to uphold commemoration, the ADC legal and policy director, Abed Ayoub, told CNN. “Robert Saleh is an amazing coach who happens to be Arab and Muslim, and we couldn’t ask for a better representative for who we are as Arabs and as Muslims.”

The Lebanese American humbly secured his role; understanding the significance of being the first Muslim head coach in NFL history, said in his introductory news conference. 

“Where I’m from, Dearborn, Michigan, there is a lot of pride so it’s a very humbling experience,” Saleh said. “When you look at an NFL organization…it’s like the ultimate melting pot of different people and different races and different stories that get together with one goal. To be a part of that is special.”

Saleh’s life has crafted him to become New York’s first defensive-minded head coach since Todd Bowles and also replacing former coach Adam Gase. It’s safe to say that there are high expectations from many football fans and his Muslim community Saleh will try to meet.

There’s a lot of unknowns in where his path will take him but what he knows, “I’m supposed to be here, and I believe that. God does things for a reason and I believe this is one of them.”