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Editor’s note: This column originally ran in January of 2020 and was updated with Robert Saleh’s hiring as head coach of the New York Jets.
Fordson High School in Dearborn, Michigan stands tall and handsome, made of granite and sandstone, with a soaring tower that during World War II served as a lookout for enemy aircraft that might attack nearby factories.
For nearly a century it has served as a beacon while educating the kids of the tightly packed neighborhoods that surround it in this suburb on Detroit’s west border.
Fordson is no typical American high school, although it would like to be considered that. And Dearborn is no typical American city, although it is every bit as American as any place else in this country.
Among its nearly 100,000 residents is the nation’s largest concentration of Muslims and largest community of Middle Easterners – both direct immigrants and descendants of immigrants. Many reside on the city’s east side, where Fordson serves as the local high school.
And it just happens to love football as much as any school out in West Texas or South Georgia or Northeast Ohio. The game is the lifeblood of the place. It has been for decades.
“Fordson High School is over 90 percent Middle Eastern,” Robert Saleh, a 1997 graduate, said last year. “And it is one of the top-10 winning programs in the history of the state of Michigan public schools.”
He beamed with pride as he spoke.
“It’s a very unique school,” he continued. “It’s a very unique city. But it is a city with an amazing heart that just loves football.”
Late Thursday, the New York Jets hired Saleh to be their head coach. The 41-year-old was the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers.
With that, Saleh became the first Muslim head coach in NFL history and fourth of Arab-American descent (following Abe Gibron and Ed Khayat, who coached the Bears and Eagles respectively in the 1970s and Rich Kotite, who led both the Eagles and Jets in the 1990s).
The hiring represents not just the checking of another diversity box. It serves as a beacon to an American community that is too often marginalized as not really American, or, even worse, as a threat to America itself.
Dearborn has long been a pinata for xenophobic politicians and broadcasters from around the country who claim it is run by Sharia Law (it isn’t) or filled with dangerous would-be terrorists (it isn’t).
It is actually a typical middle-class suburb, full of factories and business, with close-knit neighborhoods that surround schools and ballfields and houses of worship. The central business district along Michigan Avenue is like any other, except the stores and restaurants might have signs written in Arabic.
“The people of Dearborn are just trying to assimilate and be part of this country and make a living just like everybody else,” Saleh said.
That long ago included embracing football. It was originally played by Italian, Polish and Irish immigrants who arrived in the early 1900s seeking work in Henry Ford’s auto factories. When Middle Easterners began settling in the city in the latter part of the century, they quickly embraced a game built on toughness, discipline and teamwork.
“The eastside of Dearborn is a blue-collar area and I think football just has always connected with people there,” said Fouad Zaban, who has coached Fordson for the past 15 seasons. “The community just rallies around football. You’d have to come here to even understand it.”
That included Saleh’s father, Sam, who was a bruising linebacker in the early 1960s and earned a scholarship to Eastern Michigan. As more Middle Easterners moved in, the team’s fortunes increased.
At one point, Fordson posted 34 consecutive winning seasons, routinely winning conference and district, and even state championships.
The Saleh family was large and became prominent in Dearborn — “I have 84 first cousins, just on my dad’s side,” Robert says with a laugh. From 1961 (Sam’s first year on varsity) to 1997 (Robert’s last) there was at least one Saleh playing for Fordson.
“It’s a fun sport,” Saleh said, noting its universal appeal. “You get to run around and hit people and not get in trouble.”
Through the decades Fordson teams heard plenty of taunts, plenty of slurs and plenty of doubt. Can they play when fasting? Are Arab-American kids tough? Can Muslims even be any good at football?
They found there was no better way to shut someone up than by winning. Slowly the skepticism of this predominantly Middle Eastern football team in the middle of the Midwest morphed into enduring respect.
It has been a long, long time since anyone in Michigan high school football took Fordson lightly.
Robert Saleh went on to play tight end at Northern Michigan, where he earned a degree in finance. He then took a job with Comerica Bank in Detroit. He thought his days in football were over until the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. His brother David was working in finance at the World Trade Center that day. He escaped after the first plane hit, but it caused Robert to rethink his career path.
What did he really want to do with his life? He found he couldn’t shake his hometown’s favorite game.
He left the bank and began a long climb up the college and then NFL assistant coaching ranks. Last year he became the first Arab American to coach as a defensive coordinator in the Super Bowl.
Now he’s an NFL head coach, in the shadow of Lower Manhattan.
“It’s great that he’s from our community and great that he’s Arab American,” said Zaban, the Fordson coach. “But the thing about Robert that I think is being lost is the kind of person that he is. He’s a terrific, down-to-earth human being. He’s a family man. He loves his community.
“And he loves Fordson High School.”
For Saleh, the challenge at hand is making a winner of the 2-14 Jets. There is a staff to assemble and a philosophy to install and a draft to prepare for and, eventually, games to win.
He is, and will be, like any other NFL coach, though. His religion won’t score him any extra points. It won’t cost him any either.
And back in football-mad Dearborn, where the game engulfed him, taught him and inspired him and so many Arab and Muslims kids like him, it’s one more bit of acceptance for a community as American as any other.
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