Robert Saleh isn't your typical NFL coach ... except that he is

DEARBORN, Mich. — The building stands tall and handsome, all granite and sandstone, with a soaring tower that during World War II served as a lookout for enemy aircraft that might attack nearby factories.

It is an impressive building, especially for a high school tucked on the east side of this Detroit suburb and serving for nearly a century the tightly packed working- and middle-class neighborhoods that surround it.

This is no typical American high school however, although it would like to be considered that. And this is no typical American city, although it is every bit as American as any place else in this country.

Fordson High School in Dearborn, Michigan, is homebase for the country’s largest community of Middle Easterners, immigrants and descendants of immigrants alike. Dearborn, with a population of about 100,000, is said to have the largest concentration of Muslims of any city in the country. Fordson is that community’s local high school.

And it just happens to love football as much as any spot out in West Texas or South Florida or Northeast Ohio. Football is the lifeblood of the place and has been for decades.

“Fordson High School is over 90 percent Middle Eastern,” Robert Saleh, a 1997 graduate of the school, said in Miami this week. “And it is one of the top-10 winning programs in the history of the state of Michigan public schools.

“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.”

Saleh, the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, is the current pride of the prideful program.

FILE - In this Dec. 21, 2019, file photo, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh watches during the first half of the team's NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara, Calif. The Kansas City Chiefs have perhaps the most dynamic offense in the NFL and the 49ers feature one of the stingiest defenses in the league. The men in charge of the units got interviews for head coaching positions but were passed over. (AP Photo/John Hefti, File)
Robert Saleh is the first coordinator of Arab-American descent who's ever coached in a Super Bowl. (AP)

On Sunday he will become the first Fordson alum and the first person of Arab American-decent (his parent’s both are of Lebanese descent) to serve as a coordinator for a Super Bowl team when his Niners take on Kansas City. He previously won a Super Bowl while working as an assistant in Seattle.

The 40-year-old points back to his upbringing in Dearborn, where arguably the most American of sports caught the interest of tens of thousands of newcomers from a part of the world where it is rarely, if ever, played, let alone even seen.

“It’s a fun sport,” Saleh noting its universal appeal. “You get to run around and hit people and not get in trouble.”

Football was almost always a big deal in Dearborn. It was played by Italian, Polish and Irish immigrants who arrived there in the early 1900s seeking work in Henry Ford’s auto factories. When Middle Easterners began settling in the city in the later part of the century, they too were drawn to the game — tough, fast and hard-hitting.

“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 14 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, good enough to earn a scholarship to Eastern Michigan. As more and more Middle Easterners moved in, the team’s fortunes increased. Fordson posted 34 consecutive winning seasons, routinely won conference, district and even a state title.

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 on the Fordson varsity.

Through the decades Fordson teams heard plenty of taunts, plenty of slurs, plenty of doubt. Can they play when fasting? Can they play with their religion? They pushed on though. No better way to shut someone up than by winning the game. Slowly the skepticism of this predominantly Middle Eastern football team in the Midwest morphed into enduring respect.

It has been a 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 the game. He soon left the bank and began a slow climb up through the college and then NFL assistant coaching ranks, the last two years as the Niners defensive coordinator. He is destined to become a head coach soon.

While Saleh is proud and certainly aware that his background is unique and his path can be inspiring, he doesn’t like to talk about it much. He’d prefer the focus is on his players, anyway.

“It’s great that he’s from our community and great that he’s Arab-American,” said Zaban, the Fordson coach, who says Saleh often comes back to visit and support the current team. “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 big honcho now in the NFL, but you’d never know it. He’s a family man, he loves his community and he loves Fordson high school.”

There is no denying Saleh’s pride in Dearborn. Too many in America still hold stereotypes and skepticism toward Arab-Americans and Muslims. There is a lack of understanding and interaction.

Football has served as a bridge in Metro Detroit. “It’s America’s greatest sport,” Saleh says. As such, why would the kids and families of Dearborn love the game any less than elsewhere?

Maybe having a Dearborn guy walking so prominently on the Super Bowl sideline can help spread that sentiment nationally.

“I am very proud of where I come from and the high school I attended,” Saleh said. “The people of Dearborn are just trying to assimilate and be part of this country and make a living just like everybody else.”

Football has played a role in that, because while Dearborn is unique, he notes, it isn’t different.

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