Robert Saleh Is The NFL's First Muslim Head Coach

In this Sept. 13, 2020, file photo, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh talks to players on the sideline during the team's NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Scot Tucker, File)

(RNS) — 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 a 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.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

Raja writes about the usefulness or appropriateness of the term "BIPOC" - Black, Indigenous, People of Color- in discourse about race and justice, and how it relates to and reflects the politics of race and racism in the United States.
The river has been important since the dawn of civilization and has served as a commercial hub and lifeline for countless peoples over many millennia. Yet there has always seemed to be a justice that was out of reach for some.
"Many synagogues are leaning into the Purim tradition of giving gifts to friends and the poor— a custom known as “mishloach manot.”
"We know through surveys that people are more likely to like Muslims if they know one personally. But because only about 1% of Americans practice the Islamic faith, many people just don’t come into contact with any Muslims."
Purim tells the tale of Esther, an orphaned girl-turned-queen, how she married King Achashverosh, then saved the entire Jewish community in the ancient Persian city of Shushan, through her bravery and wit.
Higher education remains highly unequal and racial divides persist. How can these realities be explained in a context defined by wokeness?
There are so many forces that pull people apart from one another. Institutions and systems and ways of thinking that want us to feel separated, broken, helpless, and quick to capitalize on moments of weakness. The very thing that brings out...
Others noted Rihanna chose to display Ganesh on Feb. 15, the day Hindus celebrate as Ganesh's birthday, or Ganesh Jayanti. The god of beginnings, Ganesh is honored before starting a business or major project.
Until this year, most schools, states and national high school athletic associations had typically forbidden religious headwear, citing safety concerns, unless a student or coach had applied for a waiver. No waiver, no play.
Do a quick Google or YouTube search for tarot, and you’ll find the two main things people tend to inquire about are love and money. Underlying these inquiries is a belief that a tarot reading can tell the future, which begs the question of whether...
The results are based on responses from some 1,800 Black American adults, including more than 800 who attend a Black church. The California research firm conducted the survey in the spring of 2020.
Asian Americans are suffering under the weight of these mounting incidents. Many, including those in our own circles, have expressed concern about leaving their homes to perform everyday tasks.
"Black residents make up a little under half of Washington’s population, but constitute nearly three-fourths of the city's COVID-19 deaths."
Can interfaith leadership foster greater equity for the health of communities of color? Four leaders in healthcare discuss racial health disparities in our nation and how interfaith leadership can be implemented in order to solve them.
“It's an invitation to be subversive by focusing on ourselves."
Across the state, nearly every major health care system has partnered with Black and Hispanic houses of worship to expand vaccine access, setting up mobile clinics in their parking lots and fellowship halls.
Gandhi organized a nonviolent protest on behalf of the farmers. That was when the word satyagraha was used for the first time in the context of a political protest.
Pierce, who is in her 40s and identifies as a Pentecostal, talked with Religion News Service about what she learned from her grandmother, the kinds of hymns she doesn’t sing and her expectations about the future of the Black church.
"We have to develop new approaches to politics that can turn the temperature down on our political conflicts and start bringing people closer together. So much is at stake"
Our nation's very foundation is built on mendacity hermeneutics of scripture and intentional omission of women, indigenous populations, and enslaved Africans from the protection under any of its laws, whether created by Man or divinely inspired.
Ash Wednesday is a time when persons are invited to face their mortality; to remember the limited time we have on this earth and reflect on who we want to be, and the path we want to travel; and who or what we live for.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.