Robert Saleh’s journey to the New York Jets started with 9/11 epiphany


Let’s begin in the lounge of Robert Saleh’s dad and mom’ residence in Dearborn, Michigan.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Saleh and his household sat in entrance of the TV, horrified the photographs they noticed on CNN. His mom was crying. His sisters had been crying. His father, Sam, refused to imagine the grisly scene on the World Commerce Middle in New York Metropolis.

Possibly the restaurant atop the north tower was on fireplace, Sam thought. Possibly it was a bogus report or trick images a twisted producer. That was his paternal hope. His physique felt numb.

With Robert’s older brother, David, engaged on the 61st flooring of the south tower, their minds quickly started racing to dangerous locations. Robert was immobile on the couch, his eyes caught on the display screen. He was 22 years outdated, a former faculty soccer participant beginning a profession within the monetary world — 19 years earlier than he can be named head coach of the New York Jets.

“He barely mentioned two phrases, however you could possibly see he had nervousness in his face,” Sam mentioned. “You possibly can see the nervousness and worry that he might need misplaced a brother. Proper then and there was the turning level for Robert. He mentioned, ‘You understand what? I will reside my life. I will do one thing that can make me joyful.’ That may have turned his life.”

His brother made it out alive following the terrorist assaults, however Robert bottled up these feelings for an additional 5 months. Nobody knew how he felt till Feb. 4, 2002, the morning after the New England Patriots shocked the St. Louis Rams in Tremendous Bowl XXXVI. Sitting in his work cubicle on the Comerica Financial institution workplaces in Detroit, Robert referred to as David with some private information. He was sobbing uncontrollably as he made the decision.

ESPN THE DAILY PODCAST: Saleh describes his path to Jets

Now let’s go to the Jets’ coaching facility in Florham Park, New Jersey.

Final Thursday, Robert was launched because the 18th full-time coach in Jets historical past, culminating a journey from the underside of 1 occupation (monetary credit score analyst) to the head of one other. As an alternative of a lavish information convention with household and associates, it was achieved through Zoom with Jets CEO Christopher Johnson and common supervisor Joe Douglas. The digital introduction had a indifferent really feel to it — welcome to 2021 — however the second misplaced no significance.

Robert was seated in a room 32 miles due west of decrease Manhattan, residence of the previous twin towers. One of many darkest days in American historical past — the 9/11 terrorist assaults — had altered the course of his life and numerous others. Now right here he was, the grandson of Lebanese immigrants and the primary Muslim head coach in NFL historical past, throwing his arms across the metropolis and the franchise.

“Going my brother’s expertise and the tragedy that he skilled, with the ability to self-reflect on what I used to be doing at that second and realizing that I had a ardour for soccer, actually triggered this entire factor,” Robert mentioned.

In Saleh, 41, the Jets get a person with many sides. He is a fist-pumping, high-fiving, people-loving coach who wears a bracelet that reads “Excessive violence.” He is 240 kilos with lower than 10% physique fats; he appears to be like like he may go well with up at linebacker. He is additionally a deep-thinking, chess-playing, child-doting dad of six (with a seventh due in April).

Saleh crisscrossed the nation as an NFL assistant, going from the Houston Texans to the Seattle Seahawks to the Jacksonville Jaguars to the San Francisco 49ers. He received a Tremendous Bowl ring (Seattle, 2013 season) and endured the distress of dropping (two 3-13 years in Jacksonville), so he has seen all of it in a comparatively quick time.

“When he was our linebacker coach, we’d say, ‘He is not going to be right here for very lengthy,'” former Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny mentioned. “He has that sort of persona and that sort of presence that you just knew he was going to be in a management function.”

After graduating from Northern Michigan in 2002, Saleh appeared extra more likely to change into a financial institution president than an NFL head coach.

He landed a job with Comerica Financial institution, making $800 every week to judge mortgage functions in an antiseptic workplace area. He missed soccer. He grew up in a soccer household. His father was a star center linebacker at Fordson Excessive College in Dearborn, the place Robert and his brother, uncles and cousins additionally performed. His dad was adequate to play at Jap Michigan, incomes a tryout with the Chicago Bears, however a critical knee harm prevented Sam from fulfilling his potential.

From one technology to the subsequent, the Salehs performed the identical manner.

“On the soccer discipline, he was a typical Saleh,” former Fordson coach Jeff Stergalas mentioned of Robert. “He’ll hit you.”

Robert, an all-conference tight finish at Northern Michigan, opted for the 9-to-5 life as a result of he knew he wasn’t adequate to pursue the NFL as a participant. There was no disgrace in that; he had a university diploma and a promising job in finance. His household was happy with him, and why not?

His paternal grandfather, Albert, was born in Lebanon and had lived a tough life, typically holding down two jobs. For a two-year stretch, he labored shifts at Ford Motor Co. and Basic Motors. He moonlighted as a door-to-door salesman in downtown Detroit, promoting sufficient family merchandise in a low-income space to purchase a furnishings retailer. He no means realized how you can learn or write English. His concept of company finance was doing enterprise out of his station wagon.

And now his grandson was beginning a jacket-and-tie job in a downtown workplace. Robert was standing on the shoulders of his grandfather and father, who labored development, coached youth sports activities and was a pillar in Dearborn’s massive and tightly knit Arab American group. This was an inspiring success story.

Besides Robert hated his job. The belief hit him on 9/11.

‘I’ve to be on the soccer discipline’

David Saleh arrived in Manhattan on Sept. 6, 2001, to start a one-month coaching program as a monetary adviser for Morgan Stanley. After a weekend of enjoyable within the Large Apple, he reported to work on Sept. 10. On his second day within the workplace, he took a break round 8:30 a.m. and savored the view from the 61st flooring. He noticed the Statue of Liberty and a blue harbor speckled with ships. It was a postcard morning till a ball of fireplace zoomed previous the window, jolting him again a step.

“It was all gradual movement to me,” David mentioned. “I could not even register what was taking place.”

David knew sufficient to get the hell out of there. He discovered the stairwell and began to stroll down, passing firefighters on the 11th flooring. The involved, pasty look on one firefighter’s face is burned into his reminiscence. He nonetheless wonders if any of these courageous souls who marched into the inferno made it out alive.

When David reached the road, he began operating and saved operating for seven blocks, not figuring out the north tower had been struck a airplane. There was hysteria within the streets as individuals watched the towers ultimately collapse. The scene reminded him of the film “Independence Day.”

In Michigan, his panicked family members tried desperately to succeed in him.

“Swear to god, you no means need to hear your mother’s voice when she thinks you is perhaps lifeless,” David mentioned. “Oh boy, simply listening to her on the voicemail was horrible.”

David stopped at a comfort retailer and referred to as residence (the proprietor charged him $20), letting his frightened household know he was OK. He made his option to White Plains, simply north of town, the place he obtained a rented automotive a good friend of his dad’s. He drove residence to Michigan, pulling over in Pennsylvania due to a trauma-induced nervousness assault.

Robert was joyful to have his massive brother residence, however that day shook him a lot that he reexamined his personal life and profession objectives. He determined to observe his coronary heart, giving up finance for soccer. It took guts, nevertheless it additionally was gut-wrenching.

“He referred to as me up, profusely crying, in full tears,” David mentioned. “He had a bit of breakdown. He mentioned, ‘I’ve to be on the soccer discipline.'”

Robert drove residence and broke the information to his father.

“When he walked in the home, his face was as crimson as a tomato,” Sam Saleh mentioned. “I mentioned, ‘What occurred, did you get fired?'”

Sam tried to persuade his son to remain on the financial institution, which was safe and protected, however he shortly realized it was a misplaced trigger. Robert needed to teach, and nothing was going to alter his thoughts.

In search of recommendation, Robert reached out to his outdated highschool coach, Stergalas, who did not paint a reasonably image of the street forward. He advised Robert he’d higher learn to make espresso and run a duplicate machine as a result of these can be his main obligations as a university graduate assistant. That did not faze him.

Stergalas arrange an interview for Robert calling Mike Vollmar, the Michigan State director of soccer operations and an alum of neighboring Riverview Excessive College. Coincidentally, Saleh’s Jets predecessor, Adam Gase, was an undergraduate assistant for the Spartans solely three years earlier.

After two years at Michigan State, the place he made $650 per 30 days, Saleh used his connections to land a GA place at Central Michigan in 2004 underneath present Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. Most teaching wannabes do not do a second GA stint, however Saleh felt he wanted extra seasoning.

“I am not able to exit on the earth but,” he advised Stergalas.

Saleh was prepared for the world after a 12 months at Central Michigan and a 12 months at Georgia. He made a whole lot of espresso and copies, however he additionally impressed his bosses with how shortly and clearly he was capable of produce scouting experiences on completely different pc packages. His NFL tour began in 2005 with a six-year run in Houston, his longest stint in a single metropolis.

Former Texans defensive coordinator Richard Smith met Saleh’s father in the future at apply and advised him his son was too good for soccer, that he ought to be a university professor. Saleh’s intelligence is overshadowed his sideline exuberance, however those that know him say he is extraordinarily sharp.

Posluszny mentioned Saleh has the flexibility to show sophisticated materials into easy ideas for the gamers to study. In its purest kind, teaching is instructing. Every week in Jacksonville, he offered the opponent’s favourite operating performs, adopted play-action passes off these runs. Clear. Concise. Simple to digest.

“He was pondering nicely upfront, not solely what would occur instantly however what would occur later within the recreation as nicely,” Posluszny mentioned.

Saleh plots technique like he performs chess — and he does that fairly nicely, too. Years in the past, he reached 1,800 within the chess ranking system, in response to his father — not removed from grasp degree. Sam Saleh taught his youngsters and their associates how you can play chess, as soon as placing up $50 for a winner-take-all match. Robert did not win and demanded one other match. Yeah, he is fiercely aggressive, too.

‘I am alleged to be right here’ in New York

Saleh’s teaching philosophy was formed throughout his time in Seattle (2011-13), the place he was launched to teach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, an in depth confidant and the present Las Vegas Raiders coordinator. Bradley remembers the day in his workplace when he interviewed Saleh for a quality-control place on the workers.

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Wealthy Cimini breaks down the Jets reaching settlement with 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to be their new head coach, and why he matches what the group is in search of.

“He satisfied me that it might be a giant mistake if I did not rent him,” Bradley mentioned, laughing on the reminiscence.

That offseason, the Seahawks rebooted on protection, as Carroll challenged his defensive coaches to create a player-friendly scheme. They opted for Cowl 3, tailor-made round their immense expertise within the secondary — aka the Legion of Increase. Two years later, they received the Tremendous Bowl with probably the greatest defenses in historical past. To today, Saleh makes use of that as his base protection.

“Robert was in that starting levels of it,” Bradley mentioned, “and he was nice.”

Saleh ultimately adopted Bradley to Jacksonville, the place he grew to become a place coach for the primary time and constructed a repute for connecting with gamers. As quickly as he obtained the job, he took Posluszny out to dinner. The linebacker was blown away; he had no means had a coach who needed to interrupt bread with him. They talked soccer and life. When Posluszny obtained residence that night time, he advised his spouse, “This man is absolutely spectacular.”

Bradley was fired through the 2016 season and a lot of the workers was changed, so Saleh ended up in San Francisco because the defensive coordinator. He inherited the 32nd-ranked protection, however this was no in a single day success story. The primary two seasons had been bumpy; there have been rumors about his job safety. All the pieces clicked in 2019, when the 49ers soared to No. 2 in whole protection and received the NFC championship.

That protection was stacked with expertise, and Saleh was capable of provoke it together with his upbeat persona and intelligent schemes. In 2020, star defensive sort out DeForest Buckner was traded and different stalwarts corresponding to cornerback Richard Sherman and defensive finish Nick Bosa had been injured. In some way, the Niners completed fifth in yards allowed regardless of a 6-10 report.

“Robert helped to construct a profitable atmosphere that has developed each gamers and coaches,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan mentioned.

Coveted six of the seven NFL groups that had head-coaching vacancies, Saleh advised associates he most popular the Jets or Jaguars over the remaining. The Jaguars employed City Meyer, leaving Saleh for the Jets, who made him their No. 1 alternative after the primary spherical of interviews.

Possibly it is future.

Saleh will coach in MetLife Stadium, the place he loved the largest win of his skilled profession — the Seahawks’ rout of the Denver Broncos in Tremendous Bowl XLVIII. In his 50-yard-line seats, Sam Saleh had checked out his spouse, Fatin, and mentioned, “Who would’ve thought we might have a son within the Tremendous Bowl?”

Earlier than that day in February 2014, members of the Saleh household ventured to decrease Manhattan, the place they visited the Freedom Tower — constructed on the positioning of the outdated World Commerce Middle. David, who may have been one of many 3,000 who misplaced their lives, introduced his daughter with him. What a narrative to inform.

Coincidentally, the primary Sunday of the 2021 NFL season is Sept. 12, which implies Robert Saleh’s head-coaching debut is on monitor to happen at MetLife in the future after the 20th anniversary of the terrorist assault.

“I am alleged to be right here, and I imagine that,” Saleh mentioned of the Jets. “God does issues for a motive, and I imagine that is one in all them.”



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