Dearborn’s Saleh turning around NFL’s Jets with off-the-charts leadership skills
“The 49ers (for whom Robert Saleh was a defensive coordinator at the time) were playing the Rams and the camera showed Robert going crazy on the sidelines,” David recounted. “I thought to myself, ‘Who is that guy?!’ Honestly, Robert is one of the most quiet, humble, pious people I know, and here is was freaking out on TV.”
It turns out the fiery side of Robert Saleh periodically surfaces, David explained, because he is so passionate about the well-being of the players he coaches.
“Robert is so invested in these guys, when they’re doing great or maybe they mess up or a call goes against them, he can’t hide his feelings,” said David Saleh. “That’s one reason he’s such a great leader and the men he coaches appreciate that.”
Robert Saleh, a longtime NFL assistant coach/coordinator, was hired as the Jets head coach Jan. 14, 2021. The Jets finished 4-13 in Saleh’s inaugural season, but has flipped the script in 2022, starting 5-3 under the Dearborn native’s guidance.
“There are a lot of Jets fans in Dearborn now,” David Saleh said, smiling. “My family is from Lebanon — my grandfather came to Dearborn from Lebanon to work for Ford without knowing how to speak any English — and I can tell you that the Jets are the No. 1 team in Lebanon right now.”
The Saleh family is nearing legendary status in Dearborn — if it hasn’t already crossed that threshold.
Sam Saleh, David and Robert’s father, was an outstanding football player at Dearborn Fordson (his children’s alma mater, as well) for Hall of Fame coach Charlie Jestice. He later played at Eastern Michigan University before a potential pro career was snuffed out by a knee injury.
Robert Saleh was a not-to-be-messed-with tight end for the Tractors before graduating in 1997 and extending his playing career at Northern Michigan University.
“Robert was a devastating blocker at Fordson,” David remembered. “His role at Northern Michigan was primarily as a blocking tight end, as well, until his last year when they started throwing him the ball more. I recall one game against Wayne State when he had like 10 receptions for 150-some yards.”
Always a leader
Jeff Stergalas, Saleh’s head football coach at Fordson, described young Robert Saleh as a role model and leader long before generating national attention.
“Robert was a great student — very detailed in everything he did,” said Stergalas, now the head coach of Riverview High School. “Robert was such a well-rounded student. He participated in a lot of clubs and was great at everything he did.
“Football-wise, he was a very good tight end for us, and that was a key position at Fordson.”
Stergalas didn’t hesitate when asked if he saw Robert Saleh as a future coach during his days at Fordson.
“Honestly, no,” he said. “I thought he would be a superstar in the business world. One thing about Robert, though, when he was at Fordson: He knew everything — I mean everything — going on in the sports world. If it was on ESPN, Robert knew everything about it.”
Career path diverted
Saleh secured a financial-related job upon graduating from NMU. The course of his life was forever altered on Sept. 11, 2001, however, when terrorists attacked the United States.
When the first plane hit the World Trade Center’s north tower, the Saleh family watched in horror from the living room of their Dearborn home, knowing David Saleh was on the 61st floor of the south tower attending a one-month training session for Morgan Stanley.
“(Robert) barely said two words (as the family watched the attack unfold on live TV), but you could see he had anxiety in his face,” Sam Saleh told ESPN.com in a story that was published in 2021. “You could see the anxiety and fear that he might have lost a brother. Right then and there was the turning point for Robert. He said, ‘You know what? I’m going to live my life. I’m going to do something that will make me happy.’ That might have turned his life.”
Big Ten origin
With some help from Stergalas, Saleh was hired as a coach by Michigan State University’s football program, for which he made $650 a month. Two years later he landed a graduate assistant job at Central Michigan University.
His football intelligence and keen communication skills ultimately landed him an assistant-coaching position with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I see Robert occasionally,” Stergalas said, “and he hasn’t changed a bit. Same old Robert. Nicest, most humble man you’ll ever meet.”
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