His brother’s harrowing ordeal on 9/11 was the transformative moment that persuaded Robert Saleh, an Arab-American former D-II tight end, to chase his NFL coaching dream, a path he pursued from the lowest levels to the defensive coordinator job in San Francisco

By Robert Klemko
June 06, 2017

The Seahawks were in the pupal stages of what would become five consecutive playoff appearances and a Super Bowl victory. It was early in 2011, the lockout year, and Pete Carroll was entering his second season on the job. Marshawn Lynch had been acquired in a trade with the Bills; second-year safety Earl Thomas held steadfast to his fast-receding dreadlocks; the world hadn’t yet met Richard Sherman, an outspoken rookie cornerback who’d mostly played wide receiver at Stanford; Russell Wilson was negotiating a release from N.C. State to play his final year of college ball at Wisconsin.

Carroll, ever the motivator, asked his coaches to create mission statements. Among them was a newcomer, Robert Saleh, a quality control assistant who had come highly recommended to then-defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. “Carroll gave the coaches the task and the challenge of finding out what was very important to us as individuals,” Saleh says, “to identify who we were as coaches … what defined us.”

Saleh, 32 at the time, was not simply a man with an entry-level job in the NFL, but someone who was on a path to daily betterment. As summer morphed into fall, he would become an integral cog in a burgeoning NFL powerhouse. But first, he had to explain his personal philosophy in no more than 20 words.

In short, what do you stand for?

* * *

Robert Saleh speaking at OTAs on May 31.
Jeff Chiu/AP

Robert Saleh’s journey to the NFL began on Sept. 11, 2001. His oldest brother, David, was beginning his second day of intensive training as a financial advisor with his new employer, Morgan Stanley. During a work break, David looked down from the 61st floor of 2 World Trade Center, the South Tower, and gazed upon a monstrous yacht in the Hudson River that had two helicopters resting on helipads. It wasn’t a sight often seen in his hometown of Dearborn, Mich.

“I could not believe how big this yacht was, based on how big it looked from being so high up,” David says.

Suddenly, a fireball obscured his view. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was American Airlines Flight 11 crashing into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. David took a step back, stunned by the blast. His colleagues sprinted to the window, and his supervisor rushed into the room and asked, “What’s going on?”

“I think the building next door just blew up,” David told him.

The supervisor looked through the windows and saw charred debris falling to the ground. He instructed all employees to go back to their offices. Many trainees, including David, ignored him. David grabbed his suit coat, wallet, cell phone and briefcase and started moving down the packed staircase in what he describes as “a very intense and orderly flight.”

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“It wasn’t any chaos or anything like that,” David says. “On the 40th floor, I remember the intercom guy saying everything was good, it was an accident, everybody could go back to their offices and continue working.”

Some people turned back, fighting against the flow to return to their offices. As David reached the 24th floor, 19 minutes after the first attack, United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower, the building he was in, between the 77th and 85th floors. The stairwell shook, lights flickered. “Initially I had thought that the [first] building tipped over on top of us,” David says. “Never in my wildest imagination did I think it would’ve been a plane.”

The pace of the escape picked up. By the time David reached the 11th floor he saw firefighters ascending the doomed tower. “There was one firefighter,” David says, “he was a kid, maybe like 19, 20, somewhere around there. His face looked like a white T-shirt.”

By the time David reached ground level, evacuees were being diverted to a back exit, because victims trapped above the impact zone were jumping out of windows, with some impacts clustering around the other doors. When David got outside, he kept running for about seven blocks. When his adrenaline wore off, he slumped down on the ground and tried calling his parents. No signal. So he ducked into a party supply store and asked to use the store phone.

His father, Sam, answered the phone. David told him he was OK. His father replied, “OK, good. You’re OK. Can you believe what’s going on?”

“I have no idea what’s happening,” David said.

“You don’t know what’s going on? It was these son of a guns. They flew planes into the building!”

“What do you mean they flew planes into the building? You know what? Let me call you when I get back to the room.”

David hung up and kept walking back to the hotel where he was supposed to be staying for the next month while in training. Then, like the scene in “Independence Day” during the alien invasion, cars came to abrupt halts and onlookers stood slack-jawed in the streets.

“Everybody was stopped dead-smack in the streets, just watching everything,” David says. “I want to say it was a cab driver, he had his radio on. Then some lady comes on, ‘The Pentagon was just hit. A plane just crashed into the Pentagon. Ladies and gentlemen, we are under attack!’ I was like, ‘What the f--- is going on?’ It was nuts.”

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He kept walking, but the sprint down 61 floors and across Manhattan finally caught up to the former high school football player. Exhaustion took over. Just as he took a seat, at 9:59 am, the South Tower began to collapse. David sat on the sidewalk, watching in disbelief as the world changed.

Back home in Dearborn, his dad fielded phone calls from family and friends. Sam had heard from David, but that was before the towers collapsed and blanketed lower Manhattan in debris and dust. Robert Saleh, 22, had just been hired at Comerica Bank in Detroit. He came home after staying out with friends the night before to find his parents sitting on the couch, crying in front of the TV. “David’s in one of those buildings,” his mom said.

“That was the start of a very long day,” Robert says. “We watched the news. Every minute that passed by became more and more anxious. I can’t begin to describe the stress level for the house. Especially when I looked at my mom. It was not an easy day, not a great day to reflect on.”

At about 4 p.m., David called from his hotel room to confirm he’d made it out alive. Early the next morning he called home again to say he needed a ride home, because all air traffic was suspended in the U.S. His dad contacted a family friend who was returning from Chicago to White Plains, N.Y., in a rental car. David found his way to White Plains, took the rental car and arrived in Dearborn around 5 a.m. on Sept. 13.

“There must’ve been 100 people waiting for me, family and friends,” David says, “and I just wanted to go to sleep.”

Robert went back to work at Comerica the next day, stunned. He’d almost lost his brother, and as he went through the motions as a first-year credit analyst for a commercial lending department, his mind raced. He contemplated the fragility of his brother’s life, of his own. He began thinking about his purpose, about what he wanted to do with his life.

It was football.

* * *

Robert Saleh was a four-year starter and all-conference tight end at Division II Northern Michigan. He followed in the footsteps of his father, who starred at Fordson High in Dearborn, played at Eastern Michigan and saw his pro career cut short by a major knee injury in his first training camp with the Bears.

Robert and his friends always joked that his father resembled Bald Bull, the bug-eyed, bald-headed Turkish boxer from Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! But Robert’s dad and his mom are Lebanese (Sam was born in Michigan but spent some of his childhood in Lebanon, and Fatin was born abroad and emigrated as a teenager). Today they’re retired after running a furniture store in Dearborn, where Lebanese immigrants began settling in the 1930s to fill new automotive jobs in the city’s Ford headquarters.

Over the years, the city attracted immigrants and refugees from all over the Middle East. By 2000, 30 percent of the community was of Arab ancestry; in 2010 that number has risen to about 42 percent. The football team at Fordson, where most Arab-American students clustered in Dearborn, remained a consistent Michigan powerhouse, with the sport becoming a favorite of the Arab-American community. From 1961 until the time Robert graduated, in 1997, there had been a Saleh at Fordson High.

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When David was a senior, coach Jeff Stergalas (an alum of the school) created a highlight reel of all the Fordson greats throughout the years. Before a game against top-ranked Lincoln Park, Stergalas gathered the team, dimmed the lights and showed the compendium of big hits and touchdown plays. In one grainy clip, a linebacker bulldozed through the line of scrimmage, tipped the quarterback’s pass into the air, snagged it and returned the interception for a touchdown. As the students clamored, Stergalas paused the tape, turned on the lights and told David Saleh, “That’s your dad.”

Sam, Robert and David Saleh.
Courtesy the Saleh family

Sam had earned a scholarship to play linebacker at Eastern Michigan, despite requiring reconstructive knee surgery during his senior season—the same knee that would later end his short stint with the Bears. Sam never got to realize his NFL dream, and in the wake of 9/11, Robert started to believe he was throwing away his own.

At the end of the 2001 NFL season, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick launched a dynasty, with Brady marching the Patriots into field goal range and Adam Vinatieri nailing a 48-yard field goal to beat St. Louis 20-17 as time expired in Super Bowl 36. As Brady celebrated the first of his five Lombardi trophies, and as Robert financed golf courses at his desk in Detroit, the latter reached a breaking point. He called his brother, David, in tears.

“The Super Bowl was just done, and he calls me up in my office. He’s crying profusely, he can’t even speak,” David says. “I’m like, ‘What? What’s going on? What’s happening?’ I told him, ‘Just call me back. Call me back when you catch your breath,’ and I hang up. I’m calling people to see what’s going on, if anything bad is going on. Nobody’s answering.

“He calls me back and he says, ‘I can’t stand this s---. I have to be on the football field,’ and I’m like, ‘What? Buddy, you didn’t go to the combine, you didn’t enter any of the drafts,’ He’s still in that crying voice telling me he doesn’t want to play—it hurts, it hurts too much, he’s sick of icing everything. I’m like, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ He says, ‘I’d rather coach.’ ”

David suggested that he drive over to the high school to see Coach Stergalas, whom Robert describes as a “second father.”

“He was on his way to being very successful in the business world,” Stergalas says. “I said, ‘Well, if you want to get into coaching, you have to become a graduate assistant. That’s not a very glamorous life. You better learn how to make coffee and make copies.”

Stergalas had always envisioned a coaching career for his former team captain. “After doing this for so long, you can always tell early on those special kids,” he says. “They have an intangible about them. They carry themselves a little bit differently.”

Stergalas connected Saleh with another former Fordson player, Mike Vollmer, who was in the football personnel department at Michigan State. “Vollmer said he had a student assistant job, and I had to enroll in grad school, pay my own way, and he might be able to hire me as a student assistant,” Robert says. “I don’t know if I called his bluff. He tried to talk me out of it, but I was hell-bent.”

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What followed was a short but wild odyssey that ought to inspire any young budding coach looking for a light at the end of the tunnel: Michigan State coach Bobby Williams was fired after the 2002 season, and though Saleh remained on staff, he saw no future on John L. Smith’s staff. David urged him to drive to Central Michigan after the 2003 season to ask for a meeting with Brian Kelly, who had just been hired in Mount Pleasant. Kelly, who had recruited Robert out of high school, remembered him and offered a GA job on the spot. A year later, feeling passed over by the hiring of a grad assistant from Georgia to be a position coach at CMU, Robert called Stergalas, who called Brian VanGorder, the former Wayne State coach who was now the defensive coordinator at Georgia. Then, just a few weeks into his new GA job at Georgia, Robert got a call from Tony Oden, a coach who had left Central Michigan for the Houston Texans. They needed a defensive intern.

Saleh asked Georgia coach Mark Richt for his blessing to abandon a weeks-old GA job for a shot at the NFL.

Are you crazy? Richt told him. You’re thinking about that? Get your stuff and get outta here. Don’t worry about us, buddy. Everybody dreams about going to that.

The following year Houston hired Richard Smith as its defensive coordinator, and Saleh spent the next three seasons as his quality control coach. He was promoted to assistant linebackers coach under new coordinator Frank Bush in 2009, then let go with the rest of the defensive staff after the 2010 season, when Gary Kubiak replaced Bush with Wade Phillips. At the 2011 Senior Bowl, Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley asked Smith to recommend a quality control coach, and Smith didn’t hesitate to name Saleh, newly a free agent.

“Smith said, I’ve got a guy, one of the best QC coaches I’ve ever been around,” Bradley says. “He was fast and detailed.”

Three years later the Seahawks trounced the Broncos in Super Bowl 48. Saleh called Stergalas from the winning locker room to thank him for everything. Says Stergalas: “I said, ‘Well Robert, you better pack your bags.’”

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* * *

Saleh spent three seasons as linebackers coach for the Jaguars.
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Bradley, who had taken the head-coaching job in Jacksonville a year before Seattle won the title, had passed on Saleh for his linebacker coach slot, choosing to keep longtime position coach Mark Duffner on staff—a move that shook Saleh’s belief in loyalty. But now the position was open, and Bradley wanted Saleh.

Over the next three seasons Saleh helped mold fifth-round rookie Telvin Smith into a top-20 standup linebacker, and he helped the Jags’ defense improve from 26th in yards allowed in 2014 to sixth in 2016, despite last season’s 3-13 finish under new head coach Doug Marrone.

Saleh believes what sustained him through his rise through the coaching ranks was an ability to fill a new niche on football coaching staffs at the turn of the century.

“A QC or GA is asked to do a lot of the computer work, especially back then because of the older generation of coaches,” Saleh says. “Even though I didn’t know much, I made it a point to figure it out. That skill set helped me create a reputation of being very detailed and efficient, because the amount of work I could produce in the amount of time was different from other people.”

Saleh was able to master Vizio, the program that gradually replaced Playmaker Pro as the go-to playbook resource for NFL and college coaches beginning in the early 2000s.

“I think when you have a staff you’re trying to build your staff with certain strengths,” Bradley says. “Obviously you want coaches on the grass who can really relate to players and teach them, and then there’s that technology part of it. It was growing so fast in the NFL that someone who understood it and could teach us could get a leg up. Robert came in and opened our minds up to some of the things that we could do.”

While Saleh was immersing himself in coaching technology and bouncing around college football in preparation for the NFL, the world he’d known in Dearborn was coming to grips with life after 9/11. The high school football team, riding a streak of 34 consecutive winning seasons, became the subject of racial taunts during road games. After an 8-2 season in 2002, they finished 7-11 over the next two seasons combined.

“After 9/11, those kids couldn’t recover,” Robert says. “The racial backlash they faced, I don’t know if you can imagine it, but for a kid to go through what those kids went through was not fair.”

Stergalas led the program to a rebound, going 11-2 in 2004 and again in 2006, the year he retired to become the athletic director at nearby Dearborn High. His wife, Georgene, a teacher at the school, filed a lawsuit in 2010 alleging that she and a white colleague were discriminated against in a larger effort to rid Fordson of Christian employees. A judge ruled that the claims were without merit.

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Through the years, Dearborn found itself at the center of a struggle to define the Arab-American experience. In 2010, failed Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle told supporters the city of Dearborn was under Sharia law. The Islamic Center of America in Dearborn was the target of a 2011 bombing plot and numerous anti-Muslim protests. Last August, University of Michigan-Dearborn chancellor Daniel Little wrote a letter to students and faculty denouncing then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s “virulent strand of anti-Muslim bigotry.”

Saleh, who is believed to be the first NFL coordinator of Arab ancestry, was reluctant to be profiled by The MMQB. He feared that his story would be interpreted as a political statement while Trump tries to ban immigrants from a number of predominantly Muslim countries.

“In our culture, we believe it takes a village to raise a child. There are a lot of people in Dearborn who have helped me.”

“Unfortunately, the perception of our culture and of Arab-Americans who were born in this country and worked tirelessly to assimilate, goes unnoticed,” Saleh says. “And all some people can see is what they think they know from what they see on TV. One bad apple spoils them all, fair or not.”

Saleh, who is Muslim, declined to say whether he supported Trump or his policies. He speaks Arabic, though not as fluently as his wife, who is also Lebanese. When Ramadan falls on the football calendar, long hours usually prevent him from fasting, though he tries. He wants the focus to be on the community of people who raised him, and the example he’s trying to set. “In our culture we believe it takes a village to raise a child,” he says. “There are a lot of people back in Dearborn who have helped me.”

This offseason, when Kyle Shanahan got the coaching gig in San Francisco, the first-time head coach reached out to Saleh to interview him, and came away impressed with his preparedness. Saleh had the next nine months planned out, in the event he got the job. “He knew exactly what he wanted to do. Mapped out from beginning to end,” Shanahan says. “It was a fool-proof plan, and you could tell he’s been thinking about it for a long time.”

That’s how Saleh, who once cried at his desk before changing his life to chase his dream, became the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers. His journey is encapsulated in the 18-word statement of personal philosophy he gave Pete Carroll six years ago:

A commitment to consistently execute the details required to compete at my greatest level; with loyalty and conviction.

* * *

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