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Arab Americans in the NFL Through the Years

posted on: Oct 16, 2020

By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Writer

There are nearly four million Arab Americans living in the U.S. and while many are successful and make major contributions to society, they still suffer discrimination and are often derided as un-American. A sport considered very “American” is football and while there are not a large number of Arab Americans in the National Football League (NFL), there are many more than people realize. Arab Americans are involved in and contribute to every aspect of “American” life and are just as American as anyone else, which is why it is important they are recognized.

This list is as comprehensive as possible, but some players, while referenced on various lists as having played in the NFL, have no available data about them on the internet. The list is ordered by date, from earliest Arab American in the NFL to the most recent, with those players lacking available data at the bottom. Most importantly, the list includes non-players who were involved with the NFL in some capacity.

Abe Gibron: former NFL player and coach – Lebanese American

Abe Gibron during his time coaching the Chicago Bears

Abe Gibron was a standout athlete in high school, but before attending college he had a brief military career. He then began his pro career in 1949 with the Buffalo Bills in the All-America Football Conference. In 1950 the AAFC dissolved and he joined the Cleveland Browns in the NFL and with them won three championships. He retired after 11 seasons. Gibron started coaching in 1960 with the Washington Redskins and after spending time with the Chicago Bears (as a head coach for three seasons) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers he retired in 1985. In 1976 he was also inducted into the Indiana University Hall of Fame.

Bill George: former NFL linebacker – Lebanese American

Bill George

Bill George was born in Western-Pennsylvania, known for producing talented football players. His talent in college led to him being drafted in the second round of the 1951 NFL draft by the Chicago Bears. In his second year in the NFL he gained notoriety by changing how the linebacker position was played and is widely considered the first true middle linebacker. He was an absolute star at the position, All-NFL choice eight times, won a championship with the Bears, and generally had very impressive statistics. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974. In 1999 he was also ranked 49 on a list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.

Joe Robbie: founder of the Miami Dolphins – Lebanese American

Joe Robbie in front of the stadium named after him

Joe Robbie is of Lebanese-Irish heritage with his father an immigrant from Lebanon. He did not play or show much interest in football until he moved to Minneapolis and became a Minnesota Vikings season ticket holder. Robbie got to know Joe Foss, the commissioner of the American Football League (AFL) in 1965, and they discussed Robbie purchasing an expansion franchise. On August 16th after raising $7.5 million with the help of Danny Thomas, a fellow Lebanese American comedian, Robbie received an AFL expansion franchise and on October 8th, the Miami Dolphins were officially formed. Soon after, the NFL-AFL merger occurred and Robbie got his team into a major organization for a relatively cheap price. The Dolphins stadium opened in 1987 was named Joe Robbie Stadium until 1996.

Rich Kotite: former NFL player and coach – Lebanese American

Rich Kotite during his time coaching the Philadelphia Eagles (credit: USA Today Sports)

Rich Kotite played tight end in college and in the NFL, but he had a pretty unspectacular career through three different teams from 1967-1972. After he retired he decided to become a coach. Initially, he was just a position coach, but in 1985 he got the job of offensive coordinator with the New York Jets. In 1990 he was hired by the Philadelphia Eagles as their OC and promoted to head coach in 1991. At first, he found success with a talent-rich team, but as soon as those players moved on, the Eagles began to lose. Kotite was fired in 1994 and then hired by the Jets. He botched multiple drafts there and the Jets record was abysmal; this led to his retirement in 1996 after the season ended.

John Elway: former NFL player and current general manager – Lebanese American

John Elway after winning Super Bowl XXXIII

John Elway is a famous quarterback who played for the Denver Broncos and is now their general manager. He played football at Stanford and was taken 1st overall in the 1983 draft by the Baltimore Colts (they moved to Indianapolis in 1984). At the time, the Colts were terrible and Elway said he would go play baseball if they did not trade him away. Eventually, the Colts made a deal with the Denver Broncos. Elway struggled initially, but soon found his groove in 1986 when he led the Broncos to Super Bowl XXI. The Broncos then lost two more Super Bowls, but in 1997 they finally won and then won again the next year. Elway set a record at the time with five Super Bowl starts in his career and retired in 1999 after winning Super Bowl XXXIII. He then became the Bronco’s general manager and executive vice president in 2011 and won another Super Bowl with the Broncos in that role. In 2004 he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is a legendary quarterback, but few know of his Arab American roots.

Doug Flutie: former NFL quarterback – Lebanese American

Doug Flutie in his time at Boston College

Doug Flutie can trace his Arab American heritage to his grandfather who was the son of a Lebanese immigrant. Flutie played quarterback and was the first ever Arab American Heisman Trophy winner while playing at Boston College. He also earned the title of NCAA all-time passing yardage leader (10,579 yards) and was known for his famous Hail Mary pass against Miami. In 1985, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, but did not gain recognition until his 1988 season with the New England Patriots. That season, he won 6/8 games earning the “unsung hero” award. Flutie then joined, and dominated, the Canadian Football League for eight seasons. Upon his return to the NFL, in 1998, he earned Comeback Player of the Year honors while playing for the Buffalo Bills and bringing them to the playoffs in back to back years. Flutie ended his career in 2005 as a backup with the Patriots.

Brian Habib: former NFL offensive lineman – Lebanese American

Brian Habib in his time with the Denver Broncos

Brian Habib played in the NFL as an offensive lineman (playing both tackle and guard) for 11 seasons. He was drafted in 1988 by the Minnesota Vikings out of Washington College. He played for three different teams and while with the Denver Broncos they won a Super Bowl. Currently, Habib is a high school offensive line coach and a real estate agent.

Jeff George: former NFL quarterback – Lebanese American

Jeff George during his time with the Oakland Raiders (credit: Todd Warshaw/Allsport)

Jeff George played college football at Purdue University, but after a year transferred to the University of Illinois. He spent two years there before entering the 1990 NFL Draft with assurances of being a top five pick. Sure enough, he was picked first overall by the Indianapolis Colts. Unfortunately for them, he did not have as much success as expected, and in his time with the Colts he had more interceptions than touchdowns and only one winning season. After the 1993 season George was traded to the Atlanta Falcons and in 1995 took them to the playoffs. George bounced around teams until 2006, but after 2001 never attempted another pass. He continued to play around with the idea of returning to the NFL, but never got another shot.

Drew Haddad: former NFL wide receiver

Drew Haddad in high school where he was a star

Drew Haddad is a former wide receiver who first made headlines at Saint Ignatius High School where he led his team to a national championship. Haddad continued playing football at the University of Buffalo where he was the all-time leading receiver. He was drafted in the 2000 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills and then bounced around teams before finishing his career in 2005. Although he was inducted into the University of Buffalo’s hall of fame in 2007, he had no success in the NFL with only one reception in his entire career.

Robert Saleh: current Coach – Lebanese American

Robert Saleh during his current role of Defensive Coordinator for the 49ers (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Robert Saleh is a football coach and is believed to be the first Arab American NFL Coordinator. His Arab roots trace to Lebanon and he is Muslim as well. Saleh, like his father and brother, played football in high school and college, but he did pursue the draft and entered the business world. After Super Bowl XXXVI, however, he realized he wanted to get back into the football world. Not as a player, but as a coach. He reached out to his former college coach and got connected to a low level Defensive Assistant role for Michigan State in 2002. After four years of an assistant role at multiple universities, he got his chance mid-season in 2005 to intern with the Houston Texans. There he began to make his name for five years in smaller coaching roles. He then spent three years with the Seattle Seahawks from 2011-2013 and won Super Bowl 48 with them.

Finally, he got his chance in 2014 to become a Linebackers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Under him, their defense went from 26th to 6th in yards allowed. After three years there, Saleh had proved himself more than enough to be hired as a Defensive Coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers. His first two seasons of hard work panned out, and in 2019 the 49ers defense was top in the league and nearly won them a Super Bowl. Saleh is currently still the DC for the 49ers, but many teams have seriously looked at him for a head coaching job. With hard work and perseverance Saleh has had a lot of success. Unfortunately, in Dearborn, Michigan (his hometown), after 9/11 many Arab Americans and American Muslims struggled with racism and prejudice. Now, despite being in a prominent NFL role, he still worries about his words being misinterpreted if he comments about these issues.

Gibran Hamdan: former NFL quarterback – Palestinian American

Gibran Hamdan during his brief stint with the Miami Dolphins

Gibran Hamdan is former quarterback of Palestinian-Pakistani heritage though he was born in San Diego and lived in Kuwait for a while. He played baseball and football in college at Indiana University, but settled on football and in 2003 he was a 7th round draft pick by the Washington Redskins. Hamdan was impressive in training camp, but got little playing time and was out of the league until 2005, when he signed with the Seattle Seahawks. His time there only consisted of playing for NFL Europa and injuries unfortunately held him back there. After his release in 2006 he bounced around teams, but did not find much success and retired on June 4th, 2010.

Ryan Kalil: current center – Lebanese American

Ryan Kalil during his time with the Panthers

Ryan Kalil is a center in the NFL of Lebanese-Mexican heritage and is the older brother of Matt Kalil by four years. Ryan played for the University of Southern California and won multiple accolades for his play there. In 2007 he was a 2nd round pick by the Carolina Panthers. By 2011, the Panthers recognized his skill and made him the highest paid center in the NFL at the time. In 2016 and 2017 he was unable to play full seasons because of injuries and on December 31, 2018 he retired. Then on August 1, 2019 Ryan came out of retirement to provide a veteran presence for the New York Jets on a one year $8,400,000 contract. Unfortunately, in week 8 of the season he injured his knee badly and his season ended. He is not officially retired again, but had a very impressive career and will likely retire soon at 35 with multiple past injuries.

Matt Kalil: current offensive tackle – Lebanese American

Matt Kalil during his time with the Minnesota Vikings (credit: USA Today Sports)

Just like his brother and father, Matt Kalil has played football most of his life. He is also of course Lebanese American and is also still in the NFL. Following in his brother’s footsteps, he attended USC and also won multiple accolades while there. Matt was seen as such a good offensive tackle prospect that the Minnesota Vikings selected him in the 2012 draft with the 4th pick. In 2013, he played his first game against his brother Ryan. On March 10, 2017 he signed with the Panthers making him and Ryan the first set of brothers to play on the same offensive line in 24 years. He missed all of 2018 with an injury, and in 2019 was released, then signed by the Texans, but then released again. Currently, he is a free agent and is looking to rebound after his major 2018 injury.

Oday Aboushi: current offensive Guard – Palestinian American

Oday Aboushi on his current team, the Detroit Lions

Oday Aboushi plays offensive guard and is Palestinian American, born to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Palestine. He is also a practicing Muslim, which is rare in the NFL and Aboushi does fast during Ramadan, even when it fell during training camp in his college career. He played football from a young age and was accepted to the University of Virginia on a scholarship where he played from 2009-2012. In 2013 the New York Jets drafted him, but he only had mild success and bounced around teams five teams before signing with the Detroit Lions in 2019. He resigned with them for the 2020 season and at 29, he has a few years left on his NFL career.

Aboushi’s story is unique because not only is he the second Palestinian-American in the NFL, after Gibran Hamdan, but he has been the target of attacks ranging from connecting him with Islamic extremism to being anti-Semitic. These attacks came mainly from far-right persons. Given his Palestinian heritage, he does not hesitate to share his opinions, but this has led to attacks. Some bloggers took his comments to Palestinian Americans and his retweet of an image of a Palestinian woman kicked out of her house by settlers and used them as cause to attack him for anti-Semitism. A Yahoo Sports article picked up this thread, but thankfully many people quickly rushed to Aboushi’s side and defended him; this even included the Jewish Anti-Defamation league. Aboushi says, that he hopes playing for the NFL will help discredit the impressions many have of Arab Americans and Palestinians.

Players with no data available about them:

Fred Maalouf: former quarterback – Lebanese American

Fuad Rubeiz: former kicker – Lebanese American

Arab Americans have clearly made an impact in the NFL and should be recognized as such! Individual sources for player information are hyperlinked within the article.

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