“You just knew whatever he did, he was going to do it all out,” Stergalas said later. “He was going to make it.”
Stergalas phoned another former player, Mike Vollmar, who was Michigan State’s director of football operations. Stergalas recommended he hire Saleh as a graduate assistant. Stergalas sensed apprehension from Vollmar. Saleh would be halting a promising career at 22, sacrificing good pay for scraps, leaving behind an office in a downtown Detroit skyscraper for a workspace the size of a closet. He would be fetching coffee and making copies.
“Why,” Vollmar asked Stergalas, “would he want to do that?”
The answer provided another layer to Saleh’s distinctly American story, which has now reached the most American of games. Nearly two decades after he gave up banking for coaching, Saleh will be one of the most prominent figures on the sidelines of Super Bowl LIV. As the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator, Saleh, who turned 41 on Friday, led a unit that yielded the second-fewest yards in the NFL. On Sunday, he faces the unenviable task of stopping Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs’ pyrotechnic offense.
Saleh’s ascent may continue. He received head coaching interest this month, and the Cleveland Browns considered hiring him after his interview wowed them. Many NFL insiders expect he will be leading his own team after next season.
“He’s just so dynamic, and he’s always evolving,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said. “He’s a guy that has taken that Cover 3 scheme that everybody talks about, and he’s really evolved it and changed it [to mask] a lot of the weaknesses that it had previously.”
The significance of Saleh’s presence extends beyond football. A Muslim Arab-American of Lebanese descent, Saleh grew up in Dearborn, which has one of the largest Muslim populations in the United States. Football is king there, just like any other city or town in Michigan. It is common to see women in hijab at Michigan Stadium on fall Saturdays. The 2011 documentary “Fordson” depicts players at Fordson High — from which Saleh graduated in 1997 — navigating the Ramadan fast during the season.
American Muslims will not likely look at Saleh as a needed aspirational sporting figure — for generations, stars such as Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar provided Muslim athletic idols. But Saleh is about to play a leading role in the most-watched event and largest spectacle in American culture.
“It is not lost on us the impact, the amount of influence, this could have on those who are watching,” said Dawud Walid, the executive director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Michigan.
And what would that impact be? Saleh will represent the acculturation of American Muslims in broader society to a swath of Americans who regard that idea either not at all or with a degree of hostility. Muslims from Michigan alone, Walid said, are leaders in academia, health care, business and most any other field of American life. But none of those fields can come close to matching football’s popular reach.
“The sports world has perhaps a much larger effect on pop culture than those other avenues of influence,” Walid said. “So Coach Saleh doing what he does, and his affiliation with the NFL and having a high profile, will have influence, many of us believe, on how a number of Americans will perhaps look at Muslims in a different light. There are some people who would conclude that Muslims are Americans like everyone else, with some of the same aspirations as well as pastimes.”
Saleh is more “worried about third and seven,” he said, than his cultural impact. But he understands the meaning of his appearance in the Super Bowl. On Wednesday evening, Saleh traced his family’s history back to his grandfather, who first immigrated from Lebanon. That generation worked in factories, unable to advance beyond manual labor because of a language barrier. The money they made enabled their children to attend better schools, and they became doctors and lawyers and other establishment professions.
“For me to have the opportunity to coach, and kind of create another trail, has been good,” Saleh said. “That is pretty cool.”
To forge his own path, Saleh had to leave behind a plum job and a secure future. The decision begged the simple question Vollmar asked Stergalas: Why?
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Saleh’s brother David was on his second day of training for a new job on the 61st floor of 2 World Trade Center, the South Tower. When terrorists flew a plane into the North Tower, David scrambled down the staircase. He escaped only after a second plane hit the South Tower.
The day shook Saleh and made him question what he wanted. He had a comfortable job at Comerica in Detroit as a credit analyst, but he couldn’t stop thinking about football, which had always held a firm grip on him. His father was a star at Fordson, and numerous Saleh brothers and cousins moved through the school as it became a local powerhouse. He played tight end in college at Northern Michigan, becoming an all-conference player at the Division II school. As he began a professional career, he realized he could not leave the sport behind.
“That 9/11 incident caused a lot of us to reevaluate our lives and what we want to do with them,” Stergalas said. “I think that’s what hit Robert. He realized he wanted to follow his passion. 9/11 forced that decision for Robert, I believe.”
When Vollmar added Saleh to Michigan State’s staff, Saleh’s salary dropped from about $50,000, with the chance to make six figures quickly if he stayed on track, to $750 a month.
“It didn’t matter,” Saleh said. “At that point, it wasn’t about money. It was about waking up and being happy.”
Saleh determined he was not going back to Comerica, but he still developed a mental escape hatch: If he hadn’t established himself by 30, he could return to banking and chase the money. In 2005, when he was 25, then-Houston Texans coach Dom Capers called and hired Saleh as an intern. It was then, before stops as an assistant in Seattle and Jacksonville en route to being hired as San Francisco’s coordinator in 2017, that he knew he would stay in coaching for the rest of his life.
‘Just like one of the players’
Saleh still approaches coaching with the fervor of someone willing to leave a life behind to pursue it. When he watches one of his players execute a play exactly how he had coached it all week, after coaches and players had invested so much time and mental energy in one another, he feels like he watched one of his children — he is a father of six — master a new task.
The manifestation of that feeling — “jubilation for the players,” Saleh said — has grown familiar to audiences. Saleh’s flexing, crazed celebrations became catnip for television producers. There were Sunday evenings this fall when his bald head appeared to rival the “60 Minutes” clock for airtime.
“He’s just like one of the players,” defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said. “Throughout the week, we’re not going crazy and yelling everywhere. We get the game plan, get the scheme, go out every day and execute as good as possible, and on game day, we flip the switch. I feel like he flips the switch, too. If he had the opportunity, I feel like he would go out there and try to hit somebody.”
His outward intensity, though, is confined to moments when his players succeed. Saleh rejects many tactics embedded in football culture. He does not embarrass players or motivate through fear. He does not tolerate mistakes, but rather than screaming at players, he explains how to avoid them.
“That’s what you appreciate about his coaching style,” Sherman said. “There’s never a negative, like, ‘Man, you suck! You made a mistake!’ It’s like, ‘Hey, I need you to be better than you were.’ He talks to you in a reasonable way that still holds you accountable […] to the team but doesn’t demean you.”
“When you look at these guys, they’re all men, and they all want to be treated with respect,” Saleh said. “ … You expect them to treat you with respect as a coach. Well, you should be able to reciprocate that to the player. They deserve it. They earned it.”
Saleh has earned his way here, taking his American story to the biggest stage in American sports. Saleh will focus on his defense Sunday, screaming and shoving players when they succeed, correcting them when they don’t. But he realizes he has a larger role to play, too.
“I get lost in my own world, so I never get a chance to think about it,” Saleh said. “I know it’s a big deal. If it can change one life, then that’s awesome. Just to get people thinking outside the box of what they’re actually capable of, because the people of Dearborn are capable of great things.”