Robert Saleh’s first game as head coach of the New York Jets is scheduled for Sept. 12, 2021. It will be one day after the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks on America…and the 20th anniversary of the day that led Saleh to this moment.
David Saleh, Robert’s older brother, began a new job on Sept. 10, 2001, and was on the 61st floor of the South Tower on the day of the attacks. As Robert recounted in a Washington Post story last year just before the Super Bowl, David began to exit his building after terrorists crashed a plane into the North Tower, and escaped just after a second plane hit the South Tower.
But back in Dearborn, Michigan, Robert Saleh and his parents thought they were seeing their loved one’s last moments on television.
I went to see my parents that morning, and I turned the corner into the TV room, and the picture is still vivid in my mind – my mom was crying, and my dad’s face was white,” Saleh told WFAN’s Carton & Roberts Show on Thursday, hours after he was introduced officially as the 20th head coach of the New York Jets. “I asked what had happened, and as my mom was explaining, the second plane hit – and if I ever wondered what my mom would look like if she lost one of us…that was the moment.”
Thankfully, David Saleh was not one of the thousands lost on 9/11, but watching that experience made Robert Saleh realize that his heart wasn’t in his office job.
“A couple months later, the day before the Super Bowl, I was sitting in my cube, and I broke down. I left work crying because I wasn’t where I was supposed to be and I knew it, and that’s where it all started,” Saleh told Carton & Roberts. “Going through my brother’s experience and the tragedy he experienced, self-reflecting and realizing I had a passion for football, really triggered this. I realized I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, and life was too short to sit in a cubicle and not follow my passion.”
Saleh, then 23, had played tight end at Northern Michigan, and began his coaching career as a defensive assistant at nearby Michigan State in the 2002 season. He spent four years in the college game as an assistant before landing with the Texans in 2005, and thus began a 15-year (and counting) NFL odyssey that included stops in Houston, Seattle, Jacksonville, and San Francisco before being hired as the Jets head coach last week.
He reached the ultimate mountaintop in New York seven years ago, winning Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium with the Seahawks, and will coach his first NFL game as head man 20 years and one day to the day the journey began in his mind.
Destiny all along, he says.
“I come from a tight-knit community, and going through this process, it felt like I was back home and talking to people in my community,” Saleh said of the Jets’ hiring process. “There’s a sense of community and collaboration, that everyone has each other’s backs, and a sense of family. That’s important to me, and when I left, there was nothing I wanted more than to get a call back. I fully believe God does everything for a reason, and this is it for me. I was meant to be here.”
Saleh is incredibly close with his family – his wife and children are in New Jersey house-shopping, he told Carton & Roberts, and he hopes they’re settled by the end of February – and he is hoping the COVID-19 pandemic will be curtailed enough for David to join him at the Jets’ opener in September.
With or without his brother, though, Robert will also officially become the first Muslim head coach in NFL history, something he wasn’t aware of but takes a lot of pride in – as does his hometown, which has one of the largest Muslim populations in the country.
“It’s humbling,” he said. “Especially back home in Dearborn, there’s a lot of pride, and when you look at NFL organizations and the locker rooms, it’s the ultimate melting pot of different people with different stories who get together with one goal. To be a part of that is special.”
Follow Lou DiPietro on Twitter: @LouDiPietroWFAN