Jets head coach Robert Saleh heads to the locker room...

Jets head coach Robert Saleh heads to the locker room after a 54-13 loss to the Patriots following an NFL game on Oct. 24, 2021, in Foxborough, Mass. Credit: AP/Steven Senne

When Robert Saleh walks onto the MetLife Stadium field on Sunday, he may look up and give thanks,  find his parents and brother in the crowd and give them a big smile and nod, look down in remembrance of those lost, or he may just reflect on his life and shed some tears.

The Jets open the regular season at home -- on Sept. 11, a day filled with a range of emotions for everyone. Saleh may have to manage his emotions on an afternoon when he already has so much to manage.

Saleh, 43, would not be in the NFL nor in his second season as the head coach of the Jets if not for the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

“It is full circle because 9-11 triggered a life-changing thought for me in terms of pursuing what I love rather than chasing money,” Saleh told Newsday this week.

He was a finance major and just accepted a job as a credit analyst in his native Michigan. Then his life, like so many others on that day, took a dramatic turn.

Saleh’s older brother, David, was on the 61st floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center in his second day of training for Morgan Stanley.

After terrorists  hijacked a commercial jetliner and flew it into the North Tower, David evacuated his building. He made it out, but it was hours before he was able to reach his family to tell them he was safe. David will be in attendance for Sunday’s game against the Ravens.

The Saleh family, from left: father Sam, Jets coach Robert...

The Saleh family, from left: father Sam, Jets coach Robert and his brother David. Credit: Courtesy of the Saleh family

The thought of nearly losing his brother made Saleh, then 22, re-evaluate what he was doing. He did a lot of soul-searching in the days and weeks following the Sept. 11 attack. Saleh decided that life is too short to not do what he loves, and he left corporate America for football. He hunted down that career the way he asks his defensive linemen to hunt quarterbacks.

“Through tragedy it was an opportunity to self-reflect,” Saleh said, “and really with the support of my family I was afforded the opportunity to chase something that a lot of people wouldn’t be able to afford to even attempt.

“Won a world championship with Seattle and now here we are ...  I’m fortunate to be one of 32 [NFL head coaches] in New York. I’m not sure how it’s going to hit on Sunday, but it is full circle.”

Back in Michigan

Saleh attended Northern Michigan where he played tight end and studied finance. He was set to begin his  financial career with Comerica Bank in Detroit when the  United States came under attack 21 years ago.

That morning when he walked into his parents’ home in Dearborn, Michigan, Saleh didn’t know yet what happened some 600-plus miles East.

He  went into the TV room and saw his parents, Sam and Fatin, watching in fear and horror.

“My mom is crying and  my dad is pale-faced,” Saleh said. “I still had no clue what happened. I looked at the TV and my dad explains to me what’s happening. Within 20 minutes, the second tower gets hit and my mom just goes berserk.

“If I wanted to see what it would look like if my mom lost one of us, that was that moment. Thankfully my brother got out, he got home.”

Saleh eventually  joined Comerica's commercial lending department -- his first job. His family is in the real estate industry, so those connections led to their clients going to Saleh  to seek a loan.

The  salary was good, and Saleh was putting his degree to use.  But he wasn’t happy. Something was missing. Football.

As  the college and pro football seasons progressed, Saleh grew more and more uneasy about the path he was on, and his soul-searching was at an all-time high.

Jets head coach Robert Saleh reacts during the second half...

Jets head coach Robert Saleh reacts during the second half against the Bills at MetLife Stadium on Nov. 14, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

“It was the first time I had been away from football since I was 5 years old,” Saleh said. “I just questioned whether or not I was where I was supposed to be. Was I pursuing money? Did I chase what I wanted? What I wanted was to try to coach football.”

Finally, Saleh broke down and broke away from the banking world.

It happened not long after Tom Brady led the Patriots to the Super Bowl victory over the Rams in 2002. Saleh was in his cubicle at Comerica and called his brother, David, and was sobbing. He made his decision to turn to football.

“Remember when your mom used to hit you when you were younger and you’d get hiccups because you were crying so hard -- that’s what happened,” Saleh said. “I just had a breakdown at my cubicle and that’s the type of crying I was having.”

Saleh called his high school coach Jeff Stergalas, who always figured Saleh would be a high school teacher and football coach.

Stergalas introduced him to Mike Vollmer, director of football operations at Michigan State. He hired Saleh as a grad assistant, opening the door for a career in football.

Saleh barely made enough to pay the rent early on, but he kept grinding --  all gas no brake in his chase of a life in football.  

“If you do what you love it will love you back,” Saleh said. “People sometimes confuse the pursuit of money versus the pursuit of passion. If you pursue what you’re passionate in, then the money usually follows.”

The road to the NFL

Saleh spent two years at Michigan State, another at Central Michigan and one more at Georgia as a grad assistant. He made a $600-a-month stipend at Michigan State. That grew to $900 at Central Michigan and $1,100 at Georgia.

“I go to Georgia,” Saleh said. “I thought I was rolling.”

Then, a big offer came for Saleh, who ended up getting a masters in kinesiology. An NFL team was interested.

Texans head coach Dom Capers hired Saleh as a defensive intern in 2005. He got paid $5 an hour. He logged more than 100 hours per week and earned time-and-a-half for overtime.

“I was rich,” he said with a chuckle. “It came out to be like $20,000 a year and I was just throwing money away in my single days. Going from $1,100 a month to $5 an hour was actually a big pay raise for me.”

Robert Saleh of the Texans poses for his 2006 NFL...

Robert Saleh of the Texans poses for his 2006 NFL headshot at photo day in Houston. Credit: Getty Images/Getty Images

The following year, new Texans coach Gary Kubiak gave Saleh his first NFL contract and made him defensive quality control coach. Saleh couldn’t exhale, though. The defensive staff was fired following the 2010 season.

Saleh and his wife, Sanaa, had a 3-month-old baby. Saleh was just shy of his 32nd birthday and always told himself he would give himself until he was 30 to establish a coaching career. Saleh was nervous that he’d have to turn to his finance degree again.

“I have no job, no contract and a 3-month old,” Saleh said. “My wife’s nervous. I’m trying to be strong, but I’m like, ‘God, I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do.’ ”

Then Saleh got a “lucky, lucky phone call” from Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Saleh was hired on Pete Carroll’s staff as a defensive quality control coach and was a part of Seattle’s Super Bowl XLVIII winning team.

That was another life-changing moment for Saleh, now a father of seven with Sanaa.

“For a guy in his early 30s to be on that staff was a blessing,” Saleh said. “That’s the staff that kind of molded me into the person I am today in terms of being a father, a son, a friend, a dad, just overall aside from football, just as a person.”

Saleh joined Jacksonville in 2014  as linebackers coach under Bradley. Three years later, the 49ers hired Saleh  as defensive coordinator.

San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh cheers on his...

San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh cheers on his team from the sideline against the Seattle Seahawks on Nov. 1, 2020. Credit: AP/Stephen Brashear

He became a hot head coaching candidate for his passion, fire and the way his defense performed. The Jets grabbed him last year, making him the first Muslim head coach in the NFL.

Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur was a junior in high school when he met Saleh. LaFleur’s brother, Matt, the Packers head coach, was also a grad assistant at Central Michigan when Saleh was there.

Mike LaFleur believes Saleh would have been successful had he stayed in banking, but he believes he made the right career choice.

“He loves the game,” said LaFleur, who also worked with Saleh in San Francisco. “He loved the game and missed it when he was doing his banking stuff. If he wanted to do it tomorrow, he probably would be pretty good at it. I think he’s found a pretty good career here too.”

Coming full circle

The Jets had their annual kickoff luncheon on Sept. 1 in New York, benefitting the Lupus Research Alliance and the New York Jets Foundation. Saleh said while he was on the bus, he flashed back to his previous life in corporate America.

“As we’re driving, it was right around lunch and I see people walking in suits,” Saleh said, “and I swear I had a flashback of me being in the bank in downtown Detroit and leaving and going to Pita Pit and having lunch with all the other credit analysts and just remembering 'God, it just wasn’t me.'

“God works in mysterious ways. I’m very fortunate to be where I am. I just remember those days like it was yesterday.”

Jets head coach Robert Saleh looks on in the second...

Jets head coach Robert Saleh looks on in the second half against the Buccaneers at MetLife Stadium on Jan. 2. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Saleh said he doesn’t often think of what his life would have been. He knows he made the right decision, is enjoying where he is and feels fortunate to be in his position.

“We’re very blessed,” Saleh said. “Every day you don’t show appreciation for where you are in life it can get taken away from you in a heartbeat. So thank our lucky stars, work our tail off and try to hold onto it for dear life.”

Saleh respects what Sept. 11 means for so many, especially people in  New York City. His focus has been on getting the Jets off to a good start this season.

But Saleh may feel something extra Sunday, since many who have played major roles in his journey to the NFL will be inside  MetLife Stadium, whichs  stands in the foreground of where the World Trade Center stood.

“My whole family is coming,” Saleh said. “My brother, my dad, my mom, all my roommates from college. It’s going to be a fun weekend. Hopefully we can put the exclamation point on it.

“Maybe something will hit me, maybe not. I do respect and honor the situation that it’s in and I’m very thankful that we get the opportunity to share it with New York.”

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