As American As The Dallas Cowboys

Scenes from a Muslim enclave that is openly radicalized (over who loves this country even more), deeply divided (over which team to root for) and secretly plotting in the garage about a controversial religion: football.

By Chris Koentges

Photography by Brittany Greeson

January 12, 2017

The faithful sat on leather couches, clad in soft palettes of silver and Honolulu blue. They ordered hot wings and half a dozen pizzas from DeMarco's. It was the night after Christmas, and they didn't stand a chance. So they did what they always do on game day.

The high school principal leaned forward in his brown recliner, flanked by his friends, by his nephews, by assistant principals, by his cousin home from college for the holidays. His broad shoulders tightened, as they did whenever the Lions played on national TV. Matt Stafford had just answered Dak Prescott's opening scoring drive. "Nobody cheer," he said.

When the Lions did something unexpectedly good, the faithful could never cheer. They waited for the fumble. For the flag. For some new unprecedented flub. They drilled their gaze into the 70-inch flat screen. Where was it? "There's got to be a flag," said the principal. But Matt Prater was out for the extra point. And then the Lions answered on the next drive, too: Lo and behold, the faithful's two-bit vision of a miracle season—pitted against the universal miracle that is America's Team—somehow seemed real.

Of course, the most faithful among them trusted none of this. They plunged deeper into the family playbook, honed over decades of suffering. When the Lions defense had Dallas pinned on its own 16—3rd-and-23—you were allowed to laugh. Laughing indicated you knew what would happen next: The defense was going to give up exactly 24 yards, and so the only way to stop the inevitable was to imagine the worst. Then to crack up. Because SAME. OLD. LIONS.

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Dearborn residents estimate support to a breakdown of roughly one-third Lions fans, one-third Steelers and one-third Cowboys—although some put it at more like 50 percent America's Team. (Getty Images)

Playing America's Team on Monday Night Football had wrenched up an angst that's buried even deeper here in Dearborn, Michigan, than in the rest of the country. "I hated them because they always said Emmitt Smith was better than Barry Sanders," said one of the principal's best friends. He had spent the day arguing this point on Facebook, his feed rammed with Cowboys fans. There were Dearborn's Steelers fans, too, but they're not the same. "I can respect Pittsburgh," said the principal. "Everybody who comes out of Pittsburgh is tough. But I hate Dallas." Someone else added, "We hate them more than any team that isn't Ohio State."

Finally, the Lions forced the Cowboys to punt, then scored again, and this time the principal's nephews didn't wait for the flag. They called an audible. The year 2016 had been filled with comebacks, and so—screw it—the youngest among the faithful began to cheer, flinging the principal's kid joyously up into the air. It was 21-14, and they had entered the safety of a commercial break. Outside, it was foggy, the ground covered in ice and snow. But it was cozy in here, with the Christmas tree blinking, and even though they just knew Stafford would throw an interception to open the second half, you had to live for nights like this in Dearborn.

Suddenly, an ad for a local RE/MAX agent flashed across the screen. "Hey, that's Mike Ayoub," shouted the assistant principal. "Of course he bought an ad for the Cowboys game!" They grew up with Ayoub in East Dearborn. He was a notorious Cowboys fan. There was no answer in their playbook for Mike Ayoub.

Ezekiel Elliott scored again, and when the Lions punted a few minutes later, they all knew it was over. As the final minutes disappeared, the phone rang. The principal's wife answered. She spoke rapidly, in Arabic. There was a long pause and then, in a cold deadpan, she said: "Dallas…Texas." Her father had immigrated to the Midwest from Southern Lebanon. He didn't understand football, but he liked pushing the faithful's buttons. "All right, Baba," she said. "See you tomorrow." She hung up the phone and relayed her father's message, with a twinkle in her eye. "Khassar too hon," she whispered to everyone in the room: You did this to them. Again, you broke them.

It was the final week of football in the Arab Muslim capital of America. Michigan was in the Orange Bowl. The Lions had one more shot to win the division title in front of a national audience, and they might make the playoffs anyway. The faithful were smoking Nakhla double apple out of Khalil Mamoon hookahs in hooked-up garages all over Dearborn, just southwest of Detroit. It was Monday night, and whatever vision of America Donald Trump fantasized about, anything still seemed possible—at least until the next Sunday, when the Lions played again. One thing was certain: The faithful despised the Cowboys.

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Youssef Mosallam believed as deeply in football as any man in America, but he didn't want to be principal of a football school.

Technically, he was no longer the principal. In the spring of 2015, he finished his Ph.D. at Wayne State. Nights and weekends. That fall, the district bumped him up to a gig where he could save the whole damn system. But to the kids who came up through Fordson High School, no matter what else he does for the rest of his life, Youssef Mosallam will always be their principal. He'll be in Florida or Vegas, or at Shatila Bakery on Warren Avenue, and someone's going to shout, "Mr. Mosallam!"

He was the type of principal that teenagers like—just not right away. He was tough. He played inside linebacker on the '93 state-champ Fordson Tractors, one of Michigan's great high school football teams. Coach Jeff Stergalas ran the program for more than 20 years with military toughness. When they won the title, the biggest mosque in the country—the Islamic Center of America—sent them a plaque: "We are proud of you all."

Mr. Mosallam wanted to play college ball. If he couldn't play, he would coach. Coaching led him into teaching. He was only 34 when they made him principal. The grown-ups were wary of his age because, as his predecessor said, "If Fordson fails, the whole community fails."

Fordson is one of those highly scrutinized American schools, where something much bigger always seems to be at stake. The community of Dearborn itself, population now close to 100,000, has the largest Arab Muslim population in America. It is a city that existed blissfully under the American wack-job's radar until 9/11. The hatred many people have targeted for Muslims since then has come to affect Arabs of all religions. Fordson is over 90 percent Muslim.

Fordson takes in refugees and immigrants. Kids born into fractured homes and actual war zones. When Mr. Mosallam took over, Fordson was newly ranked in Michigan's academic percentages, at seventh from the bottom. It was a football school. There were students like Hussein, a 240-pound lineman whose father was gone, whose mom was raising him and his siblings on her own. "Football was his savior," the principal said, "but he knew if he didn't keep his GPA up, he wouldn't play football." If Hussein wasn't at school, Mr. Mosallam would go looking for him. Check in, check out. That was their system.

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The Fordson Tractors have produced a Super Bowl winner and remain a Michigan high school football powerhouse. (AP Images)

Those outside Dearborn were intrigued by another type of system that had come to be known as the Night Practices, when Ramadan coincided with the first week of training camp. Fordson players would break their fast, sometimes as late as 11 p.m. Have a little snack. Practice until 1 a.m. And again, from 2 to 4 a.m. Then they'd all feast together at one of the halal butchers on Warren. In a time when the true believers have come to lament the mollification of football, the Tractors had made some preternatural commitment to the game. Fans in neighboring districts, who still called them "sand niggers" and "Hezbollah High," had to swallow their admiration. Nothing rattled Fordson. Dearborn High and Crestwood, which had half as many Muslim kids as Fordson’s team, sometimes emulated the Night Practices. Sometimes non-Muslim coaches and players would even join the fast.

Mr. Mosallam believed as deeply in football as anyone in America, but he didn't want to be principal of a football school. In the hallways, he would ask, "How do you want to be remembered?" He made them recite his mottos: PRIDE. TRADITION. LEGACY. He said it so often that the students shortened it. PTL. He was tough on them, but he was one of them. "We just never give up on anybody," Mr. Mossallam said.

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There are certain indelible characters who, at once, embody and transcend Dearborn. There's the principal. There's Ali Abdallah, better known as Bulldog, who makes viral videos about Dearborners. (Check out The Ed and Moe Show on YouTube.) You want to buy a new pickup truck, they say, "Go see Catfish." (His name is Moe "Catfish" Beydoun.) There's the butcher on Warren, who is missing part of his right thumb and index finger. (Thirty years slicing meat, and he lost it operating a snowblower.)

And then there is Mike Ayoub, who bought that RE/MAX ad on Monday Night Football at more than five times his average buy. "I knew it was going to be watched in Dearborn," he said.

When Henry Ford opened the Rouge plant in Dearborn, paying $5 a day, the population began to swell. By the time the Arab-Israeli wars broke out, entire sections of Dearborn had become completely Arab.

They came from two different towns in South Lebanon: Bint Jbeil and Tebnine. Immigrants from the two villages had a rivalry, expressed in this country by who chased the American Dream harder. Metro Detroit became fertile ground for a unique sort of radicalization: football fandom. The Cowboys and the Steelers preyed on these eager new Americans.

The Lions weren't just hopeless. Between 1958 and 1981, they made the playoffs exactly once. (Dallas knocked them out in their lone appearance in 1970.) Eventually, they would "achieve" a perfect 0-16—the type of suffering that went unacknowledged in the rest of this country. If you had arrived from a village in Southern Lebanon, eager to become American, it was easy to find some sense of belonging in what that very American voice on NFL Films called America's Team. This is what happened to Ayoub. "I don't know who came from where," he said. "My idol was Tony Dorsett. It was that simple." The Cowboys were always on national TV. They had the star on their jersey. Dorsett was the man. "It was easy to like them. They were a winner."

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"'Eh-rabs, camel jockeys'—you try to turn the other cheek," says Ayoub. "But it's hard, especially in sports when the fire's already burning."

Like Mr. Mosallam's parents, the Ayoubs didn't have the first clue about football. Mike's dad worked in one of Chrysler's plants, literally breaking his back working the line. Mike was the youngest. He was eight when Jackie Smith dropped the pass in Super Bowl XIII. He broke his dad's new 19-inch TV with a pillow. Neither of his parents understood, and neither could read English—they'd wait for their children to get home to read the mail. Mike Ayoub played football for Fordson, fullback and linebacker.

While the NFL was a choice, Michigan and Fordson are your identity. Well, that and your garage. "A garage is not for cars" is a saying you will hear around Dearborn. And on the Friday night before New Year's Eve, Ayoub was in his nephew David Makki's garage, all reclaimed barnwood and corrugated steel and scented smoke in the air. "David's garage is nicer than the inside of his house," another cousin joked.

The garage was heated by propane—Dearborn's interpretation of Michigan garage culture is a cold-weather throwback to the courtyards in those villages of Southern Lebanon—and a framed Jerome Bettis jersey hung over them. But as 10 men huddled together watching the Orange Bowl, they all wore Michigan blue.

They talked about the rivalry with Dearborn High (known to Fordson Tractors as the Cake Eaters), where David had started on the defensive line. "Undefeated, unscored upon, the only team in the history of the whole United States to do it, and we can't get no respect!" he yelled at Ayoub.

They talked about those who had come from Dearborn and left: Rob Saleh, now linebackers coach for the Jaguars, went to Fordson; after he won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks, Dearborn gave him a key to the city. But those figures were rare. "The coach for Ferris State was here last week," said Ayoub. "He says, 'Listen, Issa Khalil could be Division I. He's that good. But I know these kids from the Middle East and from Dearborn, they go to college and they leave after a year because they get homesick.' And it's true. And now that’s a stigma—that's a coach saying that from a school five hours away from here. It's hard for us to leave our families."

There are more than 300,000 Arabs in Michigan, but the longer you spend in Dearborn, where the density of the population insulates you from the rest of the world, the more it comes to feel like a womb. During the election, a billboard went up at the exit for Ford Road on Interstate 94, where Dearborn turns into Detroit; it read, in Arabic: "Donald Trump, he can't read this, but he is afraid of it."

"When you're in a stadium with 80,000 other people, color, religion—none of that matters. The jersey you're rooting for is what everyone has in common."


"I know nothing other than this country," said Mike's cousin Hass. "You're as American as football. Or a hot dog at a ballgame. Sometimes we feel like we have to prove ourselves—how American we are—and you can do that through sports."

"I don't feel like I have to prove I'm American to anyone," said Ayoub.

His cousin replied, "You have to admit, it's a struggle, right?"

"It is a struggle, but having to prove ourselves or apologize? Naaaah, I don't believe it."

Mike Ayoub's belief in the American dream was unflagging: He now lived in a palatial home near the golf course; he had his own billboards on Ford Road. Like the principal, he believed in America's checks and balances. As Michigan's defense came alive against Florida State in the fourth quarter, Ayoub exhaled nervously into the smoke-filled garage.

"My wife wears a scarf on her head—when we're 20 minutes from home, I feel it," said Ayoub. "When you're in a stadium with 80,000 other people, color, religion—none of that matters. The jersey you're rooting for is what everyone has in common."

When you put on a Dallas Cowboys jersey, you could walk anywhere in America.

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From left: Hassan Jaafar, Ramy Karnib and Hassan Beydoun.

At a strip mall off Ford Road—beside the Starbucks and the Pizza Hut and the weight-loss center and Dynasty Chinese Food, which makes the best halal General Tso's chicken in Michigan—a big blue tent extends out onto the sidewalk, a whir of LEDs. Deep inside the Lava Lounge, every TV was tuned to an NFL game. The clientele puffed on hookahs. One wall was still covered in Christmas stockings. It was New Year's Day.

The four teenagers seated at the plush booth in the back didn't smoke. Hassan Jaafar was home from Lake Erie College, where he had been recruited to play safety. In the fall of 2015, he was Fordson's starting running back. At 5'10", 178 pounds, he said, "I'd rather deliver a hit than take a hit." His voice is husky. Melodic. He argued with his friend Hassan Beydoun about whether to order the burger or the wrap.

They call each other Hass B and Hass J. Hass B was now at Detroit Mercy. "His GPA is 3.9," said Hass J. Hass B's cherubic face turned red: "I want to go to med school." Then, earnestly, he added, "I'm thinking I want to deliver babies." Hass J hadn't heard this before and raised his eyebrows. Hass J was going into education. He wanted to coach football. Eventually, he wanted to be a high school principal like his cousin, Mr. Mosallam, whom he calls uncle "out of respect."

They were joined by Mohamed Ayoub, whom they called "Shmay," and Ramy Karnib, who didn't need a nickname. When they weren't playing football, they were watching football. When there was no football to watch, they played Madden. They had a fantasy league. And they played a regular pickup basketball game over at the gym in the Islamic Center of America on Ford Road. Dearborn was a good to place to grow up.

"I don't feel like I have to prove I'm American to anyone."


There was a lot going on all around them on New Year's Day. There was simmering talk of Muslim registries with a new administration. At least 30 people had been killed overnight in a nightclub in Istanbul. They were watching the end of Colin Kaepernick's season. They needed the Washington football team to lose. The president-elect had just announced on Twitter that Jim Brown would attend a pre-inauguration event.

Meanwhile, Ahmad Nassar was home in Flint, on the phone with his fellow NFL Players Association executive, George Atallah, who said it plainly enough: "I think we just look at the NFL as synonymous with America." Atallah and Nassar talk frequently about how to leverage their platforms.

"Those discussions, beyond our own Arab-Americanness, have enabled us to be more thoughtful when things like Colin Kaepernick come up," said Nassar. "We saw the league had to carefully calibrate and recalibrate their response, and I think part of that is attributable to not really having as full an appreciation for some of the topics we're talking about right now—even more recently, post-election."

"I don't think there's ever been some viewpoint from the league office—I'm not sure they looked and said, 'Oh my gosh, we need to do more outreach in Dearborn to the Arab-American community,'" Atallah said. "This is not a judgment—it's just reality. The shield is red, white and blue, literally."

"The people who grew up around Muslims know that Muslims are good people," Jaafar says. "But if you just don't know any Muslims and you see bombings and shootings on TV all the time, you think Muslims aren't good people."

The crew in the Lava Lounge knew there was something absurd about the metaphor that football had become. But they were in on the joke, like you’re in on the fun of professional wrestling. They relished the absurdity of it all.

"At Crestwood, with the white kids, we'll make race jokes to each other, but nobody ever gets hurt," said Shmay. "We're all together. But you go to Garden City and they say it seriously."

"They bring the American flag out like it's supposed to affect us," said Hass J. "We were born here. We love America just as much as they do.

"Fordson just plays," he said. "You just get to the point, you know. That's just how it is. That's the tradition. We don't trash talk as much."

Hass J's family had moved just so he could play at Fordson. But he liked what happened at Crestwood last season. The center was Christian. The quarterback was Muslim. "As soon you put on the jersey, you're one. You know?"

Away from Dearborn, at Lake Erie, he had become isolated in some of his classes. "We were talking about 9/11. It's a touchy subject. I said that you can't base your thoughts about a religion on one small group of people. And then this guy said, 'Islam is a religion that did 9/11 just to strike fear into Americans.'"

"They bring the American flag out like it's supposed to affect us. We were born here. We love America just as much as they do."


"I get excited," said Ramy. "I want them to approach me. I want them to talk to me." Ramy wants to be a lawyer. "In my classes at U of M Dearborn, my teachers said, 'I know that a lot of you are scared. A lot of you are threatened by this—but you're not alone.'"

They talked about the halo around Dearborn. "If you're going toward Detroit, I don't feel uncomfortable. But going that way," said Ramy, nodding to the west.

"Past Haggerty."

"Toward 96."


"Downriver's bad."

"You start to feel it on both sides." 

"It really depends on the people," said Hass J. "There's good and bad everywhere."

"Everything happens for a reason," said Shmay . "If he does kick us out—"

"We're noooooooot getting kicked out," said Hass B.

Hass J began to say, "It's America, you can't—" But he never finished the thought. Screw it. Instead, he cheered: "Interception! Jordan Hicks. He has two today."

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On that final Sunday of the season, the first day of 2017, Mr. Mosallam found himself out in front of Fordson, looking back at the grounds, as he often does, in awe. It was the first million-dollar high school in America. It was built in 1928 by Henry Ford, who claimed to have invented the modern world. Mr. Mosallam knew every nook and cranny.

He used to walk two miles up Ford Road to get to class. He was eight when he saw Fordson play for the state championship at the Pontiac Silverdome. "Ever since then I was going to be a Fordson Tractor. No ifs, ands or buts about it." His dad didn't understand. Come to work, he would say. I need your help at the store. What do you need football for? "They didn't understand the camaraderie. They didn't understand how it made you into a man, into a leader. I've got four kids—every one of them plays sports."

One morning last year, Mr. Mosallam's children broke down at the breakfast table. "Am I going to be deported?" his daughter asked. Where would she be sent? His youngest, Khalil, had said Trump was "really going to build a wall between Dearborn and China." His wife, who also works in education, brought out an atlas. Everything was a teachable moment.

In six years, Mr. Mosallam helped more than 3,500 students graduate. After his first year in the job, Fordson sent its first student to Harvard. Over the next four years, the school sent another five. Fordson moved up from seventh-worst to the 21st highest academic percentile in Michigan. They had the graduation ceremony on the football field. Out near the 40-yard line, the principal would shake every student's hand.

In his final year as the principal, a new student was mouthing off to him aggressively in the hallway. It began to escalate as he pressed up into the principal's face.

Suddenly, a 240-pound lineman was between them. It was Hussein, whose father was still gone, whose mom was still raising him and his siblings on her own, barreling through the hallway like he was coming off a left tackle. "He says—" and here the principal's calm voice catches. "He says, Don't you ever disrespect Mr. Mosallam."

"Thank you, Hussein," the principal told him. "But I got this." Check in, check out. That was their system.

Before the holidays, he saw Hussein on the street. "I got into Wayne State," Hussein said. "You believed in me." They had the same conversation they always did. Starting with You're not just an athlete, you can make a difference, and ending with Let me know whatever you need, Hussein. I'm proud of you. The principal was quiet for a moment. And then he shook his head in disbelief. "Kid was a monster off the defensive end."

He looked out at the field. Further along Ford Road, toward Ford's world headquarters, the Islamic Center of America had updated the message on its LED board from "Merry Christmas to Our Christian Friends and Neighbors" to "Happy New Year and Peace to All in 2017."

The principal knew one thing for sure: The Lions were never going to stop Aaron Rodgers that night, even after Golden Tate caught a touchdown pass and flung himself joyously up into the faithful at the back of the end zone. He was embraced by a young woman in a Honolulu blue headscarf. "That's Nessrine!" shouted one of the men, watching in one of the Dearborn garages. The woman, an elementary school teacher, accidentally poked Tate's eye with her finger. Her husband, Moe Sobh—one of Mr. Mosallam's former students at Fordson—celebrated beside her. They all traded high-fives. "I got you," Tate screamed, as mayhem erupted around them. "I got you. We’re going to win this!"

It was the first Lions game Nessrine Sobh had ever attended in person. That week, she searched all over Warren Avenue, looking for a new headscarf to wear to Ford Field. She brought along a jersey, trying to match up the exact shade of blue. At the store, she insisted, "If I wear dark blue, I'm going to stand out."

Of course, the Lions would lose the Wild Card Game—of course they lost the Wild Card Game. In Dearborn in the first days of 2017, everything was possible and nothing was possible. And so the faithful would do what they always did: Believe in Dearborn, America.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct a quote attributed to George Atallah: "This is not a judgment—it's just reality. The shield is red, white and blue, literally."

Chris Koentges has written about sports and culture for The AtlanticESPN The Magazine and Slate. This is his first story for B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @cskoentges.

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