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Sport How Central Michigan paved LaFleur, Saleh's path to NFL stardom: 'They had no furniture'

20:26  19 january  2020
20:26  19 january  2020 Source:   freep.com

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“ They had to do it all as grad assistants and no responsibility was ever too big or too small. Matt LaFleur , left, and Robert Saleh were part of Brian Kelly' s staff at Central Michigan in 2004. Saleh stumped for his close friend and former roommate, helping LaFleur land the job and break into the NFL .

Saleh helped him get his start in the NFL . Now LaFleur , the Packers' offensive playcaller, will have to beat Saleh , the 49ers' defensive coordinator, to get Forest worked with LaFleur at Central Michigan University. He coached tight ends and receivers during the two years (2004 and 2005) that LaFleur

Matt LaFleur and Robert Saleh didn't have chairs for their kitchen table.

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Robert missed football . And he might have lived with his emptiness, if not for his father’ s experience. The problem: How to get a coaching job. Robert and David enlisted the help of their coach at And Saleh ’ s tech savviness gave Shinsky, who initially questioned Saleh ’ s career choice

Cooped up in a two-bedroom apartment near the Michigan State Police post in Mount Pleasant, LaFleur and Saleh were busy trying to make ends meet as graduate assistants for the Central Michigan football team in 2004.

“They had no furniture,” said Denny LaFleur, Matt’s father, who played nose guard on Central Michigan’s 1974 Division II national championship team and was a longtime Chippewa assistant. “So they were stealing stuff from our house. Matt had nothing.”

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They’ve come a long way since then, building their friendship while climbing the ladder at the college and NFL levels. On Sunday, their relationship will come full circle when they square off in the NFC championship in Santa Clara, Calif., where LaFleur will try to reach the Super Bowl in his first year as the Green Bay Packers' head coach and Saleh will try to stop him as the mastermind of one of the most dominant defenses in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers.

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“You just knew they were going to be successful in the profession because of their work ethic, knowledge of the game and meeting the right people,” said Greg Forest, Central Michigan’s wide receivers coach in 2004. “That’s what gets a lot of guys to be able to move forward.”

Finding Central Michigan

Long before they were NFL coaches, LaFleur and Saleh were athletes in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, a Division II stronghold known for producing championship programs. 

Programs like Grand Valley State in Allendale, where Brian Kelly had built a superpower near the banks of Lake Michigan in the early 2000s. 

From 2000 to 2002, LaFleur faced GVSU as the quarterback at Saginaw Valley State, including a 28-21 comeback victory in 2000 in which he threw for 246 yards, two touchdowns and the tying TD pass in the fourth quarter. 

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“He was always clutch,” former Saginaw Valley State offensive coordinator Jim Kiernan said. “Arguably the best two-minute quarterback I have ever coached.”

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Kelly knew the LaFleurs from Denny's youth football camps at Central Michigan, back when LaFleur was a teenager at Mount Pleasant High School. Kelly would show up to camp each year, forging a relationship that paid dividends when Kelly left Grand Valley to become the Chippewas' head coach in 2004. 

“Do you think Brian would hire me as a grad assistant?” LaFleur asked Denny.

“All I can do is ask,” Denny responded. 

LaFleur was hired by Kelly as an offensive assistant in January and paired with Saleh, another athlete Kelly knew from the Division II ranks as a tight end at Northern Michigan from 1998 to 2002. 

“(Saleh) was always interested in the game, trying to do the right thing,” former Northern Michigan coach Eric Holm said. “Football was important to him.”

Saleh got his start at Michigan State as a defensive assistant for two seasons before joining Central Michigan. LaFleur was an easy call for the CMU staff, and Saleh got the job because of a referral from Dan Enos, who played quarterback for the Spartans and, like Saleh, grew up in Dearborn.

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“They were both really good, really competent,” said former Central Michigan defensive coordinator John Jancek. “Those guys were prepared and organized.”

‘They’d just steal my food and take off’

LaFleur’s parents, Denny and Kristi, both worked full-time jobs while coaching athletics. They typically weren’t home between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. 

Unbeknownst to them, LaFleur and Saleh often left Central Michigan’s campus during their lunch break to eat at the family's home, relax in the pool and sometimes get in a game of Madden NFL 2004 before going back to work. They’d typically return again for dinner.

“The only time we ever saw those guys was when they got hungry,” Denny said. “They’d just steal my food and take off.”

LaFleur and Saleh did the grunt work by taking care of game film, running errands and shoveling snow off Kelly’s driveway, but they also gained the respect of those around them.

“You could tell they were destined for bigger and better things,” said former CMU quarterback Nick Gildersleeve. “They were sponges and had leadership qualities – things you can’t teach.”

When Kelly wasn’t able to be with the quarterbacks, LaFleur led the charge. Saleh was a weight-room junkie. He connected with Jancek, the defensive coordinator, and strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo.

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Saleh made players flip tractor tires and pull cars up a hill in the northeast corner of Kelly/Shorts Stadium at 6 a.m. during summer conditioning. The workouts reminded former linebacker Jonathan Nelson of what he saw in the "Rocky" movie series.

“When he would smile, you were like, ‘Aw, shit, what does he got for us now?’” Nelson said. “You’d think we were playing for LSU the way they had us working. You looked at him like he was crazy, but then you saw the results.”

The bond Saleh formed with Jancek led him to Georgia in 2005, when Jancek took a job as the linebackers coach under Mark Richt and brought the defensive assistant with him. He let Saleh stay at his home in an upstairs bedroom.

It didn't last long. 

Two weeks into his gig with the Bulldogs, Saleh left to become a defensive intern with the Houston Texans, thereby making a leap into the NFL ranks and never looking back.

“I thought I might’ve upset coach Richt, but he was fine,” Jancek said. “I’m proud of Robert and all he’s been able to accomplish.”

Beyond the connections to the coaching staff and players, the most important was the one LaFleur shared with Saleh. It ultimately put both coaches in the NFL.

‘They built their network’

Two years after leaving Central Michigan, LaFleur was the offensive coordinator at Division II Ashland when he interviewed for a job in the same capacity in the Football Championship Subdivision. Ashland coach Lee Owens told LaFleur not to interview, but he did so anyway.

LaFleur was offered the job but didn’t take it.

“The head coach (Owens) basically said, ‘I told you that you shouldn’t have gone there,’” Denny explained. “He was probably a little irritated with him.”

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Sitting in his office after the conversation with Owens, LaFleur’s phone rang.

On the other end of the call was Saleh, the defensive quality control coach with the Texans. There was an opening for an offensive quality control coach on Gary Kubiak’s staff. Already earning the trust of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — now the 49ers’ head coach — Saleh referred his friend.

LaFleur didn’t get to think about the offer. He was asked to accept the high-risk, high-reward job on the spot and didn’t think twice.

“They’ve got a passion for what they do, are very good at it, are smart and work at it,” said Dave Schwartz, LaFleur’s former high school position coach, who knows both NFL coaches. “They built their network, got a break and took advantage of it.”

Shanahan took the offensive coordinator position with the Washington Redskins in 2010 and brought LaFleur along to coach his quarterbacks.

None of that would’ve happened without Saleh.

Keeping in touch

After a 16-13 overtime victory against the Packers as an assistant for Washington in 2010, LaFleur hopped into a car with his wife BreAnne, whom he met at CMU, and Schwartz and his wife. He picked up his phone.

“Hey, I have to give Robert a quick call,” LaFleur told his wife and guests.

During the football season, LaFleur and Saleh talk once per week. In the offseason, they chat almost every day.

They were groomsmen in each other’s weddings, with LaFleur serving as Saleh’s best man. Saleh now has six children, four sons and two daughters. LaFleur has two sons.

Now, they're both rising stars in the NFL. 

LaFleur, for his offensive prowess, won the NFC North in his first season as a head coach, just a year after the Packers went 6-9-1 and missed the playoffs. Saleh, in his fourth year in San Francisco, turned the 49ers' defense into the most dominant pass-defense unit in the league. All of which makes for an intriguing title bout on Sunday.

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Denny will be watching the game from the stands as Matt commands the Green Bay sideline against his younger brother, 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur, and Saleh.

“We’re just as proud of him as we are of our own boys,” Denny said. “I’m just hoping for a very competitive game.”

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Central Michigan paved Matt LaFleur and Robert Saleh's path to NFL stardom: 'They had no furniture'

Vatican urges visiting Iraqi president to protect Christians .
VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican on Saturday urged Iraqi President Barham Saleh to guarantee the safety of Christians and ensure they have a future place in the war-battered country. Saleh met with Pope Francis, the Vatican secretary of state and foreign minister during back-to-back audiences on his second visit to the Vatican. Saleh's office said he and the pope discussed a papal visit to Iraq, but said only that it was “scheduled to be paid at a later date."Francis had expressed hope of visiting Iraq this year, but no trip was ever confirmed and it’s unclear if it will be given the turmoil unleashed by the U.S.

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