DEARBORN (AP) NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue yesterday encouraged football players at the largely Arab-American Fordson High School to stay focused on their game and not let outside influences affect their performance.

Paul Wong
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue visits the largely Arab-American Fordson High School in Dearborn yesterday to discuss the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.<br><br>AP PHOTO

Tagliabue, joined by Detroit Lions President Matt Millen, visited with the players to discuss the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and answer their questions.

“The big thing you have going for you is your leadership,” Tagliabue said. “You can deal with challenges, you can deal with adversity.”

About 2,100 students go to Fordson High School and about 85 percent are Arab-American. School officials say the football team is 96 percent Arab-American and the team has proven to be a powerhouse, posting a .755 winning percentage since 1960.

Millen said one of the things he likes best about football is how it brings people together.

“I grew up in an era where the black-white thing was really hot,” Millen told the players. “The football field was one place where that was non-existent.”

After the attacks in New York and Washington, Fordson players were given special instructions to not bow to the ethnic insults some feared could come from opposing teams and their fans.

Through the years, the Fordson students have dealt with prejudice. In the past, signs at gymnasiums or at football facilities have declared: “No Camels.”

But Fordson athletic director and assistant football coach Mark Shooshanian said reported incidents of ethnic intimidation have actually gone down since the attacks.

“We used to hear all of it before (the attacks), but since that happened, everyone”s been much more sensitive,” he said. “It”s really a tribute to all the other schools in the league.”

Dearborn, just west of Detroit, is home to an estimated 20,000 Arab-Americans.

Players said they appreciated the encouragement from Millen and Tagliabue, who also was in town for the Detroit Lions” game last night against the St. Louis Rams. They said they hoped to apply what Millen and Tagliabue said in their game this weekend against Belleville.

“It gives us more passion to play the game,” said Abdul Ghaleb, a senior on the team.

Head coach Jeff Stergalas said he liked how the speech focused on leadership, which he said the team is going to need for the rest of the season. Fordson was 3-0 to start the season, but since losing the team”s quarterback to a knee injury, its record is now 3-3. The team needs two more wins to make the playoffs.

“Personally I think having Matt Millen and the commissioner here is pretty neat,” Stergalas said. “In my book, (Millen) is a tough guy who is in a high position, and him coming here is exciting in itself.”

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