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Pakistani Immigrant Makes Mark in US National Football League

  • Mike Richman

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (L) speaks with Shahid Kahn, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, before a game between the two teams in Jacksonville, Florida, Dec. 23, 2012.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (L) speaks with Shahid Kahn, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, before a game between the two teams in Jacksonville, Florida, Dec. 23, 2012.

Nearly every team in the U.S. National Football League is owned by someone born in the United States. Now a man from Pakistan is part of the league's ownership club. In fact, he's the only ethnic minority member ever to own an NFL franchise.

That man is Shahid Kahn, one of the most recognizable names in the southern U.S. city of Jacksonville, Florida. The 63-year-old American businessman owns the Jacksonville Jaguars, an American-style pro football team.

Like the other owners, Khan is wealthy. But his life story is vastly different. He grew up in Pakistan, where cricket is the national sport, before immigrating to the U.S. and falling in love with American-style football.

He told VOA that his experience while owning the Jaguars for a year-and-a-half has been “fabulous.”

“It’s a great league; it’s a league in its own league," he said. "I had met several of the owners obviously before, I’ve gotten to know obviously the rest. The league, the leadership, obviously with Roger [Goodell], the chairman and the rest of his staff. It’s a fabulous organization.”

Meager wages

Kahn is from Lahore, Pakistan. Seeking an “education, fame and fortune,” he came to the U.S. in 1967 at age 16. He had $500 when he arrived and began washing dishes for $1.20 an hour.

Khan settled in the midwestern state of Illinois. While studying for an engineering degree at the University of Illinois, he worked at Flex-N-Gate, which makes auto parts. He bought Flex-N-Gate in 1980 and built it into a company with more than $3 billion in revenue and 50 plants in the U.S. and abroad.

Khan said he was living the American dream when making $1.20 an hour.

“Working for $1.20 was absolutely a very liberating experience for me, and I think what was wonderful was that it happened literally a day after I got here," he said. "The most powerful thing was, `Hey, I’m empowered, and I control my destiny, and I can be who I want to be,’ and certainly the life I knew before that in Pakistan and really the rest of the world, frankly, you didn’t have that opportunity that you could go out, get a job.”

Khan’s interest in American-style football began when he attended the University of Illinois, which has a big football program.

“I just loved it because it is simple in a way, and then it is so complex," Khan said. "The minute you think you’ve understood something, you haven’t. I don’t have the athletic makeup to play the game, so I watched it being a huge fan, and then as time went on I thought maybe there’d be a day I could own a team.”

That day would come. After failing in an effort to buy the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, he bought the Jaguars for a reported $760 million in late 2011.

A racist reaction

Some Jaguars fans resented Khan, a Muslim, becoming the team’s owner. In online comments, he was called a “sand monkey” and a “terrorist from Pakistan.” The insults, Khan said, were rooted in people becoming scared and not knowing who he is.

“I think some of what happened in Jacksonville was the team was very special to them, and they wake up one morning, and it's sold, and a number of other things happened at the time," he said. "They got a new owner, somebody who doesn’t look familiar to them. So it would not be the finest moment they had… but it’s something I can overcome. I’ve done that all my life.”

Khan has since worked to ingratiate himself to the fans. He greets them, for instance, on game day outside the Jaguars’ home stadium. Marc Lepecheur, co-founder of a Jaguars fan club, is one who appreciates his friendliness.

“I think it’s awesome," Lepecheur said. "I think he’s taking the initiative to show that he really wants to be involved in the Jacksonville community. He really has just gone out of his way to make us feel like he’s involved and wants to be involved, and it really makes us happy.”

Mohammad Faisal, owner of a Jacksonville restaurant that serves Pakistani-style food, said Khan has visited his establishment. Faisal, who also is from Lahore, is proud that Khan owns the city’s football team.

“We’re happy to hear that thing, somebody doing good in the United States and doing good especially for the country of Pakistan, doing good things," Faisal said. "That’s good. This country of opportunity, America. You work hard here and you can get all the opportunity you can.”

Khan, who also owns the British premier football (soccer) team Fulham FC, holds the same view.

“I think this is the finest country on planet Earth, period," Khan said. "And what you’re going to be able to accomplish with your life on this planet, your best chance, your best opportunity is right here in the U.S.”

The Pakistani immigrant personifies that kind of success.