At a time when Philadelphia sports fans are wondering what has happened to their teams, one player has gone old school – bringing back devotion and dedication to a team and a city. Fan favorite Brent Celek has re–signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, making it likely he will play his entire NFL career with the team. So he’s staying. He wants to stay. He wants to work hard for fans he loves in a city he calls home.
It was just one play, a clip from a 2006 Saturday night college football game in a half-empty stadium at the University of Cincinnati, but it was a telling moment for a tight end who hoped he would get a shot to play at football’s highest level.
It was a clip that helped get tight end Brent Celek drafted into the NFL by the Philadelphia Eagles the next spring.
“Brent has the football and I’m watching at the urging of Ryan Grigson [then a scout with the Eagles, now the general manager of the Indianapolis Colts], and there is Brent and he’s rumbling and stumbling through about three different tacklers for something like a 70-yard touchdown [actually, 83 yards] against Rutgers,” says Eagles Executive Vice President of Football Operations Howie Roseman.
“There were a lot of questions about Brent at the time. Was he athletic enough to play in the NFL? Could he be a receiving threat? He looked like an old-school tight end. Nothing special, but something interesting about him. Did everything well and played so hard and was so determined. That came through on that one play.”
The Eagles used a fifth-round draft pick on Celek in the 2007 NFL draft and, the truth is, the guy has never looked back. He has just kept doing enough things right to play, one year after the next, with Philadelphia. Celek signed a contract extension in January that keeps him an Eagle through 2018. Should he play in each of the 48 regular-season games in the three seasons ahead and finish out his contract, Celek will have played in more games than any player in team history and will likely be among the all-time top three Eagles in pass receptions. (He is currently fifth, with 371 catches.) All of this from a fifth-round draft pick who had a statistical chance of about 16 percent to play three seasons in a league where players average, according to the National Football League Players Association, just 3.3 years of service in an entire career.
Offensive lineman Jerry Sisemore (1973-84) and wide receiver Mike Quick (1982-90) started and finished their careers as Eagles, but the game was different back in those years. The money wasn’t as big. Free agency wasn’t as tempting. Staying and playing was quite a bit easier then.
“Having the chance to finish my career where I started it, in Philadelphia, I mean, I can’t tell you what this means to me,” Celek said. “Everyone has been so nice to me, saying how happy they are for me and, honestly, it feels really, really good to hear.”
A remarkable run for Celek? No question about it. Celek has changed with the times. The evolution of the NFL tight end has gone from in-line grinder who caught a nice handful of passes to one who has the physical skills to run down the field and make big plays and provide the range of a wide receiver.
Celek is rare in that he’s had his own re-design. Early in his career he was a go-to pass catcher in the Eagles offense, and he was very good. Then his role changed. And changed some more. At a time when a lot of tight ends have become glamour boys in the NFL’s passing game, Celek has become old school, and we’re talking the prototype of a tight end from the 1970s and 1980s. He’s done all the dirty work required to stay in the NFL at a position that requires selflessness to dig deep in the trenches and block to open holes for running backs, toughness to catch passes in traffic and absorb tremendous hits from ball-hungry defensive players, and athleticism to give quarterbacks a target in the passing game.
“To be where I’m at today is awesome. It’s a dream come true,” Celek says. “I’ve always had the goal to play in the NFL. All I did as a little kid was play sports. I had a group of friends and we just played ball all the time. I loved it. I loved every part of the game. Still do. It’s physical, and it requires a lot of thinking and preparation. You have to figure out a way to beat the guy in front of you.”
Celek’s first NFL game was at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers, a sun-kissed day on professional football’s most hallowed ground. The entire Celek clan was there, remembers mom Deb Celek, to see a little boy’s goal realized.
“It was thrilling just to be able to watch him have his dream come true,” Deb says. “That’s all he’s ever wanted to do – play in the NFL. Green Bay was an awesome experience. It was just an extremely proud moment. My heart felt full. I teared up.
I’m tearing up now talking about it. I don’t think I took a lot of pictures. I think I more just enjoyed the experience. They had a flyover, and we were at Lambeau Field. Brent said it gave him shivers being on the same field as Brett Favre, who was on the other sideline. We had quite a few people from our family who were there. It was quite an experience.”
“Brent has always worked hard, and he has always been determined to make it to the NFL. It takes a little bit of luck and we all know that, but Brent always worked so hard. This was always his goal. I remember in high school all of these guys, his friends, kept calling him, and I asked him why he didn’t want to go out. He said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and jeopardize my dream. Playing in the NFL is all I want to do.’ He’s had this goal and this drive, and he has never wavered and never changed.”
Celek has caught only 59 passes and scored four touchdowns in the most recent two seasons combined, after starting his career as a receiving threat who caught 19 passes in the 2008 postseason three-game run to the NFC Championship Game and then recorded 76 receptions for 971 yards and eight touchdowns in the 2009 regular season. His role in the last few seasons is to block first and then chip in to the passing game when called upon.
“Fine with me,” Celek says. “I’ll do whatever they want me to do.”
Ego has never been involved for Celek as the coaching staff changed from Andy Reid to Chip Kelly and now Doug Pederson, and along with that his responsibilities have changed.
“It’s required him to challenge his skill set, and sometimes when you ask players who are used to touching the football to all of a sudden do the dirty work, it’s not a fun thing,” says Ted Williams, who coached the Eagles’ tight ends in 2013-2014 and is now a pro scout with the team after 20 years as a position coach.
“See, Brent just cares. He cares more than most guys do. He takes the craft very seriously. It really wears on him not to play well, not to do well. The fact that he’s talented enough, combined with the great work ethic he has and the pride he has in his performance day to day, is what has enabled him to stay in the NFL for as long as he has.”
“Players care. All of them do. But few care as much as Brent,” adds Williams. “He’s a strong-minded individual who is team oriented. That’s a dream guy to coach.”
We’re back to the dream-come-true theme, and in this case it’s absolutely true. Celek has 371 catches and 4,713 yards and 30 touchdown catches in his regular-season career, but the most important statistic is that Celek has never – knock on wood – incurred a serious injury that has kept him off the field for a long period of time. His durability and reliability are keys to his success.
Celek is just like his fans – tough and devoted.
“Even if this extension hadn’t happened, I would have stayed in Philadelphia forever. This is my home. I’m not moving,” says Celek, who has his restaurant in the city – Prime Stache in Old City – and the well-established Celek’s Takes Flight Foundation that aids seriously ill and physically challenged children in Greater Philadelphia. “I love everything about Philadelphia, and I’m going to make the most of this new contract and finish as strong as I can.”
“He wanted this extension,” says his mom, Deb. “He loves the team and he loves the city and he loves the fans. He’s a big part of the community. When he called us up on that Monday night and told us he was pretty sure it was going to happen, he was so excited. We were so excited for him. We knew how much he wanted it. He wanted to finish his career as a Philadelphia Eagle. It was always his plan, and here he is.”
Here he is, still going strong. Celek and his wife, Celeste, live in Philadelphia and are expecting their first child on April 18. Celek’s roots are deep in the city in the business community and among sports aficionados. He’s expanded his vision and his impact far behind the football field. It’s all so exciting for a man wholists “nature documentaries narrated by David Attenborough” as his favorite television show.
And now, it’s time to get back to work for Celek. There is nothing guaranteed, and he knows it. The game is cruel to everyone in the end.
“I take care of my body, and it’s something I’ve done for the last several years,” he says. “I’m not getting any younger. I’ve got to keep fighting. That’s the way I’ve always been, and it’s worked out pretty well for me.”