Brent Celek set up in-line next to right tackle Allen Barbre. When Nick Foles took the snap, he released and headed up field before turning diagonally to the sideline on a corner route.
Foles scanned the field, tried to move the safety with his eyes and then came back to Celek. The eighth-year tight end turned his body towards the line of scrimmage, reached his hands over his head and made the grab for a 22-yard gain. Just as he did, safety Patrick Chung lowered his shoulder into Celek’s chest, while cornerback Malcolm Butler sandwiched him and knocked his helmet off.
Celek rose to his feet, turned towards the end zone full of Patriots fans, balled his fists and let out a yell.
“When a guy like that makes a catch like that, takes a hit and helmet falls off and jumps right up, it’s a boost to everybody,” said Nick Foles. “…With the young guys seeing that, they see the fire you need. It just gives you something. I know when I saw that, it just pumped me even more than I was because one of my teammates sacrificed for us at that moment and just got up and was ready to go. He’s just got that toughness. He’s very unique.”
It’s a scene Eagles fans have seen play out for years. Celek has played in 117 games for the Eagles (regular season and postseason). This was the first quarter of a preseason game in August, but he was playing the way he always does.
“Some hurt more than others, but I don’t want the defense to know that they’ve done anything to me,” Celek said. “I want it to seem like, ‘He can take whatever, you can’t hurt him.’ That’s just my mentality.
“If I was to lay down there and if I was hurting, it’s a sign of weakness from our team. If you get up… it didn’t faze us. We’re good.”
Added Todd Herremans: “No matter how hard he gets hit, I think it fires him up. There’s two ways you can go on that. You can show that it hurts. Or you can get up and show that they can’t faze you. And that’s kind of his mindset.
“Everybody loves to see that – a nice big gain and then Celek getting up and doing his little flex thing and showing his little biceps, everybody loves that.”
The mentality developed at an early age. Celek grew up as one of five children, including three boys. The kids were always horsing around and taking care of stuff around the house.
Asked to recall a specific moment when he realized being a part of the Celek family meant being a little different, he said: “Probably when my Dad hit my Grandpa in the head with a backhoe, and he’s like 80 years old. My Dad just kept working. He told my cousin, he’s like, ‘Just take him to the hospital. We’ve gotta keep working around here.’ ”
Trent Cole met Celek a little later in life, when the two attended Cincinnati together.
“Whenever me and him would go up against each other in college, it would be a battle,” Cole said. “I knew when I had to come up and go against him, I knew I had a load on my hands because he was going to try everything he could just to try and beat me.
“He’s been a brute, man. He can take hits. He can break tackles. He’s a hard runner. That’s one thing about him. Everybody knows Brent Celek is one of the toughest tight ends in the league.”
PUNISHMENT TAKING A TOLL
It’s a question that probably wouldn’t have been asked 10 years ago. And while Celek very much plays the role of a throwback, he realizes the times are different.
Given the punishment you’ve taken, do you ever think about life after football?
“With how I feel after I take care of my body, I feel OK,” he said. “I feel like right now, I’m fine. This sport has given me a lot. This city has given me everything I have. So I want to give ‘em all I’ve got. I don’t really think about life after football while I’m out there on the field. I will when I’m done.”
In 2011, Celek started all 16 games. He played 971 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, sixth most among tight ends.So when an e-mail dropped in reporters’ inboxes days after the season ended, many were surprised. The announcement from the team said Celek had undergone surgery for a pair of ailments: a sports hernia and a torn labrum.
Yet he never missed a game. In fact, Celek has appeared in 111 of a possible 112 games in his career.
But he turns 30 in January, and the maintenance is different nowadays. The key, Celek said, is a one-hour stretching routine he performs religiously before going to sleep.
“It’s a daily occurrence,” he said. “If I don’t do it, my body, I can just start to feel it in certain areas doesn’t feel so good. It’s something that I’ve gotta stay on and probably have to do it, honestly, for the rest of my life, just to feel good, make my body feel good.
“I do it before I go to bed because it helps me sleep faster. That’s one thing I noticed. Usually after practice, you sit in meetings, and then I go home. I get a little stiff. So really, it’s just kind of to loosen up my back, loosen up my lower body, my shoulders. Naturally, I’m just a tight person. I’m not the most flexible guy, so it’s just something where I can kind of loosen up my joints, I feel good. And then when I lay down, I feel completely relaxed.”
LESSER ROLE GOING FORWARD?
Not a lot has been written about Celek this summer. Instead, the attention has shifted to the newer, shinier toy: Zach Ertz. The second-year tight end looks poised to become a weapon in the Eagles’ passing game. He has the ability to use his size to beat man coverage and should be a weapon in the passing game.
By all accounts, the two players have a great relationship. Ertz recently referred to Celek as a “beast” and said he thinks the veteran run-blocks better than any tight end in the game.
“He’s a true team player,” said Ertz. “All he cares about is getting the win, getting that big catch. He doesn’t care whether he’s about to get his clock cleaned. That speaks volumes about him.”
Last year, Celek played 906 snaps; Ertz played 482. The gap between those numbers will almost certainly close this year, but their roles are still different. Celek is worlds ahead of Ertz as a run-blocker, and the ground game is still the foundation of the Eagles’ offense.
But with questions surrounding the Eagles’ weapons in the passing game and given the way Ertz has performed this summer, he’s destined for an increased role. In 2013, Celek caught 32 balls, his lowest total since 2008, but he averaged a career high 15.7 yards per catch and still had six touchdowns. Ertz caught 36 balls and came on strong during the second half of the season.
“I think we can really help this offense, especially what we do in the run game,” Celek said. “Obviously what Zach can do in the pass game, James [Casey] with how he can help in the run game as well and the pass game. We’re all very versatile, and we need to help lead this team.”
That could mean more multiple tight end sets, or it could mean Ertz stealing snaps away from Celek if the Eagles stick with more 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WR).
Whatever the case, there’s no denying that Celek is a favorite of the Eagles’ coaching staff. Whenever Chip Kelly talks about him, it feels like music should be playing in the background as some sort of inspirational video.
“I think Brent sets a tone not only for the offense, but everybody here in terms of his physical toughness and mental toughness,” Kelly said. “He’s a guy I think you can count on a daily basis. He’s always out there.
“He loves playing football, and for some guys, they may have been down for a long time and had the trainers come visit them and get carted off and all those other things. I think he takes a lot of pride in his toughness and never wants to lay on the field. He’s a guy that I think the people especially on this team, when you watch him on a daily basis in terms of what he does, really admire how he plays the game.”
As he approaches Year 8, Celek’s exact role is somewhat uncertain. But he will continue to do what he does best, whether it’s practice, the preseason or the Super Bowl: show up, get up and set the tone.