CINCINNATI – The self-authored comments beneath the senior yearbook photos for LaSalle High’s Class of 2003 were mostly what you’d expect from 18-year-old boys — brash, boastful, ambitious, aspirational.
Not Brent Celek’s.
“Things didn’t fall the way I wanted,” he noted glumly, an apparent reference to his 4-7 football team, “but I still had fun.”
In Celek’s case, fun was relative. It wasn’t a concept that classmates, coaches and family members on Cincinnati’s west side now associate with the veteran Eagles tight end.
Instead, when they remember him, and they’ve been doing that a lot in these hype-filled days before Super Bowl LII, they remember a toddler who told his mother he was going to be a football star, a fourth-grader obsessed with making weight in his youth league, a teenager who didn’t date or party, a young athlete obsessed with an NFL future.
“Brent was very, very quiet, to himself,” said Brian Heidorn, his tight-end coach at LaSalle. “He had an almost over-professional attitude. He was very driven, spent an awful lot of the time in the weight room. He just knew what he wanted and he knew what he had to do to get there.”
That focus wasn’t confined to his activities at LaSalle, a, private, all-boys Catholic school not far from the 3-acre property where the Celeks – Steve, Debbie and their five children – grew up.
“Brent never had any dates, didn’t hang out,” said Steve Celek, who with his wife owns and operates three local beauty shops, Paragon Salons. “He’d tell his mom, `I don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and jeopardize my chances for a college scholarship.’
“He was all football, all the time. There were a couple of guys who tried to hang with him a little bit. They would tell him, `Hey, man, there’s more to life than just lifting weights and worrying about football.’ But he didn’t hear them.”
It was that single-minded determination, Heidorn believed, that got Celek to the NFL and which has kept him there for 11 seasons, a much longer career than many players with much more ability.
“He wasn’t one of those guys you looked at and said, `Oh, he’s going to be in the NFL,’” said Heidorn. “Everything he’s achieved, it’s because he was determined to, because he worked his tail off. He’s one of the most driven guys I ever coached.”
That drive was evident early. According to his father, when Celek was 2 and avidly watching a televised football game, his mother suggested to him that maybe he’d play football someday.
“No,” he said sternly. “I want to play football on TV.”
As a fourth-grader in a weight-restricted league, the then-chunky Celek would often pile on layers of warm clothing on game-day mornings and “run, run, run around the property” to ensure he stayed below the weight limit.
This week, especially in the Paragon Salon on Harrison Avenue — the original location and the one closest to his boyhood home — people are talking a lot about Celek, hoping he helps Philadelphia beat a Patriots team they seem to dislike as much as everyone else.
The facility’s walls have been decorated with Eagles banners and framed photos of Celek in action. And its many stylists and manicurists (the three shops employ more than 100), including his 27-year-old sister, Mackenzie, have been wearing Eagles jerseys.
“Everybody knows where I got mine,” Mackenzie said. “But everyone else has been buying them at Meijer’s [a grocery chain], the mall, everywhere.”
On Wednesday, Celek’s brother, Garrett, a San Francisco tight end, was hanging out at the salon’s cash register, alongside a specially made helmet that is half-Eagles, half-49ers. It’s clear where his allegiance will be Sunday. Not only is his brother an Eagle, but so is a college roommate.
“Garrett and Nick Foles roomed together for a year at Michigan State,” said Steve Celek. “In fact, Tyler [Brent’s 25-year-old brother who now lives and works in King of Prussia] still has some of Nick’s furniture.”
The Celeks’ other salons are downtown and in a northern suburb. Debbie Celek opened the first 35 years ago and by 1991 the business was so successful that her husband, a mechanical engineer, quit his job to stay home with their three sons and two daughters.
“We had the kids and we were taking them to a babysitter. It was like why have kids if we’re going to let a babysitter raise them?” said Steve. “This place was doing so well that I became Mr. Dad. To this day, Brent never lets me forget that. He thinks his dad never worked.”
Celek obviously contracted the family’s entrepreneurial fever. A business major at the University of Cincinnati, he’s had ownership stakes in several Philadelphia-area ventures, including a Center City restaurant. And after football, his father said, he plans to devote himself to a new, real estate venture.
“He’s going to live in Philly when he’s done and run the business there,” said Steve. “He’s building a house right near West Chester. He’s got a lot of things going on.”
While football was a constant presence in his young life, the penchant for business came later. Steve Celek can tell you the exact moment that became clear.
“He was about 16 and I asked him when he was going to get a job,” Steve said. “He said football was his job. So I said, `OK, Mr. Football, when you go to the NFL, you give me your first signing bonus and I won’t say another word to you about working the rest of your life.’ We shook on it.”
Later, during his senior banquet at Cincinnati, one of the coaches got up and informed everyone that Brent, by then a legitimate NFL prospect, had promised his dad his signing bonus.
“Right away, Brent raised his hand,” said his father. “He said, `Wait a minute. A 16-year-old can’t legally enter into a contract in the state of Ohio so that contract is null and void.’
“And he stood buy that.”