Stan Hochman: Celeks are game for backing a good cause

Susie Celek, who backs ballfields for special-needs kids, stays in fighting shape by boxing.
Susie Celek, who backs ballfields for special-needs kids, stays in fighting shape by boxing.
Posted: October 07, 2009

WHEN THEY approached Susie and Brent Celek about getting involved in trying to build a Miracle Field in Northampton Township, a safe, smooth baseball surface for kids in wheelchairs, it felt like deja vu, all over again.

"I grew up in Greentown, Ohio," Susie said. "On a street with five boys, four of them named Matthew. One of them was in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down.

"My brother Matt built obstacle courses and other games for us to play. And he always designed them so that Matthew could play, too. He'd choose the sides for balance, matched the young kids with the older kids. And he always looked for Matthew. He'd say, 'Where's Matthew? Somebody go get Matthew.' "

Brent Celek is the tough tight end for the Eagles. Off to a gaudy start this year with 22 catches in three games. Susie, on a scale of X, is an XI. Yesterday was their first anniversary. They spent it the way your average couple next door spends it . . .

Susie worked out at Joe Hand's gym throwing left hooks at the heavy bag . . . Brent did his heavy lifting on "Daily News Live" on Comcast SportsNet, carrying three guys the way he does most Sundays.

"We'd been asked by other organizations," Susie said. "But when we talked about the Miracle Field, Brent remembered what I had told him about Matthew and he said, 'This is it, babe.' "

The township donated the land. It will cost $750,000 to build the field. Gilmore & Associates designed it, waiving most of its fees. Last week, on the night the Phillies clinched the division, a big, enthusiastic crowd showed up at the site to hear a progress report.

"We are past the halfway point," Joe Hand Jr. said, and the crowd quivered with excitement. The tent was crammed with high hopes, and if you listened closely you could hear the late Harry Kalas crooning about little, old ants moving rubber-tree plants.

Comcast has created two 30-second commercials, and senior vice president Dave Breidinger was there to introduce them. Bill Gregory, who runs Bucks County Physical Therapy, was there to talk about his $1,000-pledge challenge to other area businessmen. The Boy Scouts were represented, and the NFL Alumni, and various demographics in between. Politicians mingled with parents of special-needs kids. The karma could have floated a battleship.

The Daily News has been involved. I wrote a story about the Miracle League project, and a man named Tony Ciabatonni, who lives in Laguna Beach, Calif., donated $10,000, because I had been kind to him in the Los Angeles airport 30-something years ago.

Tom Marlowe read the story and contributed $35,000 over a 3-year period from the Mary Kate's Legacy Foundation, which focuses on issues involving people in wheelchairs.

Jerry Wolman, the former Eagles owner, got involved. Wolman is writing a book about his fascinating life, called "The World's Richest Man." He has pledged a percent of the sales within a 50-mile radius of Philadelphia. He drove up from Potomac, Md., last week to find out more about Miracle Field and dazzled everyone he met with his energy and desire to help.

Diane Alford, executive director of the Miracle League, came from Georgia, where the program started. She told the story of a legally blind girl named Ashley, "who could barely tell day from night."

"She wanted to play baseball and they taught her how to hold the bat," Alford said. "The pitcher would yell, 'Swing, Ashley, swing' as the ball reached home plate. And she learned to hit the ball.

"There were coaches at every base, calling her name, so she knew where to run. Her all-time dream was to be a schoolteacher. She's a junior in college now, majoring in education. She says, 'If I can play baseball, surely I can teach children in second grade.'

"And that's what this is all about, giving our children the opportunity to take their dreams far beyond our imagination."

Susie read a letter from Brent, promising his full support to the project. He'd gone home to Cincinnati, because it was the bye week for the Eagles. Fifth-round draft pick to starting tight end, Brent Celek knows all about tough odds.

On a windy, crisp night, Susie wore a short-sleeved shirt with a Bengal tiger and some Chinese hieroglyphics that probably said, "Don't mess with me."

So, just where is Greentown? "Nearest big city is Canton, "she said, "home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame." Of course.

And boxing?

"I'm in marketing," she explained. "I hire the models to promote the product. I saw the arms on one of the girls and she told me she was boxing.

"I said, 'Cute.' She said, 'Cute? I won the Golden Gloves.' So I tried it. I love it. My husband loves it."

"Actually," Brent says, "I like all sports. They teach lessons about life, they stress discipline, they require hard work. Boxing has been good for her."

She will fight at a svelte 135. First fight scheduled for Baltimore. Don't bet against her.

And Matthew, the Greentown kid in the wheelchair?

"He's in college," Susie said proudly, "working on his master's degree. I can still remember my mom, the next morning, after we'd play our games. She'd tell us how good Matthew's folks felt, because of the way we treated him. That made it all worth it." *

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