Eagles' Class of 2007 graduates to leadership roles

Three members of the Eagles' Class of 2007 have graduated into key roles with the team. Stewart Bradley, Kevin Kolb, and Brent Celek (from left) shared a room as rookies, and also aspirations to NFL glory.
Three members of the Eagles' Class of 2007 have graduated into key roles with the team. Stewart Bradley, Kevin Kolb, and Brent Celek (from left) shared a room as rookies, and also aspirations to NFL glory.
Posted: August 08, 2010

They arrived from Texas, from Utah, and from Ohio to an unfamiliar home on the side of a Pennsylvania mountain, eager, anxious, and a little unsure.

The three young men, each just out of college, had a new home, new bosses, new teammates. The organization they now worked for, the Philadelphia Eagles, was also laying the groundwork for a new beginning.

That was in the summer of 2007, and quarterback Kevin Kolb, middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, and tight end Brent Celek were NFL rookies sharing a dorm room on the mountainous campus of Lehigh University.

They came to a team thriving under veteran leadership, one with the talent to be an annual Super Bowl contender. The three saw the stars around them, the playoff expectations and championship aspirations, and, Kolb said, they hoped - one day - this could be theirs.

"We were looking at those older guys going, 'Man, I hope we're there one day. I hope we're doing this,' " Kolb said. "From the word go we were like, 'OK, here's kind of what we want to do: We want to be the starters here, and we all want to stay here together, and we want to go win the Super Bowl and build the team around us. You just dream about that as a young player."

Still, no one, not them, not Eagles executives, not coach Andy Reid, could know whether these three would be the kind of draft picks that provide the foundation for a team or the kind that quickly and uneventfully wash out of the league.

Yes, Kolb, Bradley, and Celek were among the 255 college football players selected in that NFL draft. But every year scores of those chosen fail, leaving hopes dashed, coaches disappointed, and teams to simply move on.

Bonding experience

As a fifth-round pick, Celek faced by far the longest odds of the three. And along with competing for a job through midsummer heat and humidity that made the air milkshake-thick, he had another challenge.

Having grown up in Cincinnati, having gone to high school there and college there, Celek was away from home for the longest period in his life. An earnest Midwesterner with broad shoulders, a reserved speaking style, and a taste for stylish sneakers, Celek in college was used to eating with his family once a week.

Now, far from home, he had demanding coaches watching him, and on the line was his dream: a chance to play professional football.

"I was very nervous, and it was hard. It was very hard," remembered Celek, wearing a pair of tennis-ball green Nikes.

In Kolb and Bradley, though, he had two roommates going through the same trials. On the field, working with the younger players and other backups, they competed against one another, Kolb and Celek against Bradley, a 6-foot-4 wall of muscle with a bright smile and reading habits that include James Joyce, John Steinbeck, and books on architecture.

"Guys you come in with you're always real close to because you go through that first rookie experience of not really knowing what it's going to be like, and you're unsure of how you're going to play," Bradley said. "That really bonds people together."

Back in their dorm after practices and team meetings, the three men, who already shared an outdoorsy ethic and love of fishing, would recount the day's action, Celek and Kolb again teaming up on Bradley.

Even when relaxing, they competed.

They played Tiger Woods' golf video game and, according to Kolb, waged a water-balloon war with several veterans.

Bradley would neither confirm nor deny any water-balloon exploits. He, like Celek and Kolb, is accommodating but cautious around reporters. Away from the media spotlight, though, Bradley flashes a playful side.

As he spoke about his time as a rookie, he worked a black Sharpie and asked one youngster if his mother would get angry with Bradley for marking the child's T-shirt.

"If water balloons were thrown, I don't know who it is, but it's someone that's awesome," Bradley allowed.

'Lucky with injuries'

Celek was the last of the three drafted but the first to get his chance.

With the Eagles' regular tight end, L.J. Smith, limited by an injury, Celek got more opportunities in practice and quickly caught coaches' eyes. By the sixth week of their rookie year, Celek became the first member of his draft class to get a start, against Chicago.

He and Bradley would play in every game that year, Celek notching four starts, Bradley one.

"You've got to be lucky with injuries. You've got to work hard, and you've got to take advantage of the opportunities you've been given," Celek said, looking back. He stayed healthy and got a chance to play when others could not.

But luck could easily break the other way. Victor Abiamiri, another second-round pick, the only other member of the 2007 draft class still with the Eagles, and one Bradley was quick to mention as another close friend, has struggled throughout his career with injuries. After having microfracture surgery on his knee this past off-season, his future in football is in doubt while his peers prepare to thrive.

At the start of 2008, Bradley had taken over the middle-linebacker job, winning one of the most important positions on defense. Celek established himself as a full-time starter later that year, making the tight-end slot his own.

Meanwhile Kolb, a lifelong athlete with a direct Texas manner and a palpable but unobtrusive self-confidence, was stuck on the bench. He had been a high school star. He had started as a college freshman and held the job for four years. But through two seasons in the NFL he barely saw the field.

"I sat back and watched them two climb early, going, 'Gosh, they're already there, I want to be there,' " he said.

Visible roles

Kolb got a chance to show his ability last year when Donovan McNabb got hurt, and his play in two games helped convince the Eagles it was time to give the younger quarterback his shot.

With Kolb taking over football's most pivotal position, Bradley playing quarterback of the defense, and Celek coming off a year as one of the Eagles' most productive players, the three former roommates are each critical to the team's success.

Off the field, Kolb, as quarterback, is a de facto spokesman and leader, while Celek and Bradley have also taken on increasingly visible roles. When the Eagles held a recent news conference to honor their 1960 championship team, Bradley and Celek were two of the three active players called upon to represent the organization, along with DeSean Jackson, the team's dynamic wide receiver.

Bradley said the three have stepped into leadership roles as veterans have moved on, making himself, Kolb, and Celek, at ages 26, 25, and 25, respectively, some of the more senior players on the team.

Celek, reserved in his early years, said his recent outspokenness could come only after he had proven himself.

Kolb sees the dreams from their early days together coming within reach. Having admired the trio of McNabb, Brian Westbrook, and Brian Dawkins, Kolb said he hoped his class formed part of a new Eagles core.

"It's fun to fight those battles with guys that have gone through it the same time you did, and we always discuss it," Kolb said. Now, he said, they look at other veterans in the league who have won Super Bowls and think, "We got to get to that."

They still have a lot to prove. Kolb has just two NFL starts to his name. Bradley is returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and must show he can be a healthy, consistent force. Celek is trying to continue a steady upward trajectory.

Some things have not changed. Celek and Kolb share a room every training camp. Bradley was the best man at Celek's wedding. They still compete on the field, only now with the starting units, Bradley sometimes covering Celek. In one of his first practices back in Lehigh after last year's injury, Bradley intercepted Kolb.

And, whether or not water balloons were hurled in the past, Bradley said, "We still have some tricks up our sleeve."

They reached one goal they had as rookies: They each have a significant role on the team. The consequence of that accomplishment, Celek said, is the added responsibility of helping the team reach the top.

"We always dreamt of it, hoped it would happen; but now that it's actually happened, it's a lot of fun. But at the same time, we've got to get the job done," Celek said. "We've got to step up and show that we're worthy of our positions."

Method behind Eagles' '07 draft madness

In the 2007 draft, when the Eagles landed Kevin Kolb, Stewart Bradley, and Brent Celek, many fans wondered what the team was thinking.

Specifically, what were the Eagles doing trading their first-round pick, the 26th overall, to the hated Cowboys, allowing their division rivals to snag Anthony Spencer, a speedy pass rusher?

With the benefit of hindsight, Eagles president Joe Banner said the team knew what it was doing because it wanted Kolb, Bradley, and Celek all. The Eagles got three picks back from the Cowboys and used one on Kolb (in Round 2) and one on Bradley (Round 3). The third pick, according to Banner, helped in landing Celek.

"There's a lot of luck in the draft, but those three particular examples, we had a plan," Banner said.

With the last selection received from the Cowboys, a fifth-round pick, the Eagles chose safety C.J. Gaddis. But, Banner said, having an extra fifth-rounder in their pocket allowed the team to grab Celek three slots later instead of waiting 39 more choices and hoping the tight end would still be available when the Eagles' sixth-round selection came up.

The team was sold on the play and character of Kolb, Celek, and Bradley. But even their biggest backers couldn't know for sure if they would be stars, busts, or something in between.

"You never know in terms of leadership and who is going to actually hit their upside," Banner said.

For illustration and for evidence that wise decisions are often matched by poor ones, look no further than that same draft. After picking Bradley, the Eagles took Tony Hunt, 72 picks before Celek, and then Gaddis. Gaddis was cut a few months later, and Hunt was traded away after two unremarkable seasons.

- Jonathan Tamari

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214 or jtamari@phillynews.com.