The Crescent City has produced many NFL players, but none that followed the trail that led Oliver Celestin to the big time.
His mom frowned on his playing football as a youth since he was asthmatic. As a result, his parents wouldn't sign a release allowing him to playing New Orleans Recreation sports. So young Oliver focused his attention elsewhere. "I had to find something," he analyzed. "I wanted to be a drummer (in band) but my parents brought home a trumpet for me."
At a young age he would take lessons on weekends under the tutelage of St. Augustine High School band director Mr. Edwin Hampton.
After finding a spot in the Edna Karr concert band playing French horn early in high school, he soon was led to be re-united with Mr. Hampton and the Purple Knight Marchin' 100, playing the melaphone for two years. "It was a tremendous lesson of discipline and preparation, being on time," Oliver described St. Aug's stringent rules. "No exceptions. You let everyone down if you had a detention or if you weren't on time."
The high-profile Marchin' 100 included demands similar to those of the Purple Knight sports teams. "Band practice was just as physical. We had to run and do push ups. If you messed up at band, penalties were assessed by leaders of your instrument," he stated. "If one person messed up, we would all do the penalty together, extra running, gassers, etc. You were held accountable."
Not only did the band experience teach young Oliver an esprit de corps, but it challenged him. It made him give consideration regarding where his future lied while performing with the band at halftime for the football games, watching the rabid Purple Knight fans and all of the excitement that surrounded the event.
Just when the time arrived that he was contemplating his days ahead, tragedy struck. Celestin's 17-year old cousin, three years Oliver's senior, was gunned down. "We treated each other as brothers. I looked up to him. It put fear in me. I realized that tomorrow is not promised to anyone. I knew that football was something that I wanted to do."
On his own, Celestin took a bold step, one that would catch his family totally by surprise. He left the band and joined the St. Aug football team in time for the beginning of the 1996 season. "(My family) was coming to the season-opening jamboree against Frederick Douglas expecting to see me in the band only to find out I was on the football team," he said with an embarrassed chuckle.
The starting safety was on the shelf, nursing a sprained ankle, opening the door for the junior to gain a starter's role in the jamboree under coach Tyrone Payne. "I learned what I needed to work on as a safety. I didn't know enough about football. I knew how to play the game, I just didn't know all of my duties. I was lost. I had a lot to learn."
Following the season, the 6-foot, 170 pound Celestin enrolled on the track team. His experience in track proved to be a major benefit. Head football coach Tyrone Payne served in the same capacity for track. Payne would lecture Celestin on the bus rides for track drills on the nuances of football. "That helped me a lot. I also ran on the levees. It gave me confidence. I always pushed myself to the limit. It kept me out of trouble."
Come hear an inspiring story of how persistence can beat resistance with Oliver Celestin at the weekly Life Resources Bottom Line Luncheon at noon on Wednesday, April 18 at Piccadilly Cafeteria, 2222 South Clearview Parkway in Metairie. All are welcome to attend.
For more information, contact Ken Trahan at (504) 681-0120 or Barry Haindel at (504) 450-8198.
Oliver ran the 110 high hurdles, finishing 9th in the state as a junior and 5th as a senior. He also was a member of the 4 X 100 and 4 X 200 relay teams.
Coming out of high school Texas Southern University was the only interested party with a scholarship offer. "I was preparing to go into the Marines," he said. "I couldn't pay for my education. I was excited and signed with Texas Southern never having been to the campus. I appreciated the opportunity and wanted to make the most of it. I was prepared for the unknown after what I had been through.."
His initial experience was eye opening. Defensive back coach Ray Bonner and defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson were "pit bulls" according to Olivier. It was a boot camp atmosphere for the football novice.
"They rode me hard everyday. Every practice they would kick us out of line. We would have to go to a field full of shrubs and weeds, away from the practice field. It taught me to be tough. I would mimic the older players. I wanted to get back in the group (with veteran players). Coach Thompson would remind me that I was an investment. He didn't want me making the same mistakes that the older players made.'Don't do what they do...be better' he would say."
Following a year of learning as a redshirt freshman, Oliver made huge strides under the guidance of strength and conditioning Jesse Hearst. The daily workouts began at 6 a.m. and included 500-600 push-ups prior to any weight lifting responsibilities. Oliver also ran track for the Tigers. His physique improved. His weight jumped from 170 to a solid 205 pounds. A light came on. He worked his way into a comfort zone. He learned the unique skills of playing cornerback as well as safety.
A building block for his career occurred during the 2000 season as a sophomore. Celestin recorded 13 tackles against Arkansas Pine Bluff. "It was a smash mouth, a running attack that came right at me. It was freezing cold," remembered Oliver. "From that time on my confidence went way up. I knew that would be the standard that I would have to perform at."
Celestin would complete his collegiate career as a four-year starter, earning All-SWAC accolades as a senior in 2002. The conference boasted a bevy of future NFL players including quarterback Tavaris Jackson (Seattle Seahawks), DE Robert Mathis (Colts DE), wide receiver Scotty Anderson (ex-Grambling star) and Sylvester Morris (former McDonogh 35 wide receiver out of Jackson State) who would go onto star with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The college experience was everything that Oliver dreamed about. "I always knew the value of football. I always grew up watching (Saints players) Sammy Knight, Eric Allen and Rickey Jackson. That's why I wanted to play defense."
Celestin's introduction to the NFL was similar to his beginning to the sport of football, full of peaks, valleys, and new challenges.
He had spent time with former NFL receiver Cris Carter, following his career at Texas Southern, joining other NFL hopefuls like Louisville running back Michael Bush, Michigan State wide receiver Carlos Rogers, former Archbishop Shaw and Michigan wideout Ronald Bellamy and a fellow St. Aug alum, wide receiver Cortez Hankton. Celestin and Hankton would continue to train together throughout his five-year NFL career.
His initial experience with training camp was eye opening. After being overlooked in the 2003 NFL draft, Oliver considered free agent offers from the Browns, Bears and 49ers before finally settling on Cleveland.
"Cleveland showed the most interest. I thought that I could compete with anybody, but I've never been a drills guys," noted Celestin. "I could read a player's body language, but it was the roughest camp that I'd ever been through. I was 21 years old. I was immature. I was excited to be on the team with guys that I had watched (growing up)."
His arrival in the NFL coincided with head coach Butch Davis' first year in Cleveland. Robert Griffith and Earl Little were the starters at safety and, like most veterans, paced themselves throughout preseason, allowing more practice reps for the aggressive rookie. "I was going with the first, second and third groups. There were a lot of injuries. It was a lot of wear and tear on me. I didn't rest, I had blisters."
A neck injury affected his performance. During the preseason, Celestin was released. "Butch Davis told me that I had the talent, but the numbers weren't right."
Oliver came home and worked as a substitute teacher at L.B. Landry while continuing his relentless pursuit of his NFL dream that included waking up 4 AM, working out and running the levees.
Early in 2004, another opportunity presented itself, playing with the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe. "That was very humbling." he said. "I learned about TEAM, guys trying to make the roster. We bonded. We realized that there was no place for excuses."
Rick Lentz was the Thunder head coach while ex-Kentucky and Tulane assistant Rick Smith tutored the defensive backs. Oliver joined teammates such as (former LSU QB) Rohan Davey, (Bears DE) Israel Idonije and future Cowboys DB Keith Davis to overtake Frankfurt to capture the NFL Europe title.
The next stop on his NFL path took him to the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent. Mike Tice was the Vikings head coach in 2004. Celestin faced star-quality talent each day. "That team helped me develope facing Nate Burleson, Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper every day at practice. It helped me grow. They had me playing corner and safety. Tice let me know that I had earned a job."
But his goal fell just short as he would end up on the Vikings practice squad. "I felt like I was cut again. I took everyday very seriously."
Celestin roomed with longtime veteran Corey Chavous, who mentored him and helped him watch film. The time showed him how to prepare mentally.
Eight weeks into the season, Minnesota faced the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football. Oliver received a call. The New York Jets had placed a claim for him to join them on their active roster.
Herm Edwards was the New York Jets head coach. "Never a dull day," he laughed regarding Edwards. "Very patient, communicates with his players well. He had been a free agent himself just like me. Donnie Abraham and Terrell Buckley were the other defensive backs. I was with older guys. So much communication, I learned how to make adjustments. The veterans would explain to me, depending on the motion, which route was coming. I was playing dime."
With learning what he had to do, Oliver also experienced what was not allowed. In practice, Olivier always hit the Viking backs, Jim Kleinsasser and Mewelde Moore (Tulane), but things were different with the Jets. "I hit Curtis Martin. Herm went off on me. He stopped practice. I learned that some guys were off limits, like (QB) Chad Pennington and (WR) Wayne Chrebet. Different philosophy. At first, it took something away from me, but the defensive coaches encouraged me to 'keep it up '. It caught some attention. Special teams coach Mike Westoff designed plays just for me. For kick coverage, I'm watching blocking schemes." Celestin became an NFL kick coverage kamikaze and relished the role.
In his first game, he made his mark. Following a violent collision with Baltimore Ravens kick returner B.J. Sams (Mandeville High alum), the ball popped loose and was recovered by New York. "Herm met me on the sideline. He was a great motivator. He made me the competitive side of me come out. Herm would point out positive plays that I made."
Making plays led to more chances for Celestin. "(Edwards) threw me in (at defensive back) against the Browns. I made some plays. I knew that I could play. I got more and more confidence the more plays came my way."
Going into the 2005 campaign, the Jets tendered him a contract with the stipulation that he move exclusively to cornerback. The arrival of Hurricane Katrina changed things. His family in New Orleans was forced to Beaumont, Texas and eventually up to New York with Oliver. He wasn't focused as he needed to be on football with all the distractions. To complicate matters, he tore PCL (ligament behind his knee) in the second game of the season against the Buffalo Bills. He taped the injured limb and continued to play. Despite swelling and discomfort, he worked through it. "Herm Edwards witnessed me work through it all, family living with me and being on crutches, but I didn't lay down. I tried to work through it."
But football in the pro ranks is a harsh game. On the heels of the 2005 season, Oliver was given a release from the Jets. He soon landed a spot with the Seattle Seahawks following their Super Bowl run, joining another family type atmosphere under head coach Mike Holmgren. Olivier's role once again was special teams.
The opening of the 2007 season found Oliver Celestin in yet another jersey after he was not re-signed by Seattle. The Arizona Cardinals were his new home. Former Seahawks defensive back s coach Teryl Austin joined Ken Whisenhunt's staff and recommended Oliver. "He knew my background, my temperament."
The Cardinals possessed some outstanding proven NFL vets like quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Edgerrin James, DT Darnell Dockett, LB Carlos Dansby and DE Bertrand Berry. The organization was on the cusp of a spot in the Super Bowl. "We finished 8-8 (in 2007). I saw the talent. They hadn't had a winning season and couldn't hold a lead. Everyone wanted to win and the 8-8 season showed that it could be different."
Safety Adrian Wilson suffered a season-ending Achilles injury that opened the door for Celestin to start the final five games of the season. Ironically, his first start that year was against his old team, the New York Jets.
Celestin was released midway the 2008 season, the year Arizona made their run to the Super Bowl. Herm Edwards, then the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, remembered what Oliver brought to the table and gave the New Orleanian another chance to extend his professional career. He finished the final eight games of the '08 season in KC, dropping the curtain on his days in the NFL.
Although away from the physical contact, Oliver would like to remain close to the game. "I still have aspirations to finish law school. I want to deal with contracts on the professional level. I watched coach Holmgren at work. I learned to push yourself to the limit. Every person that I meet. I try to take something positive away from it. I spend time around New Orleans giving back to high schools by volunteering."
Olivier Celestin has memories for a lifetime. "I miss the locker room, spending time between practice, the camaraderie, the laughs." The laughs? "Yeah, Randy Moss would always do comical things in the locker-room. Before the cameras would be allowed into the room, he would talk to all the players about what would be the topic of the day."
Not a bad ride in the NFL for a one-time French horn musician who refused to accept no for an answer.
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