It's tough to play 11 years in the NFL. It's even more difficult to spend those 11 years with just one team. To play that long in one city without having been to a Super Bowl, considering the sacrifices often made, can be an experience too cruel.
Brent Celek will no longer have to endure such a fate.
The Eagles' longest-tenured player will play in the first Super Bowl of his career after a convincing 38-7 win over the Vikings in the NFC championship game Sunday. And the smile that kept forming each time he tried to express his feelings said more than words.
"I don't know if I can describe it," Celek said in the celebratory postgame locker room at Lincoln Financial Field. "It's an amazing feeling."
It had taken Celek nine seasons to even reach another conference title game. The Eagles lost to the Cardinals, 32-25, in the 2008 NFC championship game. The tight end caught 10 passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns in that game.
Celek, just a second-year player at the time, would later say that he thought postseason berths would come annually. But the Eagles, despite qualifying three other times, didn't win another playoff game until last week in the divisional round. They're going for three in a row when they face the Patriots on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis.
"I honestly try to treat every year as its own year, but this year is special, man," Celek said. "I don't really look at the other years and think, 'What if?' This year is different and we got one more game to go. We got to finish this thing."
The number of active players, aside from specialists, who have played for only one team longer than Celek without having played in a Super Bowl can be counted with two hands.
They are Cowboys tight Jason Witten and Chargers tight end Antonio Gates (15 seasons), Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (14), Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson (13), Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams and Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis (12), and Browns tackle Joe Thomas, Chiefs linebacker Tambi Hali, and Vikings defensive end Brian Robison (11).
Celek, who has one year left on his contract with the Eagles, has said that he has yet to make any decisions concerning his future beyond this season. But if this were his last year, his teammates would like nothing better than to send him out a winner.
"It's not lost on us that he went to the same [conference championship] during his second year," tight end Zach Ertz said. "The guy has been huge for my development as a tight end. You hear horror stories coming in as a rookie of veteran guys being mean to the high draft picks and never helping them, but Brent was the complete opposite. He helped me from the get-go."
The 32-year-old Celek has seen his playing time and production decrease in nearly every season since Ertz was selected in the second round of the 2013 draft. He has developed into more a blocking tight end, although he has flashed his receiving skills whenever Ertz has been out. But what has remained consistent has been his professionalism.
Chip Kelly once said that Celek was "what a Philadelphia Eagle looks like." Unlike the former Eagles coach, the quote has lasted here. But the credit goes solely to the 2007 fifth-round draft pick, who has missed only one game out of a possible 183, including the playoffs, in 11 seasons.
Two other Eagles have played longer in the NFL than Celek – tackle Jason Peters (14 seasons) and running back Darren Sproles (12 seasons) – but they won't play in their first Super Bowl. Both players suffered season-ending knee injuries during the regular season.
Asked about Celek on Sunday, tackle Lane Johnson said that he hoped to bring all three veterans an elusive title.
"Just the passion he plays with. You see his body hurting and just how he perseveres … and how tough he is," Johnson said. "I want to win for him. I want to win it for Peters, I want to win for Sproles — guys that have been around the block that would kill to be in this game coming up."
Johnson carried Peters' No. 71 jersey with him when he was introduced to the Lincoln Financial Field crowd on Sunday.
"He asked me to right before the game," Johnson said. "I wanted to. I think he's a special part of this team."
As is Celek, who ranks fourth all-time in number of regular season games played (175), behind David Akers (188), Brian Dawkins (183), and Harold Carmichael (180) for the Eagles. Despite his reduced role over the last few years, he is fourth in the franchise history in career receptions (398) and eighth in receiving yards (4,998).
"One of the classiest human beings you'll ever have on a team or in an organization no matter what he's doing," Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said Sunday. "I'm really glad he's a part of this."
Celek briefly contemplated the idea of not returning when the front office asked him to take a pay cut this past offseason. But he would later say that he couldn't imagine playing for another team and agreed to a contract restructuring.
Ertz said that his teammate has a "few more good years left in him," but Celek is looking ahead only to one game. It's how he's approached his entire career despite the aches, the pains, and the losing.
"I always keep a positive mind-set," Celek said. "It's worked out. It was all worth it."