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BILL MONTAGUE: Celli's mark on local soccer community unforgettable

Friends, family mourn the death of 'Mr. Soccer'

Anthony Celli refers to it as ‘the talk.’

It was March 31 and little did he know that a visit that day to his father, Tony, at ARCH would be the last time the two would have the kind of father-to-son talk Anthony enjoyed most of his life.

It was an emotional day, but the 38-year-old Anthony says the clearness in his father’s voice and mind was somewhat of a miracle given his dad’s condition, but when it’s time to say goodbye, inner strength can come out of nowhere.

“He told me ‘Son, I can’t do this anymore,’" Anthony recalled. “He was totally coherent and we talked for an hour or two and he basically said ‘Son, it’s OK, I’m tired, my body’s done and I’m at peace’ and then he comforted me. He was very clear. You could clearly understand him and I said ‘Dad, you have to tell them (the other kids) too and they heard it. I was bawling and I couldn’t tell them."

“That was a hard day. He literally slept from that day until he passed away.”

Tony Celli, the man known as Mr. Soccer in Sault Ste. Marie, passed away Wednesday at the age of 82 following complications from Parkinsons and other health ailments. He would have been 83 on July 29. 

His death has left the soccer community in deep mourning and those that knew him best say there will never be another Tony Celli. He was the consummate gentleman who believed in giving back and his contributions to the community and, soccer in general, will never be forgotten.

“He was a super positive guy,” says Barry Fera, who met Tony back in 1968 and has been friends with him ever since. “He was always positive and inspiring. He was never negative and he always overcame difficulties and put his best effort into bringing out the best in any situation. ‘Yes, we can do it, lets do it,’ was his thinking.”

Howard Gray, another longtime soccer volunteer, said Celli’s impact on soccer locally goes way back and his dedication and countless volunteer hours transformed the Sault into a soccer hub in the North and produced so many memories for so many of the city’s youth.

“We will really miss him,” Gray said. “We still played together just a few years ago when he was still on the field with us (in the oldtimers league). He was always there. He was one of those people that supported soccer through thick and thin. The T&M team was basically Tony’s creation. It was one of his legacies.”

That team, which Celli started back in the 70s, combined the young Torino players with the older Marconi players and became one of the Sault’s top soccer clubs, along with Croatia.

But aside from that, Celli was also heavily involved in coaching and was very influential at the executive level. He spearheaded the once-prestigious Marconi Club Soccer Tournament and was a catalyst for bringing soccer into the local high schools.

He lived and breathed for soccer and always dedicated countless hours to ensure the sport was thriving in the Sault and that kids of all ages had an opportunity to play.

‘I first met Tony during my first summer in Canada in 1979,” said Joe Ceglie, another longtime coach and local soccer enthusiast. “I introduced myself to him and spoke Italian with him because I was just here for six months and didn’t know much English. It was a pleasure and honour to meet Tony Celli. He taught me a lot and helped me when I coached the girl’s team."

“He stressed to the kids the importance of listening to the coaches and he was always there and he would explain to the girls the mistakes they made.”

Ceglie said Celli was so unselfish and the things he did for soccer had nothing to do with self-gratification, nor did he look for praise. He was about the kids. He wanted soccer to thrive in the community. He wanted to make it bigger, better.

“The time he put into soccer locally, especially that Marconi Tournament, was something,” Ceglie said. “We had teams here from Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, London Ontario, everywhere. You can’t take Tony off the map. He’s one of the best soccer guys. He was God to soccer in the Sault and God bless him and his soul.

“Tony, what you did for soccer up until today will never be forgotten.”

Celli came from humble beginnings and moved to Canada when he was 14 to join his sister, who lived in Timmins. He spoke limited English but eventually learned the language and then made a career out of teaching as he spent a number of years teaching at Collegiate Heights and eventually retired from the profession while at Sir James Dunn.

Throughout his life, Celli was always active and doing whatever was asked of him in the community, especially when it came to soccer.

“He was the guy everybody thought would live forever,” Anthony said. “I mean, he was still running around and playing soccer at 78 and then this happens. It was such a quick decline and it just goes to show that anything can happen, even to the best and he was the best."

“He literally cared about everyone. He never brushed people off. He remembered everyone. I’m the worst with names but he remembered everyone. He cared about the kids he coached and the people he taught. Anybody that knows him will tell you the same thing. He was genuine goodness.”

Fera said Celli may be gone, but the mark he left on the local soccer community will live on.

“A friend of mine (Joe Gass) said Tony was a gentleman soccer player that will be unsurpassed,” Fera said. “He was a true gentleman on the field and he is simply Mr. Soccer for the city of Sault Ste. Marie.”

Gray said Celli was very influential with his own kids, all of whom played soccer. 

“I knew most of his children,” Gray said. “I coached Albert when he was younger and Tony was always there for them and he always instilled in them how important sport was and to be competitive. All of his kids played sports and that’s where they got it.

“It’s hard now that he’s gone and I know I’m going to miss him a lot.”

For Anthony, he hopes his dad’s passing serves as a reminder to everyone how important family is.

“One of the last things he said to me was ‘take care of your mom and be kind to each other,’” Anthony said. “I was like ‘don’t worry dad, we’ll take care of mom.’ We have to be more like dad, more tolerant, more kind. He just wanted peace and he always said life is short.”

It may be short, but Celli’s existence in it has left an indelible mark on the soccer community here in Sault Ste. Marie. 

 

Celli is survived by his wife of 51 years, Connie, and his four children, Anna-Lisa, Albert, Carrie and Anthony. 

A private family service will be held, with Father Paul Conway officiating (all COVID-19 rules and regulations apply). Family and friends are invited to share in this celebration online starting at 10 am on Saturday, April 10, 2021, and anytime afterwards up to 90 days.

Visit www.funeraweb.tv and select Tony's name to view the service. The family would like to encourage everyone to view the video tribute on Arthur Funeral Home website.