As she takes a few seconds to think about the lessons her dad has taught her, Anna-Lisa Christilaw’s (Celli) voice begins to quiver and she fights back tears that speak volumes of the memories and the love she has for him.
Now 81, Tony Celli, Sault Ste. Marie’s Mr. Soccer, no longer roams the sidelines on the local pitch and instead is recovering from some health issues.
During his younger days he was one of the Sault’s biggest ambassadors for the sport and just two years ago, at the tender age of 79, he was still playing the game, albeit at an old-timers level at Strathclair Field.
“I was always in great awe of my dad,” Anna-Lisa said. “I admire him a great deal just for the type of human being he is. He was a father to many and he proved that you should never let anything stop you and that anything can be accomplished if you have a dream and I think of his humble beginnings and of how far he came.
“To raise his family and embrace so many other people is really something. It wasn’t just us, it was his players too. They became a part of his family.”
Celli moved to Canada to join his sister in Timmins when he was just 14, leaving behind his parents in Italy. He spoke little English at the time, but gradually learned the language and made a career out of teaching others. Ironically, he taught at Collegiate Heights, where he now resides, and was instrumental in helping others with the transition to a new language and new county. He eventually retired from Sir James Dunn.
In the soccer world, he would go on to coach locally and also served on the executive. He put in his time during the heyday of the sport locally, when the stands at Elliott Field or Queen Elizabeth Field were often packed and full of intense rivalries between so many of the local clubs. He also spearheaded the once prestigious Marconi Club Soccer Tournament and was one of the catalysts for bringing soccer into the local high school systems.
“He was a role model running up the down the sideline with us,” said Anna-Lisa, one of four kids, the others being Albert, Carrie and Anthony. “He was always encouraging and there were never any limits to what we were capable of when it came to him. It just came so naturally. Everything he did came from the heart. We looked forward to games, to practices and with him it was a whole experience and about learning life lessons on how to treat people and on how to deal with defeat.”
Today, he and his wife, Connie, are at Collegiate Heights Retirement Residence and Connie says the one thing her husband misses a lot is the social interaction that often accompanied his visits to the pitch.
“What he did is he met all the needs that were there for soccer, just like teaching,” said Connie, who is seven years younger and who says she was once a student of Tony’s during her days at Mount St. Joseph College. “If a school had the need for an Italian teacher, he would fill in. He was just a man of many trades, of many gifts. He loves people and he still loves people, even in the condition he’s in now.”
For Anna-Lisa, flashbacks of the past bring back a flood of happy memories. She grew up playing soccer, often for her dad. She sat at so many dining room tables helping chart schedules for the Marconi tournament. She has so many memories to fall back on and there’s no denying that her dad’s influence on her has left an indelible impression and has helped mould her into the person she is today.
“I know he misses all the socializing on the field and afterwards in the dressing room,” Anna-Lisa said. “He always wanted to share all the beauty of the sport with people and the culture of sport. My mom made sure we were fed and clothed so my dad could fly with soccer and that was his passion.
“He always said ‘Do good and forget it.’ That’s one thing he always reminded us of. He’s lived that and he’s planted the seeds on the soccer field and the classroom and in our own backyard.”