Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 43
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
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LOVE OF THE GAME: Princeton University women’s soccer assistant coach Ron Celestin imparts advice at a recent training session. After suffering a stroke last month, Celestin has returned to practice on a daily basis. This Saturday, Celestin, a former All-State boys’ soccer player at Princeton High who went on to coach the program to the 1995 state championship, will be inducted into the PHS Athletic Hall of Fame.

Celestin’s Devotion to Soccer and Community Trumps Stroke on the Way to PHS Hall of Fame

Bill Alden

He couldn’t talk as he lay in the hospital bed last month and he didn’t know what day it was.

But as Ron Celestin struggled to battle through the haze resulting from the stroke he had suffered, his mind turned to the game he loves.

“I was thinking the worst, not coming out alive or being left with some other type of deficiency,” recalled Celestin.

“My mind was going crazy but I do remember that I kept dreaming about soccer.”

This Saturday evening, Celestin will see a dream come true as he gets inducted into the Princeton High Athletic Hall of Fame along with 12 other individuals and one team.

Celestin, 47, who came to Princeton from his native Haiti when he was 13 years old, has used soccer as a vehicle to make an indelible impact on his community.

In the 1970s, Celestin was an All-State performer for the PHS boys’ soccer team. After a stellar career at West Virginia Wesleyan where he played on an NAIA championship team, Celestin returned to Princeton to teach and coach. In 1995, he guided PHS to a state championship.

Celestin then went across town to serve as an assistant coach for the Princeton University women’s soccer team where he helped guide the team to the NCAA Final Four in 2004. Celestin is still with the program in addition to teaching gym at the Riverside School.

In between his teaching and coaching obligations, Celestin found time to help start both the FC Magic United girls’ club team and the New Jersey Wildcats of the W-League.

But in mid-September, it looked like Celestin may never be able to coach another player.

“On our trip to Notre Dame, I had a really bad headache and spent Saturday in the hotel room,” said Celestin.

“I couldn’t keep food down and I thought I might have a 24-hour bug or something. I coached the Washington State game the next day and everything seemed OK. On the following Thursday, I was on the field knocking the ball around and I got disoriented. I didn’t feel any symptoms but others around me could see that something was wrong and I got sent to the hospital. On Sunday, I thought I was still in the emergency room and that it was Thursday.”

Fortunately, things are becoming clearer and clearer for Celestin with each passing day.

“I’m coming around, I’m starting to feel better everyday,” said Celestin, who is back at practice with the Tiger women’s team on a daily basis.

“I’m counting my blessings that I am going to be able to function normally. I do have a different perspective on young people with disabilities and older people with paralysis. The things that people accomplish with disabilities are more impressive to me.”

Celestin is amazed at what he has accomplished, considering the transition he had to make when he emigrated to Princeton in the 1970s.

“My mother was working here and I came to Princeton when I was 13 for a summer vacation and I never left,” said a laughing Celestin, who still speaks with a slight West Indian lilt in his voice.

“The language barrier was a stumbling block at the beginning. The second thing was the weather. It was fine when it was warm but when it got cold, that was tough.”

School and soccer helped ease Celestin’s adjustment. “I had a good support system, my teachers and the community put me on the right path,” recalled Celestin, who started playing with the Princeton Soccer Association shortly after his arrival in the U.S.

“I went from John Witherspoon to Princeton High and I was prepared to play soccer in that setting. We had some success; I had a good core of teammates. I was able to be myself on the field.”

Celestin added to that record of success on the field, going from George Mason to Mercer County Community College before ending up at West Virginia Wesleyan where he helped the school’s men’s soccer team take the 1984 NAIA crown.

After college, Celestin took a desk job with the New Jersey DMV and quickly concluded that he needed to get back out on the field.

“I was sitting behind a desk and I realized that wasn’t for me,” said Celestin. “I realized I wanted to be involved with people on a daily basis.”

In 1986, Celestin was hired as a physical education teacher in the Princeton school system and took the helm of the PHS boys’ soccer program. By 1995, he had taken the team to a state championship.

At that point, he decided it was time to take on a new coaching challenge.

“I felt good about where I had taken the program,” said Celestin. “I had been working as a volunteer coach with the Princeton University women’s team for two years and they gave me an opportunity to come in on a full-time basis. I have had a great 13-year marriage there, I have gotten great support from the administration.”

Princeton women’s head coach Julie Shackford has gotten great support from Celestin from the moment she brought him into the program.

“Ron’s just a balanced person, he’s had a lot of experience coaching at all levels,” said Shackford, who is in her 13th year guiding the Tiger program.

“He always looks at the big picture. He is never hasty, which is good for me because I can be impulsive. He’s soft-spoken; he gets his message across gently and clearly. He never gives up on people.”

Celestin’s stroke has been a tough experience for Shackford and her players.

“It was tough to see somebody like Ron who embodies strength and courage to be in that situation,” said Shackford.

“I have always known how important he is to us. He and I have gone through so much together.”

Celestin readily acknowledges that he and Shackford have developed a special chemistry over the years.

“She brings a level of passion to her job everyday; she is one of the most dedicated coaches I have ever seen,” asserted Celestin.

“I’ve learned from her; I try to bring that passion to whatever I do. I have had the opportunity to have input in training and on game day she has given me the floor to voice my opinions.”

Their partnership reached special heights when they helped guide the 2004 Princeton women’s team to its magical NCAA tournament run.

“I think the pinnacle was getting to the Final Four and playing UCLA,” recalled Celestin.

“It is something as a coach to reach that level. I was more proud and happy for the players than I was for myself. It was great to see the players achieve that kind of success.”

Seeing that girls in the local soccer community weren’t getting the best foundation for achieving success, Celestin helped start the FC Magic club and the Wildcats.

“I thought that boys had enough opportunities but I didn’t think that girls were getting those opportunities,” said Celestin.

“At the end of the day, it’s great to see how the players have developed. I am proud to have developed programs where players can train and develop like that.”

Celestin, who was honored in 2005 by the Princeton Public Library as one of its “Unsung Heroes” which cited members of Princeton’s African-American community for their contribution to the town and its life, wasn’t expecting to get the call to the PHS Hall of Fame.

“I was surprised,” said Celestin, whose daughter, Chantal, is currently making a big contribution to the PHS girls’ soccer team as a sophomore striker.

“I thought there had to be others that they could honor; I’m not an old-timer or a veteran. I’m so honored to be going in with people like Larry Ivan and Becky Mackey. It’s a great honor to be part of a group like that.”

For Celestin, that honor is the result of the inherent flexibility and decency in the way he approaches the game he loves.

“If you don’t succeed, it’s because you don’t adjust,” said Celestin. “I try to treat all people with respect, it doesn’t matter if they are boys or girls or what level they are at.”

Fueled by his devotion to soccer and his community, it is hardly surprising that a stroke hasn't kept Celestin from the field or Saturday’s ceremony.

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