Garrett Celek could barely reach the sideline before tight ends coach Jon Embree laid into him. The San Francisco 49ers offense had just concluded a subpar drive in the first half of their Week 14 road game against the Houston Texans. The 49ers held a narrow lead, but Embree wasn't pleased by his group's effort against Texans superstar pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney was dominating and had already hit Jimmy Garoppolo three times. Celek, unfortunately, was one of Clowney's chief victims.
"I definitely had a terrible first half," Celek was able to laugh at himself as he recounted the game. "Clowney absolutely wrecked me. He's a good player, and he was getting after me."
Embree's language was… colorful.
"Yeah, that's a nice way to put it," Celek laughed again. "He essentially told me that I needed to focus. It woke me up for sure."
In the middle of the third quarter, with the game tied at 16, Celek exploded for a career long 61-yard catch-and-run. Celek found the end zone three plays later on a 6-yard pass from Garoppolo. The sideline erupted as players swarmed the tight end in the end zone. Everyone collectively pointed to their imaginary watches. The signal was universally understood at this point: It was "Celek Time."
Kyle Shanahan coined the expression on the Monday after San Francisco's Week 10 win against the New York Giants. Celek took over the game for a three-play sequence during the waning moments of the second quarter. He began with a 7-yard reception, immediately followed by a 9-yard catch. On the very next snap, Celek scored on a 47-yard touchdown. He juked Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins near the goal line to give the score some extra flare.
"We were going over film the next day in our team meeting," Celek said. "When we got to my touchdown, Coach Shanahan casually dropped 'Celek Time' and it stuck."
The 31-21 win over New York marked San Francisco's first victory of the year and put an end to a gruesome nine-game losing streak to open the season. It was a result that the locker room desperately needed.
"'Celek Time' was what helped get us our first win," Shanahan said. "I didn't think it would take off, but that first win meant a lot. The guys love Celek, and when you make plays like that to get us a win, that's how something like that catches on."
The idiom's mystique continued to grow throughout the 49ers five-game winning streak to end the season. It began against New York, it reappeared in Week 14 against Houston and it crescendoed in Week 15 when Celek scored another touchdown against the Tennessee Titans. His four touchdowns in 2017, many of which came in big moments, set a new career high.
Shanahan's flippant catch phrase became a social media phenomenon. Players and fans alike grew attached to the expression. Celek joked that he'd catch a trivial 2-yard pass and all of a sudden everyone would start shouting "Celek Time."
Pre-game texts flooded the tight end's phone. "Good Luck! It's 'Celek Time!'" was the gist of most messages from various family and friends. Celek fully embraced it, so much so that the tight end changed his Xbox gamertag to "Celek Time."
"It just blew up because he kept having good game after good game," George Kittle said. "It's one of my favorite things ever. I love 'Celek Time.' I hope it never goes away."
Added Embree: "It was fun because the team rallied around it on the offensive side of the ball. Guys started embracing it. That's what made it fun."
All of a sudden Celek found himself in the spotlight for the first time in his six-year career.
Celek originally signed a three-year contract with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State in 2012. An ankle injury limited him to just two games in 2014, which diminished his market as an upcoming free agent.
He still had a few choices. Celek toyed with the idea of joining his brother Brent in Philadelphia. The Eagles showed interest under head coach Chip Kelly. San Francisco also wanted to keep him. Celek deliberated with his brother.
"Brent asked me point blank: 'What got you to the NFL?'" Celek recalled the conversation. "He was referring to me being a blocking tight end."
Brent didn't need to spell it out for his brother. Celek made a name for himself as a blocking tight end. He posted a meager eight receptions during his first three seasons. If Celek signed with the Eagles, Kelly would want to deploy him as a pass catcher far more than the tight end was accustomed to.
That's why Celek concluded his best option was to remain in San Francisco. He signed a one-year deal shortly thereafter. Celek went on to catch 19 passes for 186 yards and the first three touchdowns of his career in 2015.
This next part is a prime example of how the NFL world can work in mysterious ways. The 49ers fired Jim Tomsula following that season. His replacement? That would be Kelly, of course. But now Kelly had his guy, and San Francisco promptly signed the tight end to a four-year contract extension.
It took four seasons, but Celek finally had some semblance of security. He went on to post a career high 29 receptions for 350 yards in Kelly's offense.
"I felt comfortable knowing they'd invested in me to where they couldn't just throw me to the curb," Celek said matter-of-factly.
That reassurance, as it so often does in this league, faded quickly. Kelly was relieved of his duties after just one season. John Lynch and Shanahan entered the picture a month later. This was different for Celek. The tight end had experienced his fair share of coaching changes (three to be exact), but never a complete regime change. That often comes with an immediate press of the reset button.
Lynch and Shanahan began overhauling the roster immediately. The first official day of free agency in 2017 featured a seven-player press conference in the Levi's® Stadium auditorium. One of those seven acquisitions was Logan Paulsen, who like Celek, was a block-first tight end. Celek saw the writing on the wall. Not only did Paulsen have similar strengths, but he also had a previous relationship with Shanahan. The two spent four seasons together with the Washington Redskins from 2010-13.
"I was nervous with Coach Shanahan," Celek admitted. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen."
Celek went through the entire offseason program assuming he was on the hot seat. It wasn't until the end of the preseason that some of those nerves subsided. Fellow 49ers tight end Vance McDonald called Celek and shared that he'd just been traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The deal almost assured Celek of a roster spot along with Paulsen and Kittle.
But what's funny is that Celek's spot was never really in question. In fact, much like Kelly, Shanahan had long been keen on the veteran tight end.
"He was someone I'd looked at for a while," Shanahan said. "We were interested in him in Atlanta. We were going to go after him as a free agent. He was someone who we were a big fan of to join our offense, but he ended up re-signing (in San Francisco) before before he became a free agent. I was disappointed when he did that, but it ended up working out for me in the long run."
Celek will remain a staple in Shanahan's offense heading into 2018. His consistency as a blocker is now coupled with an ever-improving skill set as a pass catcher. He's one of just 13 holdovers from the 2016 roster. What's more, Celek is the 49ers second-longest tenured player behind Joe Staley.
That's made him one of the most respected names in the locker room. Celek is surrounded by a young crop of tight ends, and Embree has counted on the veteran to assume a leadership role among them.
"He sets the tone as far as how hard he works, how hard he prepares and what it means to be a pro," Embree said.
Hope has been restored within the 49ers fan base following San Francisco's five-game winning streak to close out last season. Many national experts are calling the 49ers a trendy worst-to-first playoff contender. Celek wouldn't take the bait. He's been around long enough to know that offseason hype often falls flat. He cautioned that the 49ers are far from a finished product.
But what about "Celek Time"? Will the phenomena reappear in 2018?
"'Celek Time' never left, and it isn't going anywhere," Celek said.
There is no bat signal. There will be no warning. But when it's time, it will be unmistakable.
Last February, Celek traveled to Minnesota to watch Brent and the Eagles win Super Bowl LII against the New England Patriots. Celek wore his brother's jersey – the same one that he received when they swapped threads in Week 8 of last season.