In 33 years as Freeport’s head coach, Russ Cellan has had one of the most successful careers in Long Island football history.
He has the sixth-most wins for a Long Island coach and is a six-time Long Island champion.
But on Sept. 27, 1986, he was just a 29-year-old preparing for his first game with the Red Devils.
Freeport edged Uniondale, 21-0, that day. On Friday, Cellan was honored in a pregame ceremony commemorating that win.
“I didn’t know they were going to do that,” Cellan said of the occasion, as a number of players from the 1986 team were in attendance. “It was a great turnout with guys I haven’t seen in many years. It was great to see them again.”
The players presided over the coin toss prior to Friday’s game against Massapequa, which Freeport won, 49-13, to earn a 14th consecutive victory.
While Freeport has had a ton of success in the past three decades, the situation at the program was considerably bleaker in the years before Cellan took over. Freeport totaled seven wins in the previous five seasons, including an 0-8 campaign in 1985.
“Coach Cellan means everything to this town,” said David Crews, a lineman on the 1986 team. “Freeport football is known now. Before, it was a joke . . . There was nobody in the stands. Now, this is the best program around. And that’s all due to Coach Cellan.”
“Even though we were the beginning, with Coach Cellan’s first win, 33 years later, we still feel just as part of the program as ever,” said J.R. Vallone, a defensive back in 1986 who helped organize Friday’s ceremony. “Guys came from all over the country to be here, So it’s pretty amazing.”
Vallone, who now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, after playing for Boise State, added that he has followed Freeport from afar since he graduated, and that Cellan’s impact went beyond wins and losses.
“He turned the program around but it was more what he taught us off the field,” he said. “It was about being accountable, having character, being positive and being there for your teammates. I’ve continued to use those things in my life to this day.”
It was a sentiment that Crews and teammate Frane Reado echoed.
“Coach Cellan is a mentor,” Reado said. “He came to Freeport High School and he put a plan together. And it has been working ever since.”
“As coaches in general, I don’t think we realize how much we impact the lives of our players,” Cellan said. “You know you have an impact but you don’t know to what degree, until something like this happens. To hear their thoughts was really special.”
As for that first win back in 1986, the coach said he has vivid memories of that day and that season. He had coached at St. Dominic for three years before taking the job as the football coach and a physical education teacher at Freeport.
“I was a young coach and the expectations weren’t very high, but we finished 5-3 that year,” he said. “I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Of the players on that team, Cellan said he hadn’t seen many of them in years until Friday.
“It was great to see how successful they’ve become,” he said. “It was a great day. It was one of the best days of football that I can remember.”