BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WOOD) — Benton Harbor’s football team is looking to build on its historic comeback that gained national attention.
24 Hour News 8 followed the Tigers last year as former NFL coach Elliot Uzelac came out of retirement to lead the team to its first playoff appearance. Benton Harbor’s football team hadn’t had a winning year since 1989 and lost 33 of its last 35 games before Uzelac came on scene.
Uzelac, who had coached alongside Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan and Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns, taught his team how to win – leading them to their first winning season in more than a quarter-century.
The Tigers then knocked off Dowagiac in the first round of playoffs. However, Benton Harbor’s storybook season came to an end in round two, with a 62-8 loss to the Zeeland West Dux, which went on to win the state championship.
The team’s Cinderella story earned it a key to the city and a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando. During a school pep rally, ABC’s Good Morning America surprised the entire football team with an all-expense paid trip to the resort.
It all started to unravel in December 2015.
The Tigers will start out their new season down four starters, according to Uzelac.
Among the losses: star quarterback Tim Bell Jr.
According to The Herald-Palladium, Bell Jr. pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in jail and five years of probation for a video he recorded of a 15-year old girl giving him oral sex.
“Things just happen here that probably don’t happen everywhere else but it’s tough. It’s just a tough deal, but our kids are trying hard,” Uzelac said.
Just two days before fall two-a-days started, star senior running back Percy Brown tore his ACL, LCL and meniscus playing basketball.
“I love football. I cried for like three days. It’s everything,” Brown said as he watched practice from the sideline.
Brown is out for the season.
“I don’t like the sideline,” Brown said. “Sometimes I miss having the team on my back. You know, in crunch time.”
“That’s a big blow to him, there’s no question. Football was his life; that was his sport,” Uzelac said. “That was when he was really focused, and he had a real good winter and I thought he was going to have a great year, I really did.”
‘WE’VE GOT TO BATTLE’
In year two at Benton Harbor, it seems coach Uzelac’s job will be tougher.
His challenge is two-fold: win football games while teaching players how to learn from the obstacles that life will through their way.
“I’m not worried about my legacy; I’m not worried about any of that crap. All I want to do is have the kids have a great experience. That’s why I’m here,” Uzelac said passionately. “I mean, I don’t really care about what people think about me. What I do or don’t do. That doesn’t matter to me. I just want these young men to have a good experience, to have success in life, on this field and off this field. That’s what I feel. That’s most important to me.”
The evidence can be found on Brown’s cell phone, which he clutched on the sidelines. The voicemail box is full of messages from coach Uzelac, who called every day to urge him to come to practice and spend time with his teammates.
“I just want these young men to have a good experience, to have success in life, on this field and off this field.”
“I didn’t even know my own MRI or my X-rays or nothing like that. He called me, he found out before I did. And he was like, you know I’m sorry, I want you to come in so we can talk. You know, this is not over for you,” Brown said. “He care about my knee more than I do.”
“I care about Percy as a person. The knee is going to be repaired. His life goes on, he’ll be fine. I just care about each one of these kids as people,” Uzelac added. “It’s an unfortunate accident and we’re going to miss him because you know, he’s the alpha male on the team. You know, when he tells kids what to do, they do (it). And so we lost that leadership factor along with a good football player.”
But they didn’t lose Brown’s voice. In his first practice back since his injury, Brown’s mouth didn’t stop running. From sarcastic jabs at his coaches to encouraging words to his teammates, his presence could be felt from the sideline.
“We’ve got to battle. We’ve got to battle adversity here and we can win.”
“I want to be a part of it, but I know now I’ve got to be a part of it on the sideline helping out,” Brown said.
Uzelac says he’s told the players not to worry about expectations on the field.
“I’m going to take the blame for losses publicly and that’s the way it should be. I don’t want them to have extra pressure,” Uzelac said. “We’ve got to battle. We’ve got to battle adversity here and we can win. We can have a good year if we battle adversity and keep our heads above water and stick together as a team.”
Benton Harbor takes on Marshall at home Friday night in Week One of Football Frenzy.