Books are written about this kind of thing. Actually, one was penned 13 years ago about a Benton Harbor football team from more than 100 years ago.
“The Way We Played The Game: A True Story of One Team and the Dawning of American Football” was author John Armstrong’s ode to a Clayton Teetzel-coached Tigers squad at the turn of the century that galvanized Benton Harbor.
The storyline then was how Teetzel helped get the hapless Tigers back on track in 1903 while also evolving a more violent and dangerous version of the sport back then into one comprised of physicality and cerebration.
Benton Harbor is a different place today. Despite all the wonderful things the city has to offer, it has become known for crime and poverty. And in terms of football, there haven’t been many memorable seasons. Until this year, the Tigers’ last winning campaign was a 6-3 effort in 1989. Benton Harbor managed to win just 49 games over the following 25 years.
A new chapter is being written this fall, however, as the Tigers qualified for the postseason for the first time in school history with a 5-4 regular-season record. They stunned a quality Dowagiac team in a Division 4 Pre-District game, 28-7, and take on a 10-0 Zeeland West squad Friday in the District Final.
The well-documented resurgence headed up by 74-year-old coach Elliot Uzelac, a veteran of the high school, college and professional ranks, who thought rebuilding a woeful program while busting through a cultural wall would be a better use of time than the boredom and restlessness of retirement, has been the buzz of the Michigan prep sports world.
Being part of this season at Benton Harbor (he takes no credit), Uzelac said, is the highlight of his 50-year coaching career.
“When you’re younger, you look at things differently,” said Uzelac, who coached at nearby St. Joseph, where he helped the Bears compile a 6-5 record in 2006 after a winless season in 2005, along with head coaching positions at Western Michigan University (1975-81) and Navy (1987-89) and myriad assistant roles in college and the NFL. “Winning is so important. You want to have a proper salary because you want to feed your family. What’s the next stop? If I’m an assistant coach, is there a head coaching position available?
“None of these things exist now. This is strictly about helping people. Honestly, I’ve had the greatest time of my life doing this with these young men. Yes, it’s been hard. Yes, it’s been … (chuckle) really time consuming and we really had to work hard. But I’ve never been more satisfied and never felt better about accomplishing something with young men than I have this time.”
Uzelac’s hiring might not have happened if not for a persistent Fred Smith, who applied for the athletic director job on five separate occasions, finally landing the position this summer. Smith, nearing retirement, also wanted a challenge, and Benton Harbor had some kind of magnetic force.
When Smith was a student at Western Michigan University, his first student-teaching assignment in 1979 was at Benton Harbor with then-head basketball coach Earl McKee. Smith had a desire to coach basketball and requested an internship at Benton Harbor, because, he said at the time, “they play the best basketball.”
Smith was able to stay there for two more years as a full-time substitute but moved on to many other jobs in education, including stints as AD at Comstock and most recently Buchanan. He made a big impact at Buchanan and left the school on very solid ground. Buchanan is undefeated in football this year and is gearing up for a Division 5 district championship showdown with Berrien Springs. In volleyball, the Bucks picked up their 46th win of the season Wednesday in the Class B District Semifinals — a single-season victories record for the program.
Uzelac, curious as to whether or not Benton Harbor would join the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference, called Smith on July 4th to chat about the new league.
“In conversation, he told me the AD job was open,” Smith said. “A long story short, he talked me into applying. I had an interview July 14th, was offered the job July 16th, and on July 20th I signed my letter of agreement. I hired Elliot July 21st.
“This was the fifth time I applied for the job back here. A lot of people wonder why I wanted to come back. We all want to make a difference in kids’ lives. I think there’s a chance to do big things here.”
It’s a perspective shared by Uzelac.
The morning after the Tigers beat Dowagiac, he addressed his players.
“You’ve given me far more than I’ve given you,” he told them. “That’s the truth. I’ve never felt this way before.
“I don’t think anybody realizes how bad they’ve had it. It’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling.”
Six days earlier, on Selection Sunday, a Benton Harbor student died in a drive-by shooting. A winning football season can only change so much.
But similar to Teetzel over a century ago, Uzelac is making the young men in his charge to think their way through school, football and life — even when it pertains to new technology and means of communicating he doesn’t understand.
“Never,” he said when asked how often he uses social media. “I don’t even really know what (Twitter) is. Things are said on Twitter than can really create problems, especially in a community like this. You’re talking about a very tough community and the word ‘retaliate’ is used often around here, which we’re trying to change that attitude. You have to be very careful what you do and say in this community.”
A consummate professional in the press box, longtime Benton Harbor football announcer Greg Mauchmar‘s animated play-by-play this year wasn’t just a veneer. Gradually, beginning with the team’s first win since 2012 — a 14-9 victory at home over Battle Creek Central in Week 2 — his voice was being received by human eardrums in the stands rather than bouncing around empty bleachers.
Mauchmar, just one of many people who have done their part to embrace the football team even through extremely tough seasons, remembers countless games where there were as few as a 100 supporters in attendance.
“Everyone has rallied around this team and there’s a level of excitement that inspires us,” he said. “I can get excited because the people in the stands are excited and I don’t have to work hard to do that. When the kids looked up there and didn’t see too many people (in past years), you know how motivating that is. Sometimes you felt like you were preaching to the choir. We wanted more membership in the choir.”
This fall’s feel-good football story has grown legs. National news outlets such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated picked up on what was published by scribes around Michigan, spreading the story to the farthest corners of the country.
Messages of support have come in from all over Michigan and from as far away as California, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio and Illinois, Uzelac said.
The Benton Harbor bandwagon, it appears, is nearly full.
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Benton Harbor football coach Elliot Uzelac instructs players before a game this season. (Middle) Benton Harbor quarterback Tim Bell prepares to hand off to Jeremy Burrell during the Tigers' game against St. Joseph this fall. (Photos courtesy of Randy Willis/Harbor Photography.)
LAWRENCE — While COVID-19 affected many students in different ways, it definitely made an impact on Austin Vasquez.
As a freshman at Lawrence High School during the pandemic, Vasquez lost his grandmother Theresa Phillips to cancer on March 25, 2021.
Two days later, on March 27, his father Tom Vasquez, died of complications from COVID. And on April 19 that spring, his grandfather Darrell “Gene” Phillips also lost his fight against the coronavirus.
“There is no way (to cope). You just have to keep on moving,” Austin said. “It’s what (my dad) would want me to do.
“He was my biggest (influence) in sports. He talked to me about never giving up – leave everything you’ve got.”
That is just what Vasquez is doing in the midst of his three-sport senior year.
He is the top wrestler at the school, competing at 175 pounds with a goal of making the MHSAA Tournament. He was a versatile contributor on the football field this past fall, and he’s planning to join the baseball team this spring.
He’s 8-3 with six pins on the mat this winter after a busy summer of camps and tournaments. Those experiences helped lessen the nerves he’d felt during matches previously, and now he’s wrestling with an outlook of “everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
And Vasquez said he feels his dad’s presence as he prepares for competition.
“Before every match, before every game, I just think about what my dad would be telling me,” he said. “Everything he’s always told me has taught me to get better.
“In life, I still remember everything he taught me. He was definitely a great man, and I want to be like him someday.”
Wrestling also has made Vasquez more in tune with his health.
His sophomore season he went from 230 pounds to 215, and by his junior year was down to his current 175.
“I just wanted to be healthier, not just for wrestling,” he said. “I started going to the gym every night, watched my calories, and from there grew (taller).
“Now I’m at 6-(foot-)2, and I don’t know how that happened,” he laughed.
Lawrence coach Henry Payne said Vasquez always has a positive attitude and helps the other wrestlers in the program.
“When he notices a kid next to him doing a move wrong, he’ll go over and show him the right way,” Payne said. “We have a lot of young kids that this is their first year, and he’s been a good coach’s helper.”
The coach’s helper gig will continue after graduation.
"Next year we’re hoping to open up a youth program here, and I got him and an alumni that graduated last year and is helping the varsity team this year (Conner Tangeman) to take over the youth program for us,” Payne said.
On the football team, Vasquez was a jack of all trades.
“He started at guard, went to tight end, went to our wingback, went to our running back. He was trying to get the quarterback spot,” football coach Derek Gribler laughed.
Vasquez said there is no other feeling like being on the field, especially during home games.
“Wrestling is my main sport, but I’d do anything to go back and play football again,” he said. “I just love it.”
Although the football team struggled through a 1-8 season, “It was still a really fun season,” Vasquez said. “Everybody was super close. Most of us never really talked before, but we instantly became like a family.”
Vasquez had the support of his mother, Heather, and four older sisters: Makaylah, Briahna, Ahlexis and Maryah. He also found his school family helped him get through the end of his freshman year.
“(My friends) were always there for me when everything was going on,” he said. “I took that last month off school because it was too hard to be around people at that time.
"Every single one of them reached out and said, ‘Hey, I know you’re going through a rough time.’ It really helped to hear that and get out of the house.”
The family connection between Vasquez and Lawrence athletic director John Guillean goes back to the senior’s youth.
“I was girls basketball coach, so I coached his sisters,” Guillean said. “I remember him when he was pretty young. I knew the family pretty well. I knew his dad. He was pretty supportive and was there for everything.”
Vasquez said that freshman year experience has made him appreciate every day, and he gives the following advice: “Every time you’re wrestling, it could be your last time on the mat or last time on the field. Treat every game and every match as if it’s going to be your last. If you’re committed to the sport, take every chance you have to help your team be successful.”
Gribler has known Vasquez since he was in seventh grade and, as also the school’s varsity baseball coach, will work with Vasquez one more time with the senior planning to add baseball as his spring sport.
“When we talk about Tiger Pride, Austin’s a kid that you can put his face right on the logo. His work ethic is just unbelievable,” Gribler said. “Everything he does is with a smile. He could be having the worst day of his life, and he’d still have a smile on his face. He pushes through. It’s tough to do and amazing to see.”
The coach – who also starred at Lawrence as an athlete – noted the small community’s ability to rally around Vasquez and his family. Lawrence has about 150 students in the high school.
“It goes beyond sports,” Gribler said. “Austin knows when he needs something he can always reach out and we’ll have his back, we’ll have his family’s back. It’s not so much about winning as it is about the kids.”
Vasquez is already looking ahead to life after high school. He attends morning courses at Van Buren Tech, studying welding, and returns to the high school for afternoon classes.
“I’d like to either work on the pipeline as a pipeline welder or be a lineman,” he said, adding, “possibly college. I would like to wrestle in college, but let’s see how this year goes.
“I’m ready to get out, but it’s going to be hard to leave this all behind.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence senior Andrew Vasquez, right, wrestles against Hartford this season. (2) Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. (3) From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (4) Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. (Wrestling and football photos courtesy of the Lawrence athletic department. Headshots by Pam Shebest.)